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Meat is Murder: Julia Ducournau On Her Wildly Creative Female Cannibal Film, Raw

Julia Ducournau (Photo by Henny Garfunkel)

Julia Ducournau’s debut feature film Raw is an earnest, sincere work with a clean pop sensibility that also happens to be about cannibalism. When mild-mannered vegetarian college freshman Justine (Garance Marillier) joins her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) at veterinary school, she discovers an appetite for human flesh that she didn’t know she had. Raw is first and foremost their story, and the plot hinges entirely on whether or not their relationship is tearing itself apart or stitching itself back together. Like all siblings, they understand each other better than anyone else, simultaneously totally devoted and flippantly cruel. Marillier and Rumpf’s performances feel effortless, and their onscreen affection for each other is palpable. When the murders start happening, you might be shocked by the sisters’ actions, but you’re never against them. Like in all great horror, Raw’s sinister turns are the manifestations of an emotional truth. Growing up is terrifying.

 While Raw’s dreamy teen vibes, beautiful cinematography and electronic score might draw easy comparisons to indie-teen-scream It Follows, Ducournau’s film is a much more visceral, immediate experience. She has an incredible eye for detail, constantly finding the surreal in the mundane. The world of the veterinary college, with its nonstop, bizarre hazing rituals and omnipresent farm animals, feels like another planet at times. When violence erupts, it’s never glamorous and always messy. Ducournau goes for the jugular, both literal and metaphorical, and gets to have her (meat) cake and eat it, too.

Raw, which had its premiere in Critics’ Week at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, is released in March from Focus Features.

I wanted to start by talking about one very specific observation I had. This is the second time I’ve watched the movie. I saw it back at Fantastic Fest and again a couple of days ago. There is a very specific unicorn shirt that appears twice, if I’m correct. It appears first at the beginning of the movie on the main character. Yes. (Laughs)

And then at the end of the movie on her sister. Yeah. Wow, you’re very observant.

Yeah, well, costume details, they’re important parts of the thing. I would love for you to start by talking about that shirt specifically, but then talk about putting together the costumes and things that might not be explicit props or pieces of the story, but that are sort of part of the world of the whole. I’m super glad that we’re talking about this because I never do. No one ever asked me about this shirt. The thing is, I’ve tossed a lot of small details, as you say, in the movie, thinking if some crazy people want to watch it a second time, maybe they will get some clues and will be more attentive to detail. So this shirt, I wanted something that conveyed childhood, something super innocent and super first degree for her at the beginning, that shows where she starts from, which is being a child and living with her parents and stuff like that. And I really like to pass on, how do you say, clothes and stuff in movies, because you never see this a lot. Usually when you have costumes, you have the character — that’s his style, she has her style and everyone has their own style — but you don’t pass on clothes. And I think between sisters, it’s super normal to share clothes. And it makes us feel the comfort there is between them. Like when you sleep over, you take someone’s T-shirt and stuff like that. And for me, it’s really like, I can relate to that. 

More importantly, the fact that the older sister, Alexia, wears the shirt at the end, and the shirt is tainted with blood, shows the contradictory journey they’ve both been through. Justine’s journey is ascending, a self-discovery; she goes from childhood to womanhood through the movie. And the sister is descending. She goes from a very powerful and confident character to pretty much a ghost or a zombie. She completely loses her soul. So for me, it was something about being vulnerable. This unicorn gets passed on to the sister at the end [and] shows that, in the end, the younger sister can take care of her. She has outgrown her own sister.

How many siblings do you have? I have one sibling.

Are you the older or the younger? I’m the youngest.

Another thing that the film does so wonderfully is begin with a world that is already very strange and ominous and scary before horror elements start coming in. It’s a world of hazing rituals, especially that shot of everyone crawling. How much of that is taken from personal experience and how much of it is invented? It’s really nothing personal, because I have never been through hazing. It’s a reality in countries where it’s legal or they are used to it — like in Belgium or even the states, with the fraternities and stuff like that — or some kind of urban legend, which has been the case in France because now it’s been illegal since the ’90s. It used to be legal, but there have been so many scandals that now it’s really, really a secret thing. So for me, it’s more linked to some kind of urban legend, which made my imagination gallop, in a way. And it’s something that we pretty much all know about, have seen in movies, have heard stories about. I thought it was an interesting conflict to set my story in, because I needed to build up the empathy [for] my character at the very beginning of the movie because I knew that halfway she was going to turn into a cannibal, performing a monstrous or an inhumane act, as we would qualify it. My idea was really to put the audience into the cannibal’s shoes, and to make them feel what she was feeling, to feel for her and be with her and understand her.

