The movie certainly ticks all the ‘hype’ boxes making it a big hit, but this story is so much more than just a shock and awe film. Ducournau has created a deeply relatable, no holds barred picture of a young girl’s awkward and violent transformation into adulthood. The film’s main character Justine, a life-long vegetarian, is forced to eat raw rabbit kidney as part of the brutal initiations she is met with in her first year at veterinarian college. Thus begins her descent into a desire for human flesh. Raw is an insightful view into the lengths a misfit will go to in order to exist in a world where we all feel the inevitable draw to belong. In Justine’s case, this means cannibalism, a taboo that has been within our culture for thousands of years. Can we talk about it? Ducournau says we can and we should, because to open up any forbidden discussion, raw emotions are the best place to start.
I was quite surprised to see that a lot of the media attention so far on Raw tends to focus on the gore and horror aspect but there is so much more to talk about. Were you surprised by this reaction or were you expecting people to be shocked?
I wish people would focus on the other aspects but I was kind of expecting people to focus on the gory parts because, you know, it’s easier.
The film has received amazing critical acclaim, but Raw is also being described as part of this ‘cool’ new genre which I guess makes you the poster girl for it. Do you worry at all that the labelling of the film will place it in a cultural vacuum so the meaning you intended will be lost?
Well I’m already writing my next feature so as long as I’m creating I don’t feel like I’m in a vacuum because I feel I control things if I create and keep writing. However, what scares me is the fact that I’ve heard the word ‘trend’ a lot in the past year and that scares me because, for me, what this movie represents is everything I believe in life, not only of the genre. I am actively fighting for the recognition of the genre of horror, for people to see that it has the ability to have elements of terror but also be super deep and meaningful. I want to put some substance back into it in the eye of the public and the press. So talking about trends, this is already a problem because I don’t consider what I do as a trend, for me it is a lifetime craft.
"At the end of the movie, she’s not inhuman, and yet she has eaten human flesh, and usually people tend to refer to cannibals as inhuman when actually they are just like us."
Julia Ducournau on the stigma of cannibalism
Transforming from puberty into adulthood is a violent process, right? You do it kicking and screaming.
The first thing is that I do believe that, contrary to what people say, coming of age can happen at any point in our lives. It can happen with a first pregnancy, for the mother or the father, when a man loses his hair, when a woman goes through the menopause etc. For me coming of age is a turning point in your life that makes you question yourself and your identity through the integrity of your body that is changing, it’s all really linked to the body for me.
What interested me of this particular age, is indeed the fact that there is a discovery of sexuality. I wanted to portray the birth of sexuality in a young girl differently to what I feel we see a lot; usually it is very cerebral and women are constantly questioning, like ‘Are people going to think I’m a slut?’, ‘Is the guy gonna call me?’, ‘Is he gonna tell all his friends?’ or whatever, which has nothing to do with sexuality for me. I think this basically victimises women so I wanted to portray it in a way to the contrary that was completely unapologetic, shameless and just aiming at climax, in the moment, in the body. That was super important for me, so that was what interested me about this time of transformation.
And I also believe that at this age, mainly at high school or college, it is the first time that you are really confronted with the idea of groups, the sense that you have to belong to a group to exist, and that if you don’t, what does that make you? The story of Justine is that she wants to fit but she realises that she can’t because there is something in her that makes her a complete misfit, so what will happen to her? Is she a monster, should she kill herself? How can she exist knowing that she doesn’t belong?
What do you make of this internal war we all go through fighting this determinism?
I believe we all crumble under the weight of determinism, whichever it is – family, society, even the determinism you impose on yourself. Everyone has an image of who they think they are, or what they want to be, so they repress a lot of elements of themselves that they don’t want to see, because it is easier or less scary. My movie is completely about fighting determinism, and you were talking about metamorphosis which is absolutely right, I talk a lot about that, starting with the metamorphosis of the body because for me that transformation is by definition the determinism by excellence; it’s really freedom, it’s about leaving this skin that doesn’t feel like your own but has been moulded by everyone else.
This is why I insist on the fact that my movie is a crossover, not just a horror as everyone says; for one, I don’t think it’s a horror movie at all, just based on the fact that it’s not scary. At the end of the movie, she’s not inhuman, and yet she has eaten human flesh, and usually people tend to refer to cannibals as inhuman when actually they are just like us. Justine is human, not just physically, but also because through her so-called monstrosity she has experienced for the first time a real moral choice that makes her inevitably human – I can kill but I won’t. So it is very important to me that we don’t put labels on things.
