Cannibalism has a way of infecting the minds of filmgoers. Movies that tackle the subject tend to achieve instant notoriety that defines their legacies—think Silence of the Lambs or the 1980 gore factory Cannibal Holocaust (among the taglines that have been used to market it since its release: “The most controversial movie of all-time” and “The most savage and brutal film in modern history”). The extent to which the taboo of cannibalism could affect an audience was made clear when reports began circulating during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival that multiple attendees of the feature debut by French director Julia Ducournau, Raw, fainted.
Raw does get pretty, well, raw in a few key scenes, but it’s way more thoughtful and less terrifying than those reports suggest. Frequently surreal and more tonally akin to something like Spring Breakers than a straightforward splatterfest, Raw follows its protagonist Justine (Garance Marillier) on her journey of self-discovery during her first year at veterinary school, which includes a sexual awakening and the development of a taste for human flesh. Ducournau, who also wrote the screenplay, disarms by breaking genre rules (Raw routinely fakes you out with what seem like horrific scene setups only to creep up on you with the film’s real horror) and having her characters deviate from the identities they announce (in the realm of vegetarianism and sexuality, for example).
Raw is unsettling primarily because it defies expectations at every turn. This is even true conceptually, as a rare cannibal movie that considers its human-flesh eater’s interior and development into womanhood. I talked to Ducournau about her film earlier this week while she was in New York. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Jezebel: Why did you choose to make a movie about cannibalism?
Julia Ducournau: In cannibal movies, which are already a sub- sub- sub-genre in a genre that is pretty looked down upon, cannibals are often treated as “they.” Somehow we’re kicking them out of humanity, like they don’t belong with us on this planet, but whether people like it or not, cannibals don’t have tentacles instead of a nose. They are humans. I really wanted to tackle this mass repression thing about a part of humanity that is, indeed, extremely violent and extremely disturbing morally speaking, but that is nonetheless part of humanity. My first impulse came from there. I thought if I wanted to make cannibal movies, I would make an “I” movie. Not they, but I.
I would like to know how one becomes like that and how one overcomes a threshold where we would have stopped, and what’s the difference between me and that person. The idea of defending or condemning is not what interests me, but I do think that no society grows up by repressing stuff. I do believe we grow up when we accept stuff, when we have a full possession of what a situation or humanity really is. That’s really what I wanted to tackle here. I wanted to ask myself what is it to be human, really? Is it possible that that monster that we see in the movie that we would tend to qualify as monstrous, is she still a monster at the end of the movie? Can we call her inhuman? I don’t think so.
Until I read Bill Schutt’s Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, I didn’t realize that Spain justified the deaths of tens of millions of native people by the end the 16th century, in part by doing exactly what you spoke of: accusing people of cannibalism and treating cannibals as “they.” The cinematic way of portraying cannibals that you mentioned is entrenched in this despicable human history, which makes the Italian cannibal cycle of the ‘70s and ‘80s disgusting beyond their buckets of gore.
Yes, but what’s interesting when you watch a movie like Cannibal Holocaust is that actually there is no hero in there. The colonists are horrible people. There is no way you can relate to them either. It’s completely immoral. That’s why I think that movie was interesting at the time, also: If you take out the graphic thing, it’s almost an anthropological way of seeing two cultures confronting.
[In researching Raw] I read a lot about cannibalism, and what’s interesting about cannibalism is each occurrence is different and sets a different moral dilemma. Jeffrey Dahmer is not the same as a tribe that’s going to eat pieces of their enemies in order to annihilate them or gain their strength. Or the poor rugby men who crashed in the Andes and had to eat their friends. It’s different moral setups that you have to confront.
Those movies also tend to be misogynist. Your movie is quite the contrary. Did you set out to right the wrongs of the way those movies treat women, or is Raw the natural product of an overall humanistic ethos?
Well, they’re different things. I do believe the center of my movie is questioning humanity and trying to have a grasp on it. I do that a lot through bodies. I’ve been working around bodies since forever and I do believe that through bodies we can aim at universality, and we can aim at equality. In the end we all have bodies that are suffering bodies, that are desiring bodies, that are aimed at orgasms and that can puke and pee.
