‘Raw’ Director Julia Ducournau Talks About Her Bloody & Brutal New Horror Film [Interview]

You better learn to remember the name of French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, who made a big splash last year at Cannes with her take on the cannibal movie, “Raw.” The film, which premiered as part of Critics’ Week, justly won the FIPRESCI prize and set her on the map for cinematic stardom. A new, unique voice was born.
In “Raw,” the 32 year-old writer-director shows surprisingly sharp command and, more importantly, indelible restraint for the usually over-the-top genre. The film, joining “The Witch,” “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” in this decade’s horror-film new wave, is rooted in arthouse territory, and is particularly inspired by the oeuvres of David Cronenberg and David Lynch. However, “Raw” turns out to be its own wild animal. Julia Ducournau’s uncompromising vision is one to watch.
The film, about bright-eyed Justine’s (Garance Marillier) first week at veterinary school, is soaked in surreal atmosphere, darkly lensed by Ruben Impens, as it follows the hazing rituals that happen on opening week at the school. Justine is a vegetarian, but that doesn’t stop her from being disgustingly forced to eat bloody, raw pig’s liver, one of the many un-vegetarian rituals she will have to obey by to survive the first week. That first bite sparks something in Justine that she never felt before — has she actually been missing out on the pleasures of the flesh all her life?
“Don’t let people call you a female filmmaker. You’re just a filmmaker.”
Using the “Brutalist” architecture of the college, with eerily spacious wide shots reminiscent of “Suspiria” meshed with the production design of “Carrie” (along with a playful nod to that film’s famous pig-blood scene), Julia Ducournau knows how to create tension with the most minimalist of circumstances. She’s a talent of the highest order, and we spoke to her about the film, her experience at Cannes, the horror-movie revival happening today and her take on the incident at TIFF where seizures and fainting occurred during the screening of the film.
Tell me how this project all began?
My producer Jean de Forêts and I started talking about cannibal movies [and] also space-creature films, and why most of them had unsympathetic or non-human-like protagonists. I wanted to created someone you could have empathy for, I wanted to go from “they” to “I,” and I think it’s interesting to put the “I” back into the cannibal just to try and tackle this subject, which is so repulsed by everyone and easily repressed by all of us. It disturbs very deeply because it’s talking about our own humanity and what we belong to.
I’ve also always been very obsessed with bodies, and among all taboos that really challenge our sense of humanity and our vision of humanity, a cannibal is the thing that, of course, only talks about bodies. And since I’m crazy about filming bodies and I’m crazy about talking about the bodily metamorphosis, which, in a way, really challenges our sense of identity, it was very important for me to try to recreate or add more metamorphosis [to] my character.

How long was the shoot?
37 days.

Adequate enough?
Well, you know, you never have enough time; even if you have a thousand days, it’ll never be enough. But the thing is, we did not have to delete or erase a scene, which was always my biggest fear, to be honest, because in the way I write is very important, it has a temporality which is very fluid, it’s very scene-by-scene and that way, it’s like an impulse or a heartbeat, if you will. It’s very important to me because when I talk about impulses, I want to tackle the impulse of everything I write. What’s in between isn’t very interesting to me, and I’m not very interested in installation shots, [which] mean nothing to me. That’s why if you take a scene out, everything else falls apart because every single scene is a new step towards my aim and towards the end of my movie. The whole structure ends up getting messed up. And fortunately, with these 37 days, we managed to not take anything out of the movie.

It got such a great reception at Cannes, which is where I saw it. How that experience like for you?
What was important for me was to be selected in Cannes because we submitted a movie that is kind of unusual for a French movie because it also tackles genre and graphic scenes, and it was very important for me that the genre [got] outside of its niche for horror buffs. It’s important for me that they recognize that genre movies can be auteur movies as well and that there is no difference between auteur and genre.
An auteur is someone that expresses a personal and strong view of the world and humanity with whichever grammar they use, whether it’s a musical, documentary, drama or horror movie. I cried a lot when I knew that we were selected; it was [a] big achievement and when I was there, I was not in touch with what was going on. I was super-sick, I had a fever, so I was doing my interviews while I was completely in my bubble.
"It’s important for me that they recognize that genre movies can be auteur movies as well and that there is no difference between auteur and genre."
Image result for raw grave ducourneau
I had been to Cannes before with my short [“Junior“], so I knew that there was a frenzy in Cannes. Every reaction is so extreme, and so when my producer told me that there were good reviews, I thought it was just the “Cannes game” and I really didn’t realize it that much. It only hit me when Universal and Focus starting being interested in distributing the movie worldwide and then I thought, “Ok, the game is getting a bit more serious.” [laughs]

There’s a whole horror new wave happening in the United States and abroad. I’d like to get your thoughts on that.
I agree with you, in the U.S. a lot. I mean, when I think about “The Witch,” “It Follows,” “The Invitation,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” there’s a new generation that is elevating genre and taking it out of its niche, and yeah, I can definitely relate to that movement, to that energy.

I guess you’ve been asked this a lot: What do you make of all these stories that the media ran with of people fainting watching your movie and having seizures? What’s your take on that?
I have no take on that. Don’t believe that hype. I mean, it did happen for two people in Toronto, [and] you can imagine how tired I am of answering this question since last September. I am sorry for the people that fainted, it is never a compliment, never a good thing when someone does not feel good. Going to the movies is a celebration, it is not supposed to make you faint or have a seizure. My movie is not the shocker that is presented on the internet. It is something that has no tangible reality. I mean, apart from the fact that it did happen, it doesn’t say much about my movie. It isn’t the most disgusting thing or the most unwatchable thing ever made. There isn’t much I can do about that.

I was actually surprised by the reactions because I really didn’t think it was grotesque at all. I thought it was actually a really beautiful, nuanced, subtle film.
Yeah, I agree with you. It’s not doing any justice to the work that I have done for five years, which is why it is so frustrating for me. Apparently, all of a sudden, my movie is a blockbuster when it really is a tragedy about two sisters and it’s actually very moving and very funny. I do think that people that are calling this movie out are people that haven’t really watched the movie. I wonder if it’s people just rebounding on the fainting story and just inventing stuff. They obviously haven’t seen the movie.

What advice would you give to female filmmakers trying to make it?
Don’t let people call you a female filmmaker. You’re just a filmmaker. Whether you are female or male is absolutely not relevant. That’s my advice.

“Raw” is now playing in limited release.
My interview was published for [The Playlist]