Filmmaker Julia Ducournau bites into the humanity of cannibalism in ‘RAW’

by Preston Barta

When you look at movies like 2014’s Boyhood or even last year’s Best Picture-winning Moonlight, it’s easy for people to see their lives reflected on screen because of a filmmaker’s specificity. The more detailed a filmmaker is with his or her film, the more you’ll connect, because individuality is what unites us.

While Raw marks Julia Ducournau’s feature debut as a writer and director, she shows no signs of being an amateur. Her unspoiled film about a young vegetarian named Justine (Garance Marillier) who grows an impulsive taste for human flesh isn’t portrayed in the hardcore manner its story suggests. Raw is a rather sweet and imaginative coming-of-age story about the unbreakable bond between sisters.

In the film, Justine heads off to college to study veterinary science, the same place her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) attends. Justine is an optimistic person who has a firm belief in animal rights and what her body should digest. So the thought of eating rabbit kidneys for an initiation ritual doesn’t sit well. But after giving into the pressure, she devours the organs, which, in turn, jumpstarts her hunger for raw meat.

“In the first few drafts, I didn’t write them as sisters. Alexia was just an older student Justine had met at her school,” Ducournau said during a recent phone conversation. “I couldn’t get their relationship to work and started asking myself, ‘Why does Justine keep going to Alexia when she hurts her so much?’”

Writer-director Julia Ducournau on the set of ‘Raw.’ Courtesy of Focus World.

After a train ride to Brussels, it occurred to the French filmmaker that all the story’s issues could be corrected if she simply made the two characters sisters.

“If they were sisters, you would understand why Alexia feels threatened by Justine and why Justine is constantly seeking Alexia’s approval and love. So all of sudden, creating this bond helped me find some depth to their relationship.”

Thankfully, Ducournau decided to make these two characters family, because not only does their dynamic drive the plot forward, but also it’s what ultimately makes this an organic and tragic story to behold.

“When I was developing their relationship, I was thinking about a dividing cell, because when a cell divides, you have some loss. And when you look at the result of this division, you have two cells that look exactly the same but are incredibly different because they are not infused anymore,” Ducournau said.

The horror aspect of the film, most notably the cannibalism that may be turning your stomach as you read this, stemmed from Ducournau’s thoughts on genre misrepresentation. For many films about humans who eat other humans, they are treated like “aliens and zombies.”

“They have never been treated as humans,” Ducournau exclaimed. “It’s weird because they are human and cannibalism is something that has always existed. So I started questioning myself on why cinema doesn’t give cannibals any humanlike behavior or feelings.”

Ducournau saw an opportunity to tackle this repression and explore a part of humanity that no one wants to see. As humans, we naturally cringe at the thought of a person devouring another, because it’s repulsive and violent. However, Ducournau finds the humanity within the grotesque and keeps your limitations at bay.

There is beauty in the film’s horror, and how it unravels — even at its most frightening — is gratifying, as cannibalism becomes Justine’s own initiation into adolescence.

Grade: A+

RAW is playing in limited release today, and opens in Dallas on Friday (3/24) at the Angelika Dallas.

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