That was very important to me, inside of this reflection and this work of mine, to make it a female body. I do believe that nowadays on our screens it is hard to fully relate to a female body, to her experience as a character. By relate, I mean everyone. For example, when you watch The Revenant, whether you like the movie or not, everyone can relate to the bodily experience Leonardo DiCaprio’s character goes through. No one questions themselves: “Oh well, he’s a guy so probably women won’t relate to it.” I think that the other way is not true. Unfortunately, it’s true that the female body is very often sexualized to please men or glamorized to please women. And there is no truth in that. There is no spot of universality and there is no spot of relatabilty in that. So I really wanted through the gross aspects, enduring and painful and sexual aspects of a body, I really wanted to aim at a form of universality and to take the female body outside its niche. I don’t know if I managed but I really tried to make it speak to everyone, so that everyone could live this experience through her, no matter their gender.
That’s why, for example, a scene like the bikini waxing scene is very important to me. When I had this idea, the first thing I thought is, “I don’t see that—I just don’t see that.” We do not want to see this part [onscreen]. It’s like women are born without hair and we don’t want to see how they get rid of it. And then I thought if I did this scene I did not want it to be some kind of girly scene. I would have hated that. It goes completely against my vision of the body. I really wanted to shoot it in a way that everyone can understand that the absurdity, the violence that is done on her at this moment. The sister says, “Beauty is pain,” but what the fuck does that mean? It makes absolutely no sense to say that. Who decided that beauty should be pain, you know? I did this close-up in order to get out of the ritual and be so close to the skin that we forget it’s a bikini wax and all that we see is hair pulling on skin. And everybody knows that hair pulling on skin is super painful. You feel it when you see it, whether it’s your torso hair or your leg hair or whatever, you know it’s super painful and that wax is painful as well because it’s hot and this is where I wanted this archetypically feminine scene to become a universal scene that makes you root for her, especially because it’s before [one of the film’s immediately infamous grotesque scenes].
This movie on a big and small scale breaks rules—we see characters ditching their vegetarianism and pronounced sexuality, and genre-wise, you have fake-out moments that seem to portend horror only to have the movie’s real horror sneak up on you. I wonder if you set out to unnerve by making expectation impossible in this movie—you really have no idea what’s going to happen from scene to scene.
Good, that’s what I was aiming at. The story of my character is the story of someone who wants to fit at the beginning but realizes there’s something in her that makes her completely unfit to the world. It’s her metamorphosis, her leaving the skin to accept another and just trying to find herself by going through the diversity of her humanity. In a way, you can really say that this movie is a movie against determinism—whether it’s the determinism of the family that tells her, “You have got to be a vegetarian,” “You have got to do this and that and this.” The social determinism of the absurd hazing rules—dress like that, kneel down—and the determinism she imposes on herself of what she wanted to be, but that she will never be.
The whole point was really to see a character and fight determinism through metamorphosis of the body. I wanted a movie that looks like it as well, that makes you go through different emotions, that kind of make a catharsis for each other. I really think there is no genre without laughter. Hitchcock said there is no suspense without laughter, but I don’t do suspense, so I am saying there is no eruption of the genre without laughter because the laughter makes you comfortable and then bam, you can have your element of surprise. Or it makes the catharsis after something that has been hard to watch. And there is no laughter without drama because drama gives depth and perspective to laughter. All this was indeed completely thought ahead.
Have you thought a lot about the fact that you made people faint? How does that make you feel, and why do you think they did?
I’ve had to think about this because there was not one interview in the last year where the person hasn’t asked me it. My first reaction was to ask how they were. I think going to the movies is a happy experience, no matter what you see. It’s something that you pay a lot of money for, so I was feeling bad that it ruined their experience somehow.
But then I always have to contextualize. The snowball effect that was on the internet afterwards really doesn’t do justice to my movie. It was two people in one year. It was at a midnight screening, so you know how it is: you’re tired and everything. The problem is that when people talk about my movie saying that it’s a shocker or that it’s the most unwatchable movie ever made, the most hardcore movie, it’s just not my movie that they’re talking about anymore. I can’t relate to that. It doesn’t do justice to my movie in the sense that some people are going to be scared to go see my movie when they have no reason to be scared because I didn’t try to make a scary movie at all. It’s not torture porn. There are three scenes in the movie that are hard to watch. Three scenes.
The second thing is that people who want to go see a shocker or want to see torture porn are going to be super disappointed when they see my movie because that’s really not what it’s about. I’ve never lied about it. It’s just that I can’t control everything that’s happening on the internet. So that’s a bit of a shame.
Raw opens in New York and Los Angeles today.