Interview with director Julia Ducournau for ‘Raw’

This week sees the release of a cannibal film so gory and visceral that audience members at the Toronto International Film Festival fainted, and The Nuart Theater in LA has handed out ‘barf bags’ at screenings in their cinema. ‘Raw’, directed by Julia Ducournau, is the story of young vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) who, after a hazing ritual at veteranarian school, finds herself hungering for more than the plant-based diet she has eaten all her life, and something rather more substantial than a hamburger; human flesh. caught up with Julia Ducournau, the 33-year-old Belgian director behind ‘Raw’, to find out more about the film, its feminist viewpoint, and just how she feels when her film makes people feel physically ill.

There have been reports of people reacting physically to some of the darker scenes in ‘Raw’, and after the Irish press screening, many people jokingly swore off meat forever. Are you a militant vegetarian who is trying to convert people, one screening at a time?
Julia Ducournau: I am not a vegetarian myself, and I must say that for me, the movie is political in many ways, but not at this level. When I wrote the movie – it was 6 years ago now when I started writing it – and vegetarianism and veganism were not at the front stage like it is today; so it was not influenced by that. It’s pretty new, and it’s good. I am not a vegetarian myself but you can only support the environmental aspect of it and the political aspect of it. However, it is not what my movie is about, my movie is not about what you eat, my movie is about what you are. The way I use vegetarianism in my movie is really a narrative tool; if you know that your character is going to become a cannibal, you have to start off with the exact opposite to have a very wide arc of the character.

Six years in the making. How do you feel now it is time to let ‘Raw’ go out to the world?
JD: I feel that I have just given birth! [laughs] It was five years all in all and then one year of promoting the movie since Cannes, and it is like I have been having contractions for nine months almost! Now I am kind of relieved that it is out, of course I am a bit nostalgic, but I can’t wait to go to my next one. It’s a big page of my life being turned, but at the same time I can’t wait to do something new [laughs]

Where did ‘Raw’ come from?
JD: Many things. The first thing it comes from [is] the fact that… I was talking with my producer, and I was talking about cannibal movies with him and I told him that it was funny, because in cannibal movies cannibals are seen as “They” and they are portrayed from the outside like a crowd hat is kind of anonymous. They are called “They”, like they come from outer space or they don’t exist or something. It’s funny the way we treat [cannibals] in the movies because it is the only taboo that we treat like it’s outside of our world, like it doesn’t exist. It’s actually the only one that we really really repress; you see murder in a lot of movies and you never think that the murderer doesn’t exist, the same with incest. You have fewer movies about that but when you have movies about that, still they are not portrayed as someone who does not exist, like a unicorn or something. Cannibals, yes! And I am thinking that’s strange. Why do we repress that particular taboo and why do we say it’s not in us. So I told [my producer] that if I had to make a movie about cannibalism, I would try to make a movie with an “I” person, not a “They” person. I am very interested in this thing about why repress this, and I think the reason why repress this is because it is too present in us; our bodies constantly remind us of that possibility, or at least of that impulse. I always say this as an example but it’s really true; where your body reminds you of something of something before your mind helps you to analyse it. if you pretend to bit someone for fun – it has happened to all of us since we were kids – in your teeth you feel something. Your teeth want to go further, but your mind says “No” and you don’t, but your body does. I think that’s why it’s so scary for us, because you still have remnants of this impulse in us, in the fact that we eat meat as well. It might be the taboo that is the closest to us, and that is why we want to see [it] the furthest away. That’s why I wanted to do it.

Obviously the most famous example of a cannibal in movies is Hannibal Lecter, but there are other films like ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’, ‘Eating Raoul’ and ‘Delicatessen’, did you take inspiration from anywhere in particular?
JD: Not really because I didn’t feel that my take on it was really represented in other movies. There is something that’s super important; when you work around the question “What does it mean to be human?” – and this is really the question that is at the centre of every movie I have ever made – that’s why I work around bodies a lot because I want to see where the identity is between the body and the mind, and when the body morphs what does it mean about your identity an your humanity. I think it’s very interesting because [cannibals] are not supernatural creatures, and it means that you don’t have the distance that you have with the supernatural. When you see zombies you are like “I can feel for them if you want me to feel for them” but it is never going to shake me to my core the same way as cannibals, because cannibals we know they exist, we know they are real humans. They really talk about us, about our own humanity. I really wanted my audience to have no distance with my character; that they were really really in her shoes. If she had turned out to be a vampire, it would have been “Oh poor her, she’s so cute”. Would it have questioned us? I don’t think so. That’s why I didn’t get inspired by other movies because usually they are treated like supernatural creatures.

Are you a long time fan of cannibal movies!?
JD: I have read a lot about cannibals, which had never happened to me before in my life, I insist on that because people think I am some sort of cannibal nerd; I am not! But for the movie I did a lot of research, and for me what was the most interesting thing was the anthropological aspect of cannibalism; at this level what is super interesting is that there is not one cannibalism. Every single occurrence of cannibalism is a different moral case. Jeffrey Dahmer, who is eating his victims, isn’t going to be the same as the rugby men who crashed in the Andes and had to eat their friends to survive. They are doing the same but it does not come from the same place. For me, it was very interesting to read about all the different moral cases, and all of the different types of cannibalism you can have in order to gauge and measure my own moral resistance to it.

