A Very French Discussion With RAW’s Julia Ducournau
Raw is out in theaters now! Get your tickets here!
Last year, 33-year-old writer/director Julia Ducournau blew apart the minds of critics and film-lovers at festivals like Cannes (where she won the Directors’ Fortnight Prize) and Fantastic Fest (winning the Next Wave Best Director spot) with her debut film Raw. At almost every other film festival from Sweden to Toronto there were reports of nausea, fainting and walkouts so frequent that the studio handed out Raw-stamped vomit bags upon arrival at the screening I attended.
But that’s not to say this film is a flavor-of-the-month exploitative shock and awe shakedown. This film runs deeper than the physical bones it chews on. Suffice to say, what Ducournau pulls from crafting an otherwise straightforwardly-fucked yarn about early college days is something so profoundly shocking, funny and moving that I’m breathless to tell you how much it needs to be seen to be believed.
At any rate, I sat with some other journalistic folks and we respectively fired questions at the resplendently French writer/director.
As a woman director, did you face any script to screen challenges during the process that you think a male director may not have had to deal with?
I think that during the process of writing and directing my movie...no. However, because, you know, I’m very very close to my producer...I write by myself and he’s pretty much the only one who reads what I write, and so it’s like being with family and I don’t have those issues. Afterward, with my crew and in the process of making this movie not so much. But since Cannes and since I started doing interviews and Q&A’s and showing the movie for a year, [I’ve] never been asked so many questions that revolved around my gender...and that’s very disturbing, you know? Because when I write, I just write the story, and the story I want to tell. I don’t think that I’m writing as a female screenwriter or as a female director. So it’s like being reminded of my female gender so much this last year that’s made me very disturbed because I didn’t think it was that much of an issue before that, and I realize it very much is that now.
Thematically and metaphorically your film is so tightly written and executed yet it feels like the story could have gone anywhere at any time. Is it similar to your closely related short film Junior? How much changed from first draft to finished product and did your characters have a clear trajectory in your mind before finishing the script?
Hmmm, that’s interesting. The first thing is that for me it’s really not a sequel of Junior. I mean, there are a lot of common themes for sure and the body metamorphosis being at the center, and the discovery of one's femininity and humanity being another one. And both of the characters being named Justine. Because of their tragedy, I thought it made sense when we, ahh, think about the Marquis de Sade work...but for me they are two distinct characters. The Justine of Junior and the Justine of Raw are not the same person. However, say you ask me, let’s say, if it was hard for me to pinpoint my character when I was writing it, the answer is yes. The thing is that, you know, funnily enough, a character like say Adrian was very clear to me since the very first draft. Very clear. And he had changed very little from the first draft to the seventh draft, which was the last one. On the contrary, Justine’s character was very very hard to pinpoint for me. I was like, somehow, until the 3rd or 4th draft, I could not relate to her in an intimate or organic way. I had my story. I knew what her journey or her journey towards humanity was going to be and all this was very clear but herself, she did not move me. And for me, I cannot defend a character if I am not moved by him or her. So it took me a long time. And I got the “click” when I started realizing she had flaws. You know? And [her] flaws made me relate to her. Like for example, she’s not such a good sister to be honest. She’s quite annoying. Her sister is saying “no but seriously, it’s really easy, it’s very small.” And I put myself in the shoes of the older sister and I want to slap her in the face she’s so annoying, you know? And this and also the fact that her body has flaws and I started imagining all the flaws she has in her character and this is when I could actually relate to her. Because I do believe that flaws are a good entry point into a character rather than from one who is super fake and too perfect and so smart and, you know, so funny and so good at everything, you know, I can’t relate to people like this. So that’s how I got her.
At the center of your film, you have Justine’s emotional struggle with conformity and how that affects the relationship with her sister. Was it hard to make sure the other transgressive elements in the film didn’t override that very touching story?
No. Balancing this was very natural to me. The thing for me, the most important thing, is the story I’m talking about. And it is indeed this very personal story of someone who discovers her anomaly and discovers she wants to fit as much as she wants to, but she just doesn’t. And it’s also the story about the sisters who are never to be separated from anything because they love each other so much but they have opposite visions of what they are. So that was the main thing for me. Then afterward, it just so happens that they are cannibals, you know. So it implies of course these questions of how I am going to show this and what am I going to show in my movie. And for me everything has to be essential to the narration. There is nothing outrageous to what I do. I hate outrageous violence. Not because it shocks people but because it doesn’t interest me...at one point it makes you desensitized and after like ten minutes of the movie you’re like, “yeah, I’ve seen it”. For me it was very important that what I was going to show made sense in the journey of my characters. So, no, that was not an issue for me really, it came preternaturally that I had to build up the empathy for this character. I was not gonna show her eating brains after five minutes of the movie and so on. So, I never had the temptation, if you will, to make a shocker or a gore-fest.
