Gory 'Raw' will get under your skin
Writer and director Julia Ducournau delivers a coming-of-age story with a difference
Raw is a film about cannibalism that gives a new meaning to the term 'nail biting' (you'll see) but Julia Ducournau's controversial feature is about a lot more than a young lassie who gets a taste for human flesh.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a swotty and naive 16-year-old wunderkind starting at the same veterinary college previously attended by both her parents and currently by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). She has been raised as a strict vegetarian - a point emphasised by an early scene when her mother goes ballistic in a restaurant where Justine has to spit out a bit of sausage that was in her mash.
Older sister Alexia is far more worldly-wise and insists Justine take part in an initiation ceremony where she has to consume a raw rabbit liver. Justine starts craving meat and ultimately human flesh.
The scene where she gives into the craving is simultaneously one of the funniest and most disgusting things I've ever seen on a movie screen. While there are plenty of squeamish and horrific moments in the film, there's also a strong vein of humour and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. There are some parallels between writer and director Ducournau and her heroine, both Ducournau's parents were doctors and she has an older sister.
But while Justine is a socially awkward teen, Ducournau is a witty, engaging and forthcoming woman in her early 30s. The director did harbour notions of following her parents into medicine but they put her off. Similarly, they weren't impressed when she told them she wanted to be a criminal profiler. "How many serial killers do we have in France?" she recalls them saying. "Julia," she continues laughing, "it's like one every 10 years. How are you going to make money from that?"
Before I saw Raw I'd heard about cinemas in the States distributing 'barf bags' to audience members and stories of people passing out from shock at the Toronto Film Festival. I was more than a bit worried as I don't have a strong stomach but while there is plenty of gore, Raw is an intelligent, funny and very provocative film.
While I didn't pass out or throw up, my appetite for protein was entirely gone when I left the cinema. When I mention this to Ducournau and add that for two days I couldn't eat meat she's taken aback. "Seriously?" she questions in surprise, "That's crazy… when I read things like this on Twitter and stuff like that I always think people exaggerate a bit".
The cannibalism was not the thing that disturbed me the most about Raw. It was the way all university 'rookies' are subjected to a week of brutal and disturbing 'hazing' which I found particularly upsetting. Ducournau, who is tall, blonde, beautiful (and no doubt would berate me for mentioning this, but we'll get to that later) and exudes 'cool', throws her head back and her hands in the air. "Yes, you see!" Does that reflect student life in France, I ask horrified? "Hazing still exists in France," the director tells me, "but it's illegal... The hazing (portrayed in the film) is a mix of a lot of things, some really bad things happen. Once in a while you get this case where someone almost died. It's (also) stories that people have told me directly, videos, a lot of videos that I've watched... so many videos of hazing on YouTube", she adds sadly. "(It's) all over the world, different kind of schools…
"In real life it's way more brutal than in my movie. In the first draft I had written the hazing as (much) stronger than (the final version)... (but) the hazing was so strong that the cannibalism kind of fell flat. So I had to rewrite it, tone it down so the movie had a real progression towards cannibalism."
Part of the hazing includes persistent and institutional misogyny, which made me deeply uncomfortable. Can this really be the reality of third-level education in modern France? "For me we're not even talking about schools (universities) now," Docournau replies, "for me society is like that, you know this is how we (women) are treated every day. These constant comments on the bodies of women and the way they dress, or don't dress, for me it's harassment". This is why I say she wouldn't thank me for commenting on her looks. Ducournau continues by telling me that she thinks the way women are treated has regressed instead of progressed. "Today, you have kids driven to suicide by rape or being filmed." Just days before we met, Ducournau discovered the term 'revenge porn', and is outraged. "It's so common it has a name!" she says in exasperation, "it's driving me insane". She goes on to remark that it is usually the woman and never the man who is 'shamed' "even when he is the one with his dick out".
Ducournau's take on 'revenge porn' is quite refreshing, "it's so important for me to have a female director to portray sexuality and say to these kids 'it's OK to want to climax, it is absolutely OK and it's in everybody, our bodies are desiring bodies and it's the same for everyone and even if you're seen, worse case scenario, if you're shown doing this it's OK, you are allowed and you don't have to be apologetic, you don't have to be sorry about that, you don't have to be shamed. This is the thing about the shaming, it's like we are in the Middle Ages!" Ducournau questions where all the shame comes from "all these stupid rules that (apply). Says who? These rules make no sense". Equally the 'rules' about body shape baffle her and this gets a nod in Raw with a couple of casual references to eating disorders.
I question whether cannibalism could be classed as an eating disorder, albeit an extreme one, Ducournau laughs, "you can say that cannibalism is definitely a form of eating disorder. For me it's about how the female body today is restrained - all the rules that you have to do, even if they are super unhealthy, in order to fit".
I've interviewed few directors as lively as Julia Ducournau and I have to admit to having a huge girl crush on her. But I'm still worried about her diet, so just to check I ask her what's the most disgusting thing she's ever eaten? "I can't eat tripe (sic)," she replies promptly, "and I'm never going to eat haggis". And then she makes that face people make when presented with something hard to swallow. Except as far as Ducournau is concerned, the unpalatable isn't just confined to food.
'Raw' will be in cinemas nationwide from April 7