French medical schools are notorious for the humiliating hazing rituals that new students have to endure, and that tradition is the framework for young writer-director Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic rites-of-passage tale. In the self-contained space of a vet school, older students subject new arrivals to cruel games, forcing them to eat raw rabbits’ livers or crawl on the floor barely clothed in the middle of the night. In the deliberate absence of any adult control, this pack of young people sets the rules for fitting in and the boundaries of acceptably degrading behaviour. Plunged in this heightened social microcosm on leaving home, the innocent, vegetarian and virginal Justine (the name is a reference to the Marquis de Sade) is confronted with coercive, arbitrary norm. Unable to conform, she will be led to discover her true nature and womanhood.
In this acutely physical film, which operates under the acknowledged influence of David Cronenberg, Justine’s transformation is shown tangibly, carnally, as moral and mental processes are inscribed on the body. Ducournau examines skin rashes, brain matter, bones, hair and blood with cold, scientific detachment. Body parts and mangled flesh are observed in long, glacial, gruesome takes as the camera refuses to be shocked by what it is recording. With surgical mastery and unnerving clarity, the film dissects identity, individuality and conformity, methodically exposing the messy entanglement of their circuitry.
Inevitably, Ducournau’s startling first feature will be positioned in relation to women and horror. It is impossible not to think of recent cannibal family story We Are What We Are, particularly Jim Mickle and Nick Damici’s version, which shifts the focus to the teenage sisters. The misfit-girl-to-monstrous-woman transformation brings to mind Carrie and Ginger Snaps, and there are echoes too of Marina de Van’s intense relationship to her own flesh in In My Skin. But beyond the female specifics, Justine’s initiation into adulthood tells a universal tale: the film’s complex examination of animal impulses and moral choices, brutal norms and individual principles, probes the primal, savage vein that runs through human nature.
With Raw you continue to explore bodily transformation, which was the theme of your short film, Junior (2011), and the TV movie Mange (2012), whichyou co-wrote and co-directed.
Yes, it’s about the reactions of the body, about the inside coming out. It’s the unconscious that erupts and comes to the surface. I find the way the body reacts before the mind to things like stress really interesting. These bodily transformations are also about the metamorphosis of identity. I believe that you can be many different people in your life, identity is not pre-determined, it’s always possible to change. I like to show the questioning about identity reflected on the skin. It means I don’t need explanatory dialogue because everything is seen on the body.
Both your parents are doctors. How has that influenced your approach to the body?
Doctors have a different vision of the body and of death. They’re forced to have some distance, otherwise it’d be intolerable. That distance creates a form of poetry. There’s almost no personal implication, rather a great curiosity for the changing body. My parents are not afraid of death. I’m not like that at all, so I find their frontal approach to life and death fascinating. I see it also in David Cronenberg’s films. He had studied science so his way of filming bodies is frontal too. He doesn’t avert the camera, death is death, and a decomposing body is a decomposing body. It’s the human condition and you have to look at it squarely. That’s also what I try to do.
There is a calm, icy elegance to the way you film blood and gore, which heightens the visceral impact of the scenes.
I wanted to film the gory scenes realistically so people would experience them from inside and understand the behaviour of the character. Cannibalism is seen as ‘inhuman,’ but it’s taboo precisely because it is human. I didn’t want to avert my eyes because it’s part of the human condition too. This form of animality exists in all of us.
The boundary between human and animal is one of the film’s central themes.
Yes, and the dialogue about apes and AIDS at the beginning is a way of showing that Justine is not an adult woman yet. She thinks that her body is the same as that of an animal, which means that she hasn’t become aware of her femininity. Even though of course she’s correct in saying that animals have rights, essentially what she’s implying in that conversation is that she doesn’t have free will. For me, the difference between humans and animals is that animals cannot make ethical choices. The film is a moral tale, it shows the birth of a moral entity. The trigger is the hazing ritual, where the new students are treated like animals. At that point Justine realises that she’s not an animal, and she gradually becomes conscious of her humanity. And as she realises what she is, she becomes aware of her responsibilities in relation to others. For me, it’s only once you realise what you are capable of as a human, that you can make moral choices.
The moment when she becomes a human is also the moment when she becomes a woman.
Yes, it’s also the birth of her sexual identity. Again here I wanted to get away from determinism. For me, sexual identity is fluid, and you may be different things at different stages in your life. It was interesting to show a young woman who is not scared, or worried she may have made the wrong decision. This kind of representation of young girls’ sexuality is too common, the idea that it’s like losing something. Quite the opposite: Justine gains an identity and a unique relationship that cannot be pigeon-holed, and she is triumphant. I’m tired of seeing sexuality represented as something that is difficult for girls.
The film is concerned with norms and fitting in, particularly for women, and you show scenes that present the female body in its most mundane aspects, which are rarely seen in cinema.
I didn’t want to glamorise the girls’ bodies in those scenes. I find the scene where they piss, or the epilation scene, beautiful, but not glamorous. I knew that being a woman making this kind of film, with those kinds of scenes, people would say I had made a woman’s film. But when you’re showing things that are so physical, so trivial, everyone can identify with them. I think it’s important to show that a woman’s body can be as mundane as that of a man. Gendering films is ridiculous. I make films for everybody.
Interview published in Sight & Sound, Vol. 27, no.5 (May 2017).
Picture credit: Raw (Dir. Julia Ducournau, 2016).