How do you turn a vegetarian into a cannibal? Hypnotise her into thinking she’s made of broccoli! Or, do like in this film.
HOW FIRST-TIME FILM DIRECTOR JULIA DUCOURNAU MADE RAW, A FEMINIST CANNIBAL MOVIE WITH HORROR AND HEART THAT COULD BE 2017’S WILDEST RIDE
N THE EARLY hours of Tuesday 13 September 2016, two ambulances parked up at Gerrard Street East. There was a medical emergency at Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre. Inside the 1,237-seater cinema, packed to capacity, cannibalhorror Raw was premiering in the Midnight Madness slot, the Toronto Film Festival’s selfstyled “twilight zone for moviebuffs”. According to news reports, “multiple audience members” had either fainted, vomited or fallen ill. By the time social media latched onto it, it sounded less like a screening, more like an outbreak of mass hysteria.
Some have howled publicity stunt, something did happen that night. Fandango’s Alicia Malone was at the screening. “Midway through the movie, there was some movement around me, a commotion, and multiple people going in and out of the cinema,” she tells Empire. “I saw one guy slumped on the floor by the exit, clutching a bottle of water. When I left after the movie, there were ambulances stationed outside. I honestly don’t think it was a PR stunt.”
It’s safe to say 13 September was the night Raw’s notoriety was sealed. The French horror’s reputation now precedes it, radiating a dare-yousee-it video-nasty vibe. True, Raw has its moments of hard-gore horror, but the hype is a distraction. When things calm down and the fainters get up, the focus should finally turn to the film’s extraordinary dual debuts: writer-director Julia Ducournau and breakout star Garance Marillier.
“I’m not offended — I’m just sorry for the people who fainted,” says Ducournau when we meet in London, a month after the Toronto faint-a-thon. Tall, charismatic and an easy talker, the 33-year-old filmmaker commands quite a presence. She puts the blackouts down to a confluence of ingredients: a midnight screening, empty stomachs, too much booze and, of course, Raw’s own graphic power. The more reserved Marillier is considerably more blunt. “I thought it was ridiculous,” she says, rolling her eyes.
Set in the bleak, blank spaces of a veterinary college, Ducournau’s coming-of-age horror
follows Marillier’s Justine in her freshman year. Urged on by her older sister (newcomer Ella Rumpf), Justine is subjected to a vicious hazing ritual that sees her fed a raw rabbit’s liver. The hazing triggers a metamorphosis: Justine slowly mutates from callow vegetarian to flesh-craving beast with a vicious carnal appetite. All the great horrors are defined by mood and moments, and Raw rages with unforgettable scenes. It seems to have beamed out of nowhere, likewise its director. Where the hell did she come from?
JULIA DUCOURNAU WAS born in Paris on 18 November 1983, the second daughter of a gynaecologist and a dermatologist. It’s hard not to think of Brian De Palma when she reveals this: De Palma’s dad was an orthopaedic surgeon, and little Brian would often sit in on operations, watching a bone transplant or a skin graft. “It must have had an influence on the way I see things,” she says. “I’m not remotely squeamish, and I’m obsessed with the human body.”
Ducournau’s other obsession, horror movies, defined her childhood. She’d consume them like other kids did cartoons. She was six when she first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. “Then I got into Poe and the whole gothic thing.” Raised by movie-buff parents with classical tastes and no genre prejudice, Ducournau began dabbling with scripts when she was a teen. When we ask about her firstever screenplay, Ducournau starts laughing.
And laughing. And doesn’t stop. It takes over a minute for her to recover. “No-one’s asked me this before,” she finally says, face burning with embarrassment. “It was about a schizophrenic magician.” About a what?
“A schizophrenic magician. I honestly have no idea why. I haven’t thought about it in years. I don’t know anything about magic. It was stupidly bad. Thank God nobody ever read it.”
After studying literature at Paris-sorbonne University, Ducournau spent four years in the script department of La Fémis, France’s state film school with legendary alumni as long as your arm — Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Claire Denis, François Ozon, Theo Angelopoulos… She graduated in 2008, freelanced for French Elle magazine, and dabbled in script doctoring, including consulting on critically lauded Afghanistan war drama The Wakhan Front (2015). In 2011 she shot Junior. Ducournau’s wickedly funny 22-minute short follows a tomboy’s mutation into girlhood, with a gutsy supernatural twist — after contracting an exotic stomach bug, she starts shedding her skin like a snake. Or, in Ducournau’s words, “like an android reptile”.
