Julia Ducournau never asked for this. When the now-33-year-old French writer-director was plotting out her feature debut, she wanted to make a movie that spoke frankly about a woman's place in the world. "Female bodies portrayed on our screens and in our society [are] always either sexualized to please men or glamorized to set expectations for women," she says, her voice quickening on the phone. "No one can relate to that — we are only building up fantasies about the female body.
"I wanted to present another option," Ducournau adds. "A body that sweats, that pukes, that pees." And one that hungers.
From that initial germ came Raw, one of the most singular horror films of the last several years. (It opens on Friday, March 10th.) A graphic, emotional thriller about a virginal, vegetarian veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier), who ends up embracing her inner ravenous cannibal, it's earned raves since premiere at last year's Cannes Critics' Week – and an additional wave of publicity after a couple audience members passed out during a midnight screening at the Toronto Film Festival.
For some filmmakers, that kind of intense viewer reaction would be worn like a badge of honor. Ducournau, however, laments how that attention has warped the intention of the movie she tried to make. "I don't think it makes me cool at all," she says flatly when the issue of this unexpected word-of-mouth is raised. "I mean, they fainted and I'm really sorry about that. But the whole snowball effect that there was on the Internet afterward – calling my movie 'shocking' or the 'most hardcore movie ever made' or something .... At a certain point, they're just not talking about my movie anymore."
Which isn't to say that Raw doesn't have moments in it that will stop viewers in their tracks – this isn't a movie that shies away from the aftermath of its heroine's newfound appetites. During her school's vindictive hazing rituals, she's forced to eat rabbit kidney, which initially disgusts her, and later provokes a painful, infectious rash all over her stomach. Then, unexpectedly, a sliced-off finger starts to look like a forbidden delicacy, and quickly Justine is fighting to repress a craving to take a bite out of her classmates.
Her 2011 short Junior, which also played at Cannes and starred Marillier as a tomboy who experiences her own bizarre transformation, suggests a recurring obsession with the body politic. But the roots of her work, she says. go back to her mother and father, who encouraged a wide-ranging appreciation of different films.
"My parents are very big movie buffs," Ducournau admits. "They consider the cinema as important in your education as literature. For them, it was very important that I watch the work of major directors as much as I read the work of major writers. And there was no discrimination [against] any kind of genres. I saw everything — Billy Wilder, war movies, westerns, musicals. Their open-mindedness had a very big impact on my life."
But it was their profession that profoundly shaped her body-horror fixation. "My father's a dermatologist, and my mom is a gynecologist," she notes, then adds with a laugh, "So, yeah, you can see the influence." She credits their work, which they would discuss at the dinner table, for giving her a unique look at life and death.
"Doctors have a very specific take on mortality and the human condition, which is very distant," Ducournau explains. "There is a lot of relativism because they know that there are no rules in medicine. Anything can happen at any time, and each patient has his own way to be sick. As a kid, it fascinated me ... but at the same time, it really scared me. It made me fantasize about things that were probably much worse than what they were talking about."
"I mean, [people] fainted and I'm really sorry about that. But the whole snowball effect on the Internet afterward – at a certain point, they're just not talking about my movie anymore."
Indeed, it's Raw's combination of curiosity and repulsion concerning Justine's inexplicable condition – as well as the film's increasingly claustrophobic tone and creeping unease – that amplifies the terror. And yet, the film is surprisingly tender toward its confused, unhinged heroine, even as she turns into a menace. "The first idea [for Raw] was really, ‘Why are we quick to dismiss some people from humanity when they are human?'" Deciding to push the concept to its furthest extreme, she recalled the soulless flesh-eaters she'd seen in cannibal movies. "I thought, 'What if I try to understand how someone who looks like me and is not a supernatural creature can [become a cannibal]?' What was the difference between me and them? Why do we think that we are entitled to dismiss some people?
"I have this thing in my head – the idea of the positive monstrosity," she continues. "This character who wants to fit in but realizes she can't fit this particular box, no matter what … well, what do we do with her? Should she stop existing? I believe that monstrosities are what make us unique. If she realizes she could kill someone but she won't, then she can be her own wild animal. That's a positive thing – to pinpoint who you are once you've been confronted by your first real moral choice in your life. Most people never get to that stage … She's maybe more human than any of us at the end of the movie."
The worry now, though, is whether viewers will see Raw for its deeper themes or simply because they've heard that it's a five-alarm freak-out. Does the Toronto incident make Ducournau wonder if she pushed things to an unreasonable level? "It does not make me worry that I went too far, because I know I didn't," she replies, pointing out that there are only three intense sequences – a pittance compared to more extreme examples of the genre. Plus, she notes that the Toronto screening was an isolated incident after nearly a year of showing the film around the globe. And furthermore, as someone who finds excessive violence numbing and uninteresting, she's not thrilled with the prospect of her work being lumped in with the sort of can-you-take-it? movies that are more endurance tests than personal expressions.
"I think it's sad," Ducournau sighs, "because some people are going to be [too] afraid to see something that they probably would have handled very well. And some people, who want to see a torture porn, are going to be disappointed ... so, it's a lose-lose for me." In fact, the filmmaker views her movie as more of a coming-of-age story. "For me, coming-of-age involves a physical metamorphosis that makes us question our identity," she says. "Are we the same as the person we were before this happened? I see our humanity as being a constant metamorphosis. I see humans constantly morphing from one skin to another."