March 15, 2017 at 3:03 p.m.
Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss
Directed by Julia Ducournau
Cannibalism has a long and varied cinematic history. From the shocking (Cannibal Holocaust, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), to the mainstream (Silence of the Lambs), and even the Western (Bone Tomahawk). French writer-director Julia Ducournau has a fascination with the human body. It might be because she was raised by doctor parents or maybe because she is a fan of the horror genre. I’m guessing it’s a little of both. Her film debut “Raw” is more than just a cannibal shocker. It’s filled with plenty of dark humor (a vegetarian who becomes a cannibal) and it is so well made that it has become an instant horror classic right up there with the likes of David Cronenberg.
The story is centered around sixteen-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) who is following her family’s long standing tradition of becoming a veterinarian. She enrolls in the same school her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) attended where her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is already a student not far from graduating.
The hazing at the school is out of hand and soon Justine finds herself sleep deprived, forced to drink massive amounts of alcohol, and yes, eat meat. Coming from a family of strict vegetarians, she protests the school’s ritual but older sister Alex plays it off as no big deal and forces Justine to eat a raw rabbit kidney. At least it’s fresh (they are at vet school). Soon scrawny and innocent Justine begins to crave the taste of meat but were not talking about a nice steak, she craves human flesh and there are some real gross-out scenes that Ducournau sets up intelligently that will have you squirming in your seat.
Many of the film’s gory moments are reminiscent of Cronenberg’s style and there is an ode to De Palma’s “Carrie” when the group of incoming freshman are doused with buckets of animal blood. However, the film shocks the most when it does it in a subtle way and Ducournau manages to fool the audience into believing that they are watching a coming-of-age drama that suddenly becomes the perfect double bill with “Hannibal” or one of my favorites “Ravenous.” But here the audience never loses sight that Justine is not becoming this terrible monster by choice. She can’t seem to escape what the future has in store and even when she begins to do the unthinkable the audience still finds itself rooting for her to find a way out. “Raw” is a brilliantly executed horror film that instantly becomes a classic of the genre. The final act is both shocking and satisfying. (4 stars)
I spoke with writer-director Julia Ducournau about “Raw” and the first thing I noticed was her heavy French accent. Although we spoke over the phone, I imagine she is the kind of person who uses a lot of hand gestures because she is so passionate about film, life, and above all the human body.
How did you come up with the storyline?
The idea came from the fact that, like you, I watch a lot of horror movies and I noticed that in cannibal movies the cannibals were often seen as vague creatures from outer space or some kind of zombies when in fact we all know that they do exist.
So you wanted to bring more of a human aspect to the genre
They are human, why would we want to treat them like aliens? This is something that really struck me, you know? It’s like we don’t want to see that side of humanity and I understand why. It is repulsive and scary, but why is it scary? Because it’s here, it’s in us, it’s in humanity and I really don’t think humans and society can mature by repressing things. I think we can only grow up by accepting things even when they are painful and violent and dark. We have to be in full possession of information. What is this society we live in and what is the humanity that is us? That’s really at the center of my work. The question is “What is it to be human?” For me the story of Justine is the story of someone who paradoxically has to experiment these very dangerous and scary parts of animality and monstrosity in her in order to be born to humanity. If she hadn’t experimented with this she would not have been confronted by the first moral choice that she has ever had in her life, which is “I could kill but I won’t.” Its only by accepting who she is that she can decide this is not the way she wants to go. She doesn’t want to be an animal like her sister. She wants to be human in spite of the fact that she doesn’t fit in, she believes that there is a place for her as a human being as long as she doesn’t represent a threat for other people.
Both your parents are doctors so growing up around the medical profession was there anything you learned by observing your parents that you incorporated in the film?
[laughs] I did not observe may parents that much at first because their patients would have been really upset if I had been there. But there is one thing that I observed that really influenced me in an unconscious way that is very conscious now. What has influenced me since the beginning is that doctors have relationships to mortality and death and to bodies that is not the same as everyone else. I don’t know if you have friends that are doctors or in med school but they have this sense of realism about death and it’s something they accept. My parent’s acceptance of death, being completely cool with it, whereas I was incredibly scared created a paradox in my head. At the same time, it was frightening to me. I did not have the skill to understand what they were talking about. It made my imagination go crazy and I wanted to recover from this fear. When you are on a movie set you can master things with prosthetics, and create things that would scare you in real life, in a way you are the master of death. I do think if I had not been sacred of that growing up I would not have made movies. At the same time, I really have this fascination for bodies which are at the center of my work.
Does writing and directing a film like “Raw” put your mindset in a dark place?
Well “Raw” is also very funny. And for me the comedy helps me cope with this dark matter and what happens to the characters. To be honest what I love about bodies is that they can be frightening when they transform from a disease or things like that. They can be very frightening because they are a constant reminder of our mortality. They can also be incredibly enduring as well. When someone has a stomach flu it can be kind of embarrassing if you are in public but later we can laugh about it. Cannibalism is only about bodies. It’s a circulation of bodies and bodies being ingested by other bodies. The way a body works has always been strange and fascinating to me.
So, humor is very important to you.
Yes. You can relate to a character better if they have made you laugh at least one time and the audience can relate better to them. It works for me when I’m a part of an audience watching a film. If a character makes me laugh at the beginning of a film it creates a bond with me and from that point on they can do what they want in the film. Laughter has this power and it’s my saving grace against depression.
I think it’s also a saving grace for the audience.
Obviously, that’s why I do it. I think laughter can really deemphasize the effects of traumatic scenes and it can also accentuate them. There is no genre without laughter which works well with drama because drama gives perspective and depth to laughter.
There is a lot of hazing that happens to Justine and her classmates in the film and that always seems to be a hot topic. Were you trying to make a statement?
Of course, and it’s not by chance that Justine goes through this terrible hazing. When your character is going to become a cannibal, there is the possibility that it will have a negative effect on the audience so I wanted to keep the empathy on Justine and I had to build upon it through the movie. By putting her in this misogynist environment that treats people like animals, an establishment that is cruel that we basically don’t want to belong to, I knew the audience would rebel against this and root for Justine despite the fact that she begins to do inappropriate things in the second half of the film. The hazing keeps the empathy on Justine plus it’s forced upon her from upstairs and I knew it would generate some anger against the system. This violence that the students are subjected to on campus every day, whether its dressing like a slut or walking around on all fours, can only generate more violence and that’s really the point of my movie. This empty and void violence has a concrete and tangible effect on the two sisters in the film which then generates into more violence. It’s a cycle that’s repeated at this institution.
RAW opens Friday March 17 in Austin and March 24 in Houston.
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