Junior is hugely significant in terms of Raw’s backstory. It’s the first of three times she’s worked with Garance Marillier. The actress was 13 when they met at the auditions for Junior’s lead role. Marillier thought Ducournau was the casting assistant. “When Garance came in, she was skinny, tiny, with braces, and completely mute,” remembers Ducournau. “I thought, God, not another mummy’s girl. We started an improv, with me baiting her into an argument, and she gets up and starts yelling, full-force. I was like, ‘The shrimp has woken up!’ I actually got scared of her. Can you believe that?
Scared of a 13-year-old!”
To Ducournau’s shock, Junior took 2011’s Petit Rail d’or, the Cannes short-film prize.
She was immediately hired by Canal Plus to make a TV movie, co-directed with actor Virgile Bramly. The blackly comic Mange is a demented tale of body-shaming and revenge, following a successful lawyer and recovering bulimic who meets the woman that hazed her as a teenager. She pledges to ruin her life. This time, Marillier was cast as the antagonist’s step-daughter. “Mange is the tonal opposite of Raw,” says Ducournau. “We only had 18 days to film, didn’t have time for subtle lighting, so it looks high contrast, all burning reds. I watched it again just last week and it’s full-on. I hope they re-release it some day.”
As you may have gathered, Ducournau harbours a distinct set of fixations. “Yeah, I tackle the same themes, over and over,” she admits. “Metamorphosis, the quest for identity, and body image. It’s an endless pit I can look into forever — and I gazed deeply into it with Raw.”
RAW WAS BORN out of a conversation with a producer about cinematic taboos. What was the worst thing a character could do? And how would you keep the audience in the room? When cannibalism came up, a light bulb dinged over Ducournau’s head. “It sounded like a challenge — could you make a viewer love a cannibal? Instead of staring at them from the outside, like a circus freak, I wanted to place the audience in the shoes of a monster, reverse the mould, and reveal a human.”
Ducournau started writing Raw way back in 2011, while she was shooting Junior. “Julia kept telling me, ‘It won’t be you, you’re too young,’” laughs Marillier. “But the film took so long to go into production, time passed, I got older, and she eventually cast me.” The reason for the five-year delay, says Ducournau, is down to her country’s attitude to the genre. “When you make a horror in France, you’re completely alone. In England, you have Ben Wheatley, for instance, who blends genres. Raw is a weird crossover of comedy-horror-drama: that sort of film is still a rarity in French cinema. It took forever to get financed.”
On 3 November 2015, Raw started its 37day shoot near Seraing, Liège in Belgium — the Dardenne brothers’ cinematic stomping ground (“Weirdly, they were shooting The Unknown
Girl just one kilometre away from us”). To prepare for the role of Justine, Marillier focused her research not on hazing or vet schools, but her own physicality. “I studied dance, and tapped into the animal inside. The main inspiration for the character wasn’t a real-life cannibal, like Jeffrey Dahmer — it was [drug lord] Pablo Escobar.”
For Ducournau, there was never a sense she’d bitten more off than she could chew, but her commitment to realism meant there were few short-cuts available. Gallic FX genius Olivier Alonso, infamous for his work on New French
Extremity horror Inside, hand-crafted Raw’s gore. In fact, aside from a pinch of digital magic (a chewed leg, gnawed to the bone, had to be enhanced with CGI), all of the effects are practical. The scene in which Justine hacks up a clump of hair was achieved by Marillier wrapping silicon strands around her front teeth, gagging as she pulled them out strand by strand. An eye-wateringly graphic bikini-waxing scene, meanwhile, didn’t require any effects at all. As Ducournau recalls, “We went through a load of body-doubles because we shot so many close-ups — I must say, they were incredibly fucking brave.” As for the sequence in which Justine nibbles on a freshly ripped-off finger (a major contributor to Raw’s fainting fits): how the hell did they do that? “Oh, that was made of raw chicken,” says Marillier, deadpan as ever. You’ve got to be kidding… “Okay, I’m joking. It was a finger that Olivier made, entirely out of sugar. It tasted quite nice.”