There are very few horror films that are from a female perspective, even though women are often the victim in horror movies. In ‘Raw’, Justine is anything but a victim, even though she can be naive at times, was that something that you wanted to explore?
JD: Of course. I really wonder why women are so often portrayed as victims. I think it has something to do with the portrayal of physical weakness. I always talk about bodies, but I do believe that it is some kind of granted that a woman, no matter who she is, if she gets punched in the face by a guy she is going to get knocked out, even if she has done 10 years of boxing, Krav Maga and martial arts. I don’t know if it’s true, or if we have been taught that, which makes it true. I really wonder if it could have been different. That’s why this thing with the portrayal of bodies is so important, for example my main actress Garance [Marillier] looks like a shrimp in real life. Really! She is super cute! Her arms are half of my arms, her legs are half of my legs, and she has a cute face, and yet when you see her during the sex scene in my movie you do believe that she could rip him off in two seconds. This is what I wanted to do; I wanted to portray a body that is not a victim. Whether it’s plausible or not, I don’t give a s**t actually, I think its important to remember that women can be strong, can also be very threatening. At the end of the scene she turns it against herself, and for me this is very important; after seeing her as threatening, to see that she has a glimpse of humanity that sparks back in her. However, to show a woman that is, for once, someone that could be physically intimidating was very important. There was this kid when I was in Sundance, she was 20 years old or something and she was pretty short, and she came to me and she said “I feel so empowered!” and I was like “Damn! Cool!” That’s why I make movies [laughs]

You mentioned Garance Marillier, who is so strong in the lead role as Justine. How did you go about casting her?
JD: She’s amazing. She’s like a little sister to me now because it’s the third movie that we have done together. I discovered her when she was 12 and I took her as the main part of my first short. Afterwards she played in my TV feature [‘Mange’], and the thing is that Garance when I met her, she had never done any theatre – not even school plays – and she already got the right note in her ear; she was never off. Also she has always been very physical, and I really like physical actresses or actors because I really work a lot around bodies, and for me directing actors is closer to choreography than it is to the script. It’s very important for me to work with someone who knows how to work her body and she sure does. Since this is the third movie we have done together, there is a big trust between us on many levels, but it is a trust that we have acquired in years of work. We are really close in life, and so the thing is that when we have things to do together that are particularly hard to do, we are really hand in hand, we really trust each other. I know I can push her really far because she can go very far, and she knows that I will never push in her in places that she doesn’t want to go. Throughout the movies we have done together we have more and more ambitions with each other, which is priceless in this business.

Are you and Garance going to work together again in the future?
JD: Oh that’s for sure, but I don’t know if it’s going to be for my next feature, because I never write thinking about actors, because I think it can bias the way I write. With ‘Raw’ I struggled not to think about Garance for three years of the writing. I was trying to look at other actresses in order to erase her from my mind because I know her so well that maybe if I had thought about her I would have tried to protect her, and it would have biased my way.

The sex, and particularly the violence, are very well balanced in the film and there is always breathing room for the audience to recover. How did you strike that balance?
JD: It’s a lot of work. In three yeas of writing, the hardest was really to balance the three elements of my movie, that are comedy, drama and body horror. When you make crossover movies, the biggest risk is that you have three movies in one, and that it feels like that. The idea is to manage to make it a unified language, that it isn’t some wild animal, or that this comedy scene has been put there just because it’s important that you [have] catharsis [for] this moment. It has to be genuine and come from a genuine place. It’s rally hard to explain three years of writing [laughs] because it’s a big mess, but the reason that it took so long was to get this result of balance, and its very important because I really don’t like gratuitous violence, because I just think it’s stupid. At [some] point I have just seen it all, so I really did not want people to see gratuitous violence in my movie, and I wanted the violence to be very organic to the journey of my character.

The scene I had the strongest reaction to in the film was not about violence on someone else, but what Justine does to herself. How do you have when people have a visceral, physical reaction to the film?
JS: I meant to generate visceral reactions, so I am happy that they do. I think it’s important to have organic reactions to images, because I do believe that the fact that you have the feeling that you have taken it to the core helps you afterwards analysing wheat you have seen in a deeper way. I do believe in the memory of the body, if you are feeling nauseous and if your neighbour is feeling nauseous as well, it’s never going to be because of the same reason as you. It’s going to be because of your own individual experience, it means that you, when you are nauseous in front of this scene, you come with your whole history with you. At the same time it creates a communion in the room, I think that’s really rich because it makes you really f***ing active during a movie.

What’s next for you?
JD: I’m writing my next one right now. It’s going to be in the same vein; the same mix of genres.

Are you going to go for body horror again?
JD: Oh yeah. I don’t think I would have enough in a lifetime! Or at least give me 10 years before I get enough! [laughs]

Words: Brogen Hayes

‘Raw’ is released in Irish cinemas on April 3rd 2017. Watch the trailer below…