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