Marillier, it has to be said, is a trooper. She was completely unfazed by the gore, the showers of blood, and the savage sex scenes she was required to shoot (so ferocious they had to be choreographed by a stuntman). The scene that really gave her the fear was a solo mirror dance (imagine a disco Travis Bickle) that signals Justine’s transformation into a cannibal. “I really didn’t want to do it — sexy dancing isn’t my thing, especially in front of 40 people,” Marillier remembers, wrinkling her nose in mild disgust. “Julia and I had, er, a bit of an argument.” This, it turns out, was a common thread during Raw’s shoot. The two share such a tight artistic and personal bond, any creative differences were resolved through bouts of cathartic yelling. “There’s a 14-year age gap between us,” says Marillier. “But we’re both strong characters, and very alike. There’s a definite fusion but also clashes.” “Garance said we clashed?” asks Ducournau. “We clashed a lot. We completely trust each other but we’re both incredibly temperamental. If we’re both angry, we’re very angry. We scream for two minutes, then everything’s cool.” Sounds like the sister relationship in Raw. “Well, it’s not that extreme. I’m supposed to be older, wiser and calmer, but yeah, there were times when Garance felt like an annoying little sister that I wanted to tease.”
PERHAPS THE REAL taboo Raw tackles isn’t cannibalism at all — it’s Ducournau’s explicit and unfiltered celebration of the female form. While the film is wide open to interpretation, it’s been embraced by critics as a fiercely original feminist horror movie. Marillier is suspicious of the feminist tag (“You don’t say to a guy, ‘Wow, you’ve made a great masculine horror movie,’ do you?”). Ducournau, on the other hand, welcomes it. “Raw does tackle female taboo subjects: body-shaming, eating disorders and, especially, female sexuality,” she considers. “Through Justine, I wanted to show girls you can be young, a virgin, be deflowered, and instead of being ashamed, you can be fucking proud of it.”
Which leads us to the elephant in the room. Women in horror used to mean the final girl, the bikini victim, the seductive scream-queen. For over a century, the genre has operated like an old boys’ network. Over the past few years, however, a chorus of exciting female voices have been shouting down the idea that horror should be a male reserve. There’s Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation… If it’s not quite a wave, it’s certainly forward momentum. When we ask why there are so few female directors working in horror, Ducournau lets rip. “As long as the director ratio isn’t 50/50, there will never be enough female horror directors,” she says, arms motioning. “The fact is that women, and society in general, have been brainwashed. Women have been taught to like love stories and pink, and be ‘soft creatures’. Soft creatures? What the fuck is that about? I know a lot of women who are into gore, or cop movies, or whatever. When you make a horror movie, it’s an expression of violence that you feel inside. I really do think it’s time we recognised women feel violence and anger too.”
Unlikely as it sounds, Raw could be this year’s The Witch — artistically and commercially. Both films share core themes of sexual awakening and family determinism. Both are auteur-driven arthouse horrors that have converted festival buzz into studio deals. And both have seen its directors swatting away Hollywood’s advances. After The Witch bowed at Sundance, Robert Eggers was mobbed by agents, managers and industry suits. The same happened to Ducournau at the now-notorious Toronto screening. The French director, whose metamorphosis obsessions have powered everything she’s written is, for now, resisting any kind of Hollywood transformation. “I haven’t signed with any agents yet,” insists Ducournau. “I’m just trying to keep a grasp on reality. All this attention isn’t normal for me.” Anyhow, she adds, her follow-up is a serial-killer movie set in France, dubbed ‘Project Blue’. “It’ll share the same tone as Raw but it’s dark — really — dark. We’ll see. I still haven’t finished the script.”
And if writer’s block should hit? Well, there’s always the schizophrenic magician to fall back on.
RAW IS IN CINEMAS FROM 20 APRIL.
Above: Justine (Garance Marillier, right) with her fellow vet-schoolers. Here:
Justine with sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf).
Director Julia Ducournau and Marillier at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
Marillier gets her teeth into the role. Below:
Rabah Nait Oufella plays Justine’s roommate, Adrien. Bottom:
Alexia gets the point.