In your film you balance elements of social commentary, horror, comedy, gender...it comes across so naturally and realistically...what influences did you pull from in crafting these elements into your narrative?
Hmmm, so the thing is, when I write and direct I really really try to not watch the film I want to watch in real life. I really try not be tempted to reproduce anything, you know, I’m kinda scared of that. I never go back to my sources, let’s say, or my main influences when I do the job. However, things are funny because my influences when I subscribe myself to cinema and history and more specifically the history of cinema, since I was a kid I have been influenced and rocked by lots of filmmakers and, ummm, the thing that’s funny is that I do not make any direct reference to any of the main filmmakers like, let’s say, [David] Cronenberg, [Dario] Argento and David Lynch, let’s say are the trinity in my life, but I don’t reference them directly. The only direct reference that I give in the movie is the Carrie reference by Brian De Palma. And it’s a movie that I like very much but it hasn’t been a founding experience for me even when I saw it, even though I love it, but it’s not as strong as it was with Cronenberg, you know? And I did it directly because I knew that lots of members in the audience would think about it themselves because of the premise of the movie. And so I decided, ok let’s make a small wink at it and say “cuckoo, hello” you know? and play with this reference so we can get over it and move on after the scene. But then, a lot of people have told me, “yeah, but I see some [Dario] Argento, I see some Suspiria," and so then I think, “Yeah, SUSPIRIA was one of my biggest shocks in my life when I saw it”. And even though I did not think about it when I was writing or directing, when someone tells me this I say, “Yeah, I think I understand how you could” and then somehow it’s unconscious but somehow your identity is what you watch and what you react to.
Cannibal and zombie films have become more popular within the last few years, but they’re mostly centered around men. Why did you decide to make a cannibal film with a female lead?
Oh, you know what? That’s interesting, because at the beginning before I started writing the script I like to explore all the different routes my movie could go to. Just before the first treatment I was thinking “OK, who’s my main character? What age is he or she? Is it a she or a he? And, you know, is it in vet school or med school?” All of this. And you kind of take notes on all the different ways it could go. And I thought, considering cannibalism, and that’s why I chose this subject, is that it’s all about the body. And I’m completely obsessed with bodies. And I do believe it’s possible to read in genre movies the psyche of the characters on their bodies. If you think about a movie like The Fly for example, that you can turn off the sound and you can understand what is happening inside of him, what his state of mind is according to his body, you know? And so I knew it was gonna be about that. I knew it was a coming of age. I knew I would have to tackle the birth of sexuality in someone...I thought I had more to defend with a female character than a male character. Because when I have to portray the female sexuality I really wanted to show something else than just this terrible, unsure, timid, and...kind of, yeah, victim-way the birth of sexuality is portrayed in young women on our screens. You know, like, “Oh, am I going to have a bad reputation? Am I going to be called a slut? Is it the right guy? Is he gonna call me, and stuff like that.” All this is in the head, the mind, you know, it’s not in the body. And for me, sexuality is the body. And somehow I really wanted to put the sexuality back into the female's body. With a body that is desiring, that is aiming at climax, like every other body, you know? And to make it unapologetic and shameless. And that was very important to me.
Justine enters school with everything lined up and then things get very messy for her very quickly. Did you ever consider simplifying the issues or was it important to you to show her complex life?
(she starts laughing). That’s the simplified version that you’ve seen (still laughing). For me, all these issues are incredibly intertwined. Everything revolves around the body. As usual in my work, all this, how bodies are seen...how female bodies are seen. I wanted to take the female body out of its niche, what the female body undergoes in terms of social pressure, like, you have to be thin so you make yourself fraught, and if you’re fat you’re being shamed, all these little hints I put in the movie. It’s also what I said about sexuality, it’s all about the body, it’s the body talking with its needs and its cravings and its desires and stuff like that. And for example, again, if you want to talk about the sisterhood, for me is what interests me in the sisterhood is precisely the fact that your body is my body when you have a sister. You have a common body. You can puke, you can go to the bathroom together, you can pee, you know, there is no shame cause it’s the same body. All these issues for me are linked by this major center figure of the female body. And also I must say, “Why am I so interested in bodies?” Because for me, it is a promise of universality of my voice, through the body. I think when we take a body outside of its niche and we talk about its triviality, its enduring grossness sometimes and also its very scary, or autonomous reaction some other times, it talks to everyone. Beyond nationalities, beyond all this, to me it is a promise of equality in my audience. That everyone can relate to the pain that is hair pulling on the skin when she gets a bikini wax. All of a sudden, you don’t need to have undergarment bikini wax to be a woman, or know that it’s painful. Everyone knows that it’s painful when you see it from close. So for me, this is why bodies are so interesting. For me it’s a real promise of equality and communion around my character.