A new French film fol­lows the story of a veg­e­tar­ian who takes a lik­ing to hu­man flesh, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

French film­maker Ju­lia Du­cour­nau wants to make you think with your body. The way to reach an au­di­ence, the di­rec­tor be­lieves, “is through their im­me­di­ate phys­i­cal re­ac­tions, be­cause when you feel un­easy, when you are squirm­ing in your seat”, it is then you are most open to self-ex­am­i­na­tion.

Raw, Du­cour­nau’s first fea­ture, which opens this month, has the ca­pac­ity to achieve ex­actly that. It is a clever, con­fronting, thor­oughly dis­con­cert­ing story of the body and its ca­pac­ity for trans­for­ma­tion. Vis­ceral but also cool and thought­ful, it’s a fever­ish, el­e­gantly or­gan­ised, some­times bru­tally di­rect vi­sion of that most con­sum­ing of taboos: the can­ni­bal­is­tic urge.

Raw’s cen­tral char­ac­ter, Jus­tine (Garance Mar­il­lier), is a bright young vet­eri­nary sci­ence student who has just left home. At univer­sity, she is forced to un­dergo ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als, one of which in­volves eat­ing raw an­i­mal flesh. Jus­tine, a veg­e­tar­ian, finds the ex­pe­ri­ence has a dis­turb­ing effect on her. In­ad­ver­tently, she also dis­cov­ers she has a taste for hu­man flesh.

Du­cour­nau is fas­ci­nated by the body’s au­ton­omy, its abil­ity to over­rule the mind, its stric­tures and at­tempts to re­press. She cer­tainly doesn’t want to spell out what can­ni­bal­ism is meant to sig­nify in the film, how­ever: that’s for her au­di­ence to con­sider. “I know what kind of ques­tion it raises in me, but the rea­son why ev­ery­one squirms in their seat in dif­fer­ent ways and at dif­fer­ent mo­ments only con­cerns them. And that’s the beauty of it, right?

“At the end I want peo­ple to leave my movie talk­ing. When I was writ­ing it, I imag­ined peo­ple talk­ing out­side the cin­ema and con­fronting the dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the movie and how they felt at this mo­ment. For me there is noth­ing worse than a movie that ex­plains what it’s about.”

Be­fore her trans­for­ma­tion, Jus­tine’s world is nar­row and cir­cum­scribed; she’s a high-achiev­ing student and an obe­di­ent daugh­ter. Her older sis­ter, Alex (Ella Rumpf), also a vet sci­ence student, is a mix­ture of sup­port­ive and com­pet­i­tive; her gay room­mate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), of­fers the pos­si­bil­ity of much-needed friend­ship. Jus­tine be­gins the film, Du­cour­nau says, as a child­like, un­formed char­ac­ter. Para­dox­i­cally, it’s in the course of be­com­ing mon­strous that she be­comes more hu­man.

And the fig­ure of the cannibal could be re­garded as an or­di­nary mon­ster — a breaker of taboos, but not a su­per­nat­u­ral fig­ure like a were­wolf or a zom­bie.

What is more, Jus­tine’s meta­mor­pho­sis takes place in a world where nor­mal­ity is strange.

The univer­sity is a height­ened, ex­ces­sive place, di­vided be­tween the dis­or­dered, seething mass of stu­dents at play and the or­dered, al­most grotesque rou­tine of the in­sti­tu­tion, of lab ses­sions, dis­sec­tions and pro­ce­dures performed on an­i­mals.

In Raw, the mo­ments of vi­o­lence are in­tense but in­fre­quent, un­ex­pected and some­times comic. For Du­cour­nau, it’s im­por­tant to bal­ance ex­cess with un­der­state­ment, and not to play fast and loose with ex­tremes.

“I like tak­ing risks, I play poker a lot, for me this is fun, but also I hate gra­tu­itous vi­o­lence, be­cause I have re­spect for the ex­pres­sion of vi­o­lence; it’s not just something you take for granted in any cir­cum­stance in any movie. If I had wanted to do a gorefest with this movie I could have, from A to Z. But I’ve al­ways tried to find the right bal­ance.”

There are comic scenes, she says, “be­cause the body is funny”.

“Laugh­ter and scream­ing are close (in that they both in­volve a loss of con­trol). And I re­ally like ner­vous gig­gles, too,” she says, “when you’re re­ally torn be­tween two strong emo­tions, if not three, it’s something I try to con­vey a lot.”

Her in­ter­est in the body and trans­for­ma­tion has al­ways been ev­i­dent. In her award-win­ning short film Ju­nior, which she made with her Raw star, Mar­il­lier, a tomboy school­girl (also named Jus­tine) comes down with a bad case of stom­ach flu. Her skin starts to peel, re­veal­ing snake­like scales; yet she also be­gins to em­body a more con­ven­tional no­tion of the fem­i­nine.

In Mange (Eat), a TV movie Du­cour­nau cowrote and co-di­rected, a woman meets the bully who tor­mented her when she was a school­girl with an eat­ing prob­lem. The vic­tim is now a suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional; the tor­men­tor, who does not recog­nise her, is seek­ing help for her own eat­ing is­sues. For the for­mer vic­tim,“The ques­tion is, will she for­give her?” Du­cour­nau says. “It’s a re­venge movie.”

Raw is in­formed by mythol­ogy and bib­li­cal sto­ries, but also by the im­pli­ca­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties of sci­ence. “Art and sci­ence often tell the same sto­ries — this link fas­ci­nates me.”

De­vel­op­ing Raw took time. Af­ter Du­cour­nau wrote the third draft, she won a prize at Tori­noFilmLab, which sup­ports film­mak­ers work­ing on their first or se­cond fea­ture. The award was meant to help her go into pro­duc­tion and her pro­ducer wanted her to get started straight away, but she in­sisted she still wasn’t ready.

“I told him, I’d rather have no money for I don’t know how long, but I’m not with my char­ac­ter yet. I could not feel her. Ev­ery­thing was start­ing to be a good puzzle with all the pieces, but the im­age the puzzle gave me wasn’t com­plete.”

She worked on the script fur­ther, then took her­self for a fort­night to a house in Brit­tany, close to the sea. It was win­ter and she was alone, with­out a phone or an in­ter­net con­nec­tion. “I knew I would not leave this house with­out a last

Garance Mar­il­lier, main pic­ture and be­low, works up an ap­petite in scenes from Raw

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