In order to achieve that, I really needed the audience to be with her right away, at the first moment we get into the story. And the hazing conflict is basically about an establishment that is anonymous and absurd, without rules, blind and kind of cruel. And I knew that by setting this contest, the audience would instantly and even subconsciously rebel against it and be with her. They would cheer for her instantly because no one wants to relate to this kind of establishment. It’s pretty dark. And I knew that this conflict was the right one to cheer for this girl.

Could you also talk about just staging some of those larger set pieces focused around that? The party that ends that first sequence is pretty beautifully pulled off. It doesn’t feel over orchestrated, but so much of that stuff is done in sort of long takes following people back and forth. The sequence shot was really for me the best day of the shooting. I really loved it. I think everyone did. It was a very jolly day, actually. We had 300 extras, more or less. And with the crew, it was like 300 to 350 people all stuck in a basement. Everyone was half naked and everything.

For me, a sequence shot, especially with many extras, has to be a common effort. You have to employ everyone in it, and you have to give a part to everyone. So I pretty much directed, I’m not going to say every single extra, but almost. Everyone had something to do in the acting and behind the camera, and everything was very choreographed. I thought about this through and through way before, of course. That was super fun because everyone knew that if one of these 300 people messes up during one take, we have to go back to scratch, and we lose one hour, and one hour is very precious. So everyone was super focused and super dedicated to make these shots happen, which was really, really cool because there was an amazing energy on set.

We spent the whole day putting water on them, so that they looked sweaty and everything. I wanted something very gritty and very carnal. That is really all about showing these bodies naked or half naked in order to give a very big sense of the sexuality that was present in the room. It took us, like, 10 takes. We prepped it for four or five hours, and then we got 10 takes. And after the last one that was perfect, we all danced a lot, because we were thrilled about it.

Yeah, you earned it for sure. The movie also does something very similar: it moves between these handheld observational scenes and tableaus or much more orchestrated, clean-feeling shots. Could you talk about sort of constructing the visual palette of the film through the coverage, and how one plays against the other? It’s really a matter, for me, of visual taste. The way I write scripts is already very visual. I very often have the scenes in my head with the light, and I write about the light, about the costumes, about the music, about the sound design. I already write a lot about this in the script. And there are some scenes that are pretty much just inspiration of the moment, if you wish. Some scenes I had the idea [for] when scouting in the universities. The horse, for example, [which] we put down to sleep before surgery, is something that I spotted when I was scouting in the university, and I thought that would make a good scene. And I learned that [it] was possible to shoot them when they were doing this. The people you see are real students and veterinarians. I just put my characters and my actors behind the scene, but it’s a mix of documentary and fiction in this scene. Or the scene with the dog, who has a veil, a white sheet with a stain of blood on it in the corridor, is something that I had the idea of very late, again. I saw this corridor and I thought, “There is something to do with it. I like this location.” For me, it goes with, it doesn’t go against, the more choreographed scenes. 

That shot of the dog where the sheet comes off is so striking. Did you know where that would go in the film when you had the idea? No. I mean, I knew it would go somewhere, but no, I didn’t know exactly. I knew it had to be part of the second part, obviously, because it was saying something about my character and the animal being unleashed in her, and also this sense of death, of mortality. So I knew it was somewhere in the second part, but when I decided to do it, I didn’t know exactly where I was going to put it, no. I just knew I had to do it.

Are you a vegetarian or have you ever been a vegetarian? No, no. The choice of vegetarianism is related to the narration only. The climax of my character is her becoming a cannibal, so I had to start with the exact opposite.

Sure, of course. I was telling a friend the other night, it’s not tonally a horror film. When you get started, and even when shocking things start happening, you’re so invested in the characters and their world that you’re not really aware that you’re operating in a horror film, per se. Could you talk about your early experiences watching horror films, how you came to wanting to make something that is a bit more shocking, and what films of that genre have influenced you over the years? Well, first: for me, the movie is a crossover. It’s not a horror, per se. It’s a crossover between comedy, drama and horror. And there is no word for this. So for lack of a better word, I would say that it’s modern, and I will say it’s a modern tragedy, but is it something you can sell? I think that in tragedy, you have the three kinds of catharsis that are in my movie: laughter, tears and fright. That’s why I call it this personally, but that’s only personal. The thing with horror, I’ve always loved horror movies since I was a kid, so for me — I mean, the word “shocking” that you said is all relative. For me, it’s not shocking. I think it’s sometimes beautiful and sometimes necessary, but I don’t find it shocking. And I did not do it in order to shock people. 

