How the Director of 'Raw' Managed to Humanize a Cannibal
The body horror film makes it a point to upend who is and isn't considered a monster in our society.
Justine being forced to eat meat in a hazing ritual, in a still from the trailer for Raw.
At one point early on in Julia Ducournau's debut feature film, Raw (a French film in select American theaters today), Justine (Garance Marillier) chomps into a large piece of salmon. Innocuous enough. But the intensity with which she does so is frightening and thrilling, and soon develops into a nearly loving, passionate relationship with every piece of meat she bites into. Eventually, she graduates from fish to human flesh, as one does.
Justine grows up in a strict vegetarian household, but after her first introduction to meat, through hazing at her veterinary school, it quickly evolves from something she eats into a medium by which to explore who she is. Ducournau's film impressively lays bare the alienation one can feel when realizing there's something about oneself that's not like many others—in this case, cannibalism—but through it, Justine also explores her own femininity and what it means to fight to become yourself.
Ducournau spoke with VICE about techniques she used to humanize a cannibal, early reactions to her film, and why the most disturbing part of it is far from the consumption of human flesh.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
VICE: You've talked about how you wanted to put the audience in the shoes of a monster. Who's the monster in this film?
Julia Ducournau: Well, clearly Justine. But she's also not. That's the point—that she's not a monster. The idea initially came from the fact that most cannibals in cannibal movies are portrayed as othered, like they're an anonymous group that comes to assault people. They're like creatures from outer space or a herd of zombies. It's a bit paradoxical, because cannibals are human beings, and it actually comes from a real thing that actually exists.
I wanted to use this film to make the audience look at what it really means to be human. Since cannibals are human beings, and since we call them inhuman, we're repressing this part of humanity. We don't want to see it. I really wanted to question that.
Justine's whole journey is to fit in with society, and then she discovers something within her that's completely unfit for society. But what does she ultimately want to fit into? She wants to fit into this society with these absurd rules, with things like hazing that are actually monstrous if you think about it, the way people can treat each other like animals. And so who's the real monsters? It's by experimenting with her own animality, her own impulses and needs that make her so unfit for this world, that she can, for the first time in her life, be confronted with the only moral choice that would define her: meaning that she can kill, but she won't. She does not want to. Which is when she becomes a human being, because she is able to make the difference between right and wrong.
In the process of writing this and exploring what it means to be human, what were your methods of humanizing Justine?
In order for the audience not to reject her when she eats flesh for the first time, I had to build up empathy for her from the beginning of the story. So I built up this context of hazing and the establishment and these rules that are very diminishing, and I knew instinctively the audience would rebel against it and root for her.
The second thing was in portraying a female body that was not sexualized nor glamorized—I managed to take the female body outside of its niche and make it universal. You don't need to be female to understand that what Justine goes through is really, really painful. But it's a very endearing grossness—sometimes, the body is gross and funny—and I do think you can build up the audience's empathy for her through it.
I like the way that animality and carnality manifests in this film. How do you think it manifests in yourself?
I think it manifests in myself as much as it manifests in everyone. That's what I talk about in my movie, and that's what I think is relatable to anyone—because, somehow, when you live in a society, everyone tends to repress parts of ourselves, parts that will make you unfit, that aren't appropriate.
But I'm very afraid of boxes. I'm very claustrophobic, so maybe my relationship with my animality is just the fact that I don't want to be where I'm expected. I believe in my instincts.
What have you learned about other people's fears since debuting this film, and how has it impacted your approach to fear and horror?
The main thing is that people do like to see genre movies that make you think. It seems completely mundane, and I don't know about here in America, but genre is often a niche that's made to make money, that just aims to shock and provoke. The fact that some people who don't necessarily like horror movies have appreciated this movie and told me, "Oh my God, I did not expect to laugh, I did not expect to cry"—or the opposite, how horror buffs have told me, "Oh my God, that's so squeamish, and yet it's more than that"—all this makes me think that people do not want prepackaged food in their genre films. And I've learned that the closer your film is to the audience and to life, the more you talk about humanity, the scarier it is for people. Talking about those things is very disturbing. At same time, I'm happy to see that people want to feel that. Because I feel like it's a part of us that we tend to deny, that we push the desensitize button on in order to breathe a bit. But sometimes it's good to have a wakeup call.
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