AFTER watching Raw (out in cinemas on Friday, 7th April) you cannot help but wonder what brilliant – but slightly twisted – mind dreamt up such a story?
Fortunately, I and those in attendance at a Curzon Bloomsbury screening got an opportunity to pick the brain of the film’s auteur Julia Ducournau.
Raw tells the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), an academically gifted and reserved young woman, starting life at Veterinary School. Justine, a vegetarian, is quickly taken out of her comfort zone by peer indoctrinations and ritual hazing, which include being drenched in blood and having to eat rabbit liver.
These struggles are compounded by a tumultuous relationship with her older sister who switches from friendly and welcoming to distant and cruel. As time passes, Justine loses grip on who she thought she was and begins to discover a bloody truth about herself.
Oh did I mention the film features graphic cannibalism? By the bucketload.
Unsurprisingly, this contentious theme has dominated most of the discourse surrounding Raw. But as Ducournau rightly pointed out, there is so much more in her film for the viewer to dig their teeth into.
The French-born director crafts engrossing scenes which shift from intimate humour to moments of sheer terror. It is a gripping approach that she labels a ‘mix of comedy, drama and body horror.’
Ducournau went on to explain: ‘The reason I like to mix genre is because they are inseparable. For example, Hitchcock used to say ‘there is no suspense without laughter’. I completely agree but I don’t use suspense as a tool.
‘What I use is disturbance. And I do believe there is no disturbance without laughter. When you have seen a traumatic scene and you are in a comedic scene afterwards it makes you feel relieved, it eases us out. If you put it before, it makes you feel at ease at a moment where I am (as the director) going to get you.
‘I am going to provoke this physical sensation of disturbance and of loss of orientation, in the same way that drama brings depth and perspective to laughter. For me the three of them go well together.’
For all the talk of cannibals and horror, it is actually the drama elements which carry most of the film’s interest – the bulk of which revolves around sisters Justine and Alexia (Ella Rumpf).
Ducournau had originally written the characters as friends but grew frustrated believing the relationship simply did not make sense. Why would Justine keep going back to the abusive Alexia? It was not until she had a eureka moment on a train journey to Brussels that she realised they had to be sisters.
She explained: “This bond is unbreakable. It’s a lot of love and it’s a lot of hate. That’s what I love about brotherhood and sisterhood on-screen.
‘For me, they are the most cinematic relationships you can film because they go from one extreme to another. Constantly going back and forth yet you don’t need to explain what’s in-between. When it’s brothers or sisters you can understand why they always go back to each other,’
Interestingly enough, it was Ducournau’s own family that sparked her deep interest in the human body.
Her parents, both doctors, let her read medicine books containing graphic images of the human condition from an early age. Far from being grossed out, Ducournau became fascinated by the way the body can mutate – sometimes lethally – and do so free from whatever is happening in the mind.
This lifelong fascination with the body and identity bleeds into Raw.
The director said: ‘What interests me in bodies is that they raise the question of identity in a very visual way and in a very relatable way and in a very personal way.
‘When we think about bodies we don’t think about the psychology of a character. We are talking about reactions that are immediate and raise all the history that your body carries with you. Your body has a memory.
‘When the body becomes autonomous, for example when you have a rash or a carving, what does it make you? Where is the integrity of your identity? Is it in your mind? Is it in your body? Your soul? Your actions? Deeds? Words?
‘Where is the humanity in us? That’s why I say I love opening bodies, literally speaking but also metaphorically speaking.’
Beyond her parents, Ducournau cites David Cronenberg, Freddie Mercury, Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin as inspirations for her work. The latter of whom she spoke about in depth having been brought to tears by the photographer’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Ducournau commented: ‘She sees beauty where everyone would see monsters. The figure of the monster is very important for me. Everything I have done since film school revolved around the monster. The idea that the monster is never what we think it is.
‘Around this, I built a fantasy of a positive monstrosity. We have all felt like monsters at one time in our lives, whether it was because we did not fit in like our teen years.
‘I like the idea of the positive monster because, for me, it is better not to belong than to belong. It’s exactly what Nan Goldin does.’
In Raw, Justine certainly does not belong. She is expertly acted by Garance Marillier who has worked with Ducouranu on film shorts and TV projects since she was just 12 years old.
Now 19, Marillier masterfully uses her body movements to signify the transformation Justine is undergoing. In one visceral scene she squirms underneath the bedsheets, almost like she is trapped in a sweaty and bloody cocoon.
Ducournau was quick to sing her praises: ‘When I discovered her what I liked was that she has a big mouth, like me! She is a very physical person. She can act with her body. She has a memory in her body.
‘For example, she is very clumsy in life. And if I want her to be clumsy in a scene she can remember what it feels like and her exact position. She can remember this life stunt and apply it in the film. This is how physical she is and unique she is.’
Ducournau and Marillier make a fierce big-screen combination. Another perfectly matched director-actress partnership, like Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart, which we can only wish to see more of in the future.
On this occasion they have given us a feast of visual pleasure – challenging, brave, repulsive yet completely irresistible.
Raw cinema. If you get a chance, go and see it. But do not eat beforehand.
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Also Read: All This Panic (Film Review)