And that’s why this isn’t a horror movie in the classic sense – the characters and the monsters are so relatable. Why was that important to you when making these characters?
Firstly, as a director, the centrepiece of everything I do is trying to find answers to the question that I probably won’t answer until I’m 100, ‘What is it to be human?’ And I do believe that you can’t try to tackle that question by repressing anything, so that’s why I wanted to deal with this taboo and also go to the edges of humanity that we usually don’t want to see but do exist.
When you want your audience to ask themselves this question as well, they have to feel it; you really have to make them have empathy for your main character, to believe what she is going through physically. That’s why I say that I tend to address myself more to the bodies of the audience than to their mind. At first you have to feel to be fully with her and then you have to evaluate why you felt that way and why your neighbours may have felt differently, or the same but for different reasons.
Was it a conscious choice to make the audience, both women and men, really empathise with this female experience?
Once I had a female main character tackling the the subject of sexuality, I wanted to take the female body outside of its niche and to make it completely relatable to everyone beyond gender. I don’t like genderising in movies and I don’t like genderising directors – we all make movies. Directors and writers should be able to create any characters. I personally can identify with a man, a baby, a giant rat or an octopus if I have to, I should be able to project myself in anything because that’s my job you know? But of course, when it comes to women, for some reason you know that the audience is gonna ask themselves this question, ‘Is it a movie for women?’
When you watch something like The Revenant, everyone understands the ordeal Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is going through, you don’t have to be a man to understand that. Would it have been the case if the character was female? I ask myself that a lot, and I don’t know if the answer is yes or no.
As a director, my aim is to talk to as many people as possible with my work, I want to start a dialogue through my movie and to me that’s the point of making movies. The worst thing that could have happened to me is for people to tell me that I made a movie for women, that cuts me off from half of humanity! Why, just because my main character is female? I don’t think so. So that is why I really wanted to portray a female body in which there was a truth, and one that was, to quote Jane Austen, ‘universally acknowledged’. Nowadays, on our screens, female bodies are either sexualised or glamorised – sexualised for men and glamorised for women. All of that is fantasy, no one can relate to it, men or women. I wanted to do the opposite, I wanted everyone to relate, and for everyone to relate there must be a truth which for me is in triviality; the fact that we all have bodily fluids, bodies that suffer, desire, that can be gross but endearing at the same time.
"Women have a lot to be angry about these days."
Julia Ducournau on the power of femalehood
I saw an interview with you where you were discussing this link that has come about recently in movies between feminism and cannibalism, and you said ‘I think the fact that women want to tear up the skin is very interesting…it’s our envelope’.
For me, the most relatable part of my character’s body is not actually during the cannibalism scenes, it’s more in the mundane scenes like the waxing, the puking or the peeing on the roof, not directly linked to cannibalism. But it’s true that I am interested in this idea of ripping off the flesh. Is it a shame we have to go these lengths? I don’t know, to be honest I think it’s never a shame to express a form of anger. To be creative you have to stay angry, and that’s very punk of me to say because I know punks used to say that a lot, but I do believe it. And women have a lot to be angry about these days, so it’s good for the genre business!
What role do you think religion plays in our definition of the human experience, it seems present in your work?
Religion is another form of determinism, of tradition. I didn’t want to explore it too much in the movie which is why I made it more subtle, but I do think it is another weight under which Justine crumbles, like all of us. I think a lot about the founding texts, not necessarily in a religious way because it can also be a Greek myth or a Caravaggio painting or whatever but I like to think about them as these big horror movies because they are incredibly gory. I think it’s so ironic that my movie is R-rated when you look at something like the Bible that’s so graphic, it’s crazy.
Queen is a major inspiration for me, and Freddie Mercury broke all boundaries and still managed to communicate to the world when he was a fucking walking controversy, but he was just owning it in such a generous, crazy megalomaniac way. For me he was the epitome of universality, a metamorphosis at work.
In different ways but for the same reasons. You see a lot of exploration of metamorphosis in his work.
I’ve been crazy about her work for a long time. I saw an exhibition of her work at the MoMA recently and after I left I was crying for about an hour. She moves me in such a way because she sees so much beauty and makes her subjects look like kings when they are at their lowest point which I love. I also love the way she portrays absence and solitude.