Sundance: Catching up with "Raw" director Julia Ducournau

Before I saw the film Raw I had no idea what an absolute, cut-throat horror-show veterinarian school was. Dorm room pranks. Drug-fueled dance parties. Late night trips to morgues. Hazings full of blood and dissected animal parts. Cannibalism!  

Who knew veterinarians were such degenerate bad-asses? 

Despite what the subject matter might lead you to believe, the film isn’t a cheap horror flick - even though there are some scenes that might terrify and potentially disgust audiences. In fact the majority of director Julia Ducournau’s latest film, that had it’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before getting picked up by the heroes at Focus World, feels more like a coming-of-age story than anything else. 

The film follows Justine (Garance Marillier) a young girl on her first day of college. A strict vegetarian like her parents, Justine enters her new school life with a strong moral compass. This compass gets smashed to bits the moment she meets up with her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who has clearly strayed from her families wholesome path during her time in vet school. Now a senior, Alexia swings back and forth from showing her younger sister the ropes to tormenting her with the rest of the seniors. Typical coming of age story, right? Nah. Things start to unravel for Justine under the influence of her sister and somewhere along the way this simple story about going off to college takes a weird turn. We met up with Docournau at Sundance to talk about the film.

Director Julia Ducournau. Photo: Steven Stone.

Director Julia Ducournau. Photo: Steven Stone.

“There was a progression to be made. I knew the cannibalism would occur in the middle of the film. I needed a strong twist in the story to happen but not a ‘what the fuck is this’ kind of twist and nothing else. So the idea was to show [Justine] getting more independent and being introduced to meat and becoming more sexual, you know, the same progression as a lot of humanity and then take it even further than that.”

Docournau’s film doesn’t float on the surface of the topic of cannibalism or try and remain one-sided on the discussion either. From it’s conception the film was built around deeper questions, like what it means to be human and what makes a monster. 

“We are animals. We are. For me the difference between humans and animals is simple and thin and it’s the capacity to make enlightened, moral choices. Which is at the core of my story because [Justine] actually has to experience her own animality to discover what it means to make moral choices and be a human.”

Raw is a rare film that can make you cringe and laugh at the same time. It’s also rare that you get to watch a film where you are excited to see what new way a pretty, young girl is going to be able to get her next taste of flesh - all the while remaining sympathetic to the dark transformation she is going through. 

“I wanted to think of what an audience could find incredibly repelling and I wanted to reverse that and make the audience understand and feel for someone who would commit this incredibly repelling act. Putting themselves in the shoes of the monster. I wanted to show the metamorphosis into a positive monstrosity. This anti-determinism she battles with.”

Like all coming of age films, there is a best friend. This particular best friend takes the form of Adrien (Rabbah Nait Oufella), Justine’s “sometimes gay - sometimes not” roommate who seems to be the only one who will forgive Justine’s fish-out-of-water behavior in school (though not aware that she is literal man-eater). He not only takes her off campus to secretly dine on her very first sandwich, he helps quench some of her other “appetites” as well.

Once she has had her first few tastes of meat, it becomes very clear that Justine has “bit off more than she can chew” (get it?) We watch as she goes through Trainspotting-esque withdrawals while battling against her cravings for meat in it’s rawest of forms. It’s only when her sister Alexia catches on to her deplorable addiction that things at vet school begin to spiral outta control. We begin to see that although Justine can’t always control her appetite for human flesh, she isn’t an animal -she isn’t even as bad as others on campus with the same terrifically strange addiction. 

“The film explores not only the difference between humans that eat humans and humans that don’t eat humans - but humans the difference between humans that eat humans and other humans that eat humans. It’s a chain of questions that ultimately can lead to an audience understanding and feeling for a character that they originally might not.”

The audience does feel for Justine - and with Justine. We are unnerved by her appetite only as much as she is throughout the story. We are only nervous that she will get found out when she is nervous that she will be found out. Not because we as an audience are okay with what she is doing, but because we are okay with the person Justine is. It’s the animal side of her that has the appetite for human flesh, it’s the moral side of her that continues to fight against it. So when we see other’s in the film who also dine on the living or recently deceased do nothing to hold themselves back from becoming monsters, it shows us the difference between a cannibal we despise and a cannibal that we sorta feel like we could hang out with. 

This film is for: Lovers of dark comedy. People who aren’t put off by subtitles. Fans of gore. Cannibals. 

Raw releases March 10, 2017