I think I was just referring to the more violent images. Both times I’ve seen it, when she starts eating her sister’s finger, there’s a very visceral response from the audience. Yeah.

When I saw it the first time, the thing that I actually cringed, which I almost never do in films, is the eyeball. It really upset me for some reason. The eyeball licking, really?

Yeah, it really got me for some reason. I wore contacts for many, many years, so I don’t know if it was that, but for some reason, that really took me off guard. Well, it’s funny because it’s very much shown in a way that is actually pretty, I made it a bit beautiful, you know? I didn’t show it in a very gruesome way. I don’t know. As you say, in a tableau, it’s like a painting a bit, this shot. So it’s funny that you reacted to this one.

Could you also speak about the paint scene? When I saw it the first time, I was struck by what an incredibly smart visual idea it is and that it had never been done before. As soon as it begins, I feel like you’re like, “Oh, of course.” And then, the red blood comes. As you just said, in the beginning, when I started writing the scene, it was really just about the colors. I really wanted the red to show up in the scene in a very inappropriate way. And I thought that we would see it better if we saw some harmless colors before. Green, blue and yellow are harmless, because they are not alarming or anything, but when you see red in a movie, it’s always a bad omen. I really wanted the red to come up as something very disturbing, compared to other colors. So it was really just about this impression that I wanted to see red on green and blue and yellow. Then I thought also about the idea of physically seeing the merging of these two young people. I don’t know why. Sometimes you just have this idea, but I just wanted the green to appear as a way to show that eventually the sexuality comes up. They’re two bodies that are merging, resulting in a third color that was not there at the beginning. It was really, really visual, when I wrote it.

Do you feel like you’ll have visual ideas before story ideas, or do you feel like they develop organically? I know when I’ve written things, I’ll tend to have five or six things that I know I will want to happen, and then I find my way to them. How do you catalogue and come across those ideas? The thing is that I started as a screenwriter. I was in the screenwriting department in film school, and I’ve always written. I’ve always loved writing stories and poems and stuff like that. So my first relationship to a movie is to the story and to the character, finding the clue of this character to find the stakes and arc. So I really start with the story. Afterwards, when the story is really clear in my head and when I have my character, then I can let my imagination wander. These kind of visual inspirations, like the dog or the colors, you really need the structure before. 

I guess I’m not asking about those as being presented to shock, but about using images that create a visceral reaction in the viewer, in the context of telling the story. Yeah, yeah, of course, I mean, this is my main goal, and that’s why I like the grammar of body horror, because it addresses itself directly to your body before it addresses itself to your mind. I do believe that somehow, the body is the door to the mind when it comes to watching movies, because you get this immediate visceral organic reaction, that is very, very personal to every single member of the audience. No one is going to react exactly the same way, and no one’s going to react for the same reasons, which is something I really like. If you squirm in your seat for the eyeball, you’re going to ask yourself afterwards, “Why am I disturbed by this? Why does this image particularly disturb me?” Everyone has a different answer for themselves, which I find very interesting, because in the end my goal is to make people question their humanity and moral identity. That’s why I wanted people to put themselves in the shoes of a cannibal that is not a vampire or a werewolf, but that is a real human being. You can’t say at the end of the movie that she isn’t human, and yet, she has eaten human flesh. 

So I really like the fact that provoking body reactions in the audience helps you go through that process of asking yourself: “What makes me human, and why am I disturbed by this?” It talks to your psyche. It’s archaic. But the fact that your body reacts makes you very active as an audience. It’s not a character that tells you that you should react like this, or that the movie is about that, really. [The body horror] makes you active. It makes you in the movie. I’ve always liked this. If I always talk about Cronenberg [it’s] because he’s a master of that, you know? He’s a master of showing you things that are necessary, that are never gratuitous, and that you can’t look away from. In the end, you wonder why you were so disturbed by it and what it tells [you] about yourself.

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