When French director Julia Ducournau walked into the Cannes Film Festival last year, she had a handful of shorts and one brand-new feature film to her name. By the time she walked out, she had the Parallel Sections Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics and one of the most buzzed-about horror films of the year. Her movie Raw follows a first-year veterinary student named Justine, who, after being raised strictly vegetarian, starts manifesting a pesky case of cannibalism after a nasty hazing incident. If you’ve been following the film throughout its festival circuit run, the prevailing narrative has focused on Raw’s grislier aspects, scenes of cannibalism that sent viewers to the exits and sometimes even had people passing out. But the movie is also an eerie, touching, and at times darkly funny coming-of-age story that manifests the messy business of post-adolescent development as the horror show it often is. It’s about sibling rivalry, the struggle to fit socially when you don’t even fit in your own body, and the way your world shifts when you realize your parents are flawed people, too. And for all the noise that’s been made about the gore, it’s used thoughtfully, particularly in the movie’s marquee scene. (All I’ll say is it involves a pair of scissors, a dog, and a bikini wax.)
Vulture sat down the first-time writer-director to talk about the proliferation of genre-bending horror, which filmmakers are making the best movies in the world, and having really good comic timing.
So you’ve been promoting this movie for almost a year since it debuted at Cannes. How is your relationship with Raw these days?
I still love my movie. I love it, because it’s my baby, but I have been having contractions for a year now, so it’s time for birth. But it’s also a feeling that is a bit nostalgic. I’m sad that it’s the end, obviously, because it’s six years of my life, including all the festivals and the promotions. I’m a bit sad, but I’m also very excited about going to a next project.
I wanted to ask you about that, actually. Do you have to reorganize your creative brain to move on to the second movie when your first feature was such an emotional effort?
You’re right to pinpoint the fact that there is a difference, because when I was writing Raw, somehow I had nothing to lose. I just was hoping that one person in the planet would want to see my movie and find some interest in it. The only thing I had to do was make the movie that I had in my head. Now I want to make a movie that is one I have in my head, but at the same time I think I am way more demanding towards myself. This is almost a neurosis to me, let’s say. When I watch Raw, of course I don’t watch it like anyone else. I only see the flaws and the defects. I always am trying to push myself, saying, “You can’t do this anymore. You have to find another way to make a second movie that’s even better than this one.” And now, of course, you have the expectations of the whole rest of the world.
It’s just the world, Julia! I don’t see the big deal.
Yes, exactly. But the thing is, eventually I’m going to have to shut down this voice, because otherwise it can be very paralyzing. The important thing for me is that I believe in the next story, and I really want to see it onscreen. So I have to write it and I have to fight for it until the end. That’s the thing.
It’s been a six-year process to bring Raw out, but I feel like this movie and the lead character of Justine are arriving at just the right time. Horror is being embraced in a slightly broader way and gaining traction as a credible form of higher pop art. People are talking more than ever before about the need for messier and more complex female leads. Do you feel like the climate is more receptive to Justine at this moment in cinema than when you started writing her?
This is one question that no one has ever asked me before, so I have to think about it. That’s really refreshing! It does seem the moment my movie was shown in Cannes and released today, does come at a period that is able to make people understand what I mean. When I was writing it, I was sure I was pinpointing something that was modern. I did not know how it was going to be received, obviously. Shit. This is really hard to say! [Laughs.] Let’s say that when I wrote it, it was only about my experience of what I wanted to see onscreen and what I was seeing onscreen and stuff like that. And I was trying to … [speaks in French] I’m sorry. It’s hard for me to decipher, really, because I am myself very, very confused with the fact that, for example, in Cannes there were other cannibal movies, or that there is Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix right now, and this is not something I can really, really understand.
I do think it says something about our society that the monsters we see [in films] right now are actually human, and not vampires and not supernatural creatures. Not only are they human, but we want to understand them, in a way. I think it must say something, that we get into the intimacy of people that normally would be repulsive to us. I chose the cannibal figure because I really wanted to understand fully what humanity is about. I don’t think that you can embrace this if you repress part of it, if you don’t accept the fact that there is very, very dark stuff in us. Maybe — and I’m saying only maybe — people are ready to accept the dark part of humanity, and are ready to question it.
Jordan Peele talked about making Get Out about “the demon that is us,” and you’re talking about the darkness inside everyone. You guys are obviously connected to very different social experiences of the world, but you both seem to have arrived at the conclusion of needing to focus on the horrors of everyday life.
You can also talk about Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation or even The Witch. It’s something that is always close, close friends or close family, and the evil is in the inner circle. It’s in us. It’s in the humanity. I do think there is something about that, even somehow with The Babadook.
Raw clearly deals with how we present and are willing to accept the female body, and the character of Justine definitely doesn’t adhere to polite standards of feminine behavior. As a director, do you feel like commentary is an explicit part of your mission?
Yes and no. As a screenwriter, my aim is to make the best story. My aim is to create a very complex character with a very clear evolution that everyone can relate to and raise stakes that are interesting. The main thing I am concerned with is the character and the way it interacts with the outside world. To make my rules and to make them coherent and to make my own system is really what my nose is on when I’m writing. However, the reason why I want to tell one story in one particular context is of course not something I picked out of a hat. I will write about something if it seems coherent with the energy I’m in, maybe that is anger, maybe rebellion. Anger is always seen as a negative feeling, but I think it’s a very creative one. You have to stay angry to create. In the end, nothing that I write is innocent. Of course, there is always a layer. There is a very strong feminist layer in my movie, a political layer and everything. But I don’t write thinking, Oh, that’s going to be super-feminist.
You praised The Witch and It Follows, two really good examples of American men writing great horror films starring women. I’ve also read that you really enjoy the work of Korean filmmakers. As a French filmmaker, are there any pockets of global horror cinema that you find particularly inspiring or innovative right now?
The best directors and stories, for me, are in Korea right now. I’m so crazy about the way you can’t even call their movies crossovers anymore. Crossover has become a unified language in itself. They’re not mixing genres. They’re just creating a new thing that is their language; it just so happens that comedy is super-grotesque. You have gory scenes or fantastic scenes that take place in family melodramatic action. It’s amazing how all this is no longer a mix of genres. It’s so natural, the way they put it. Of course you’re going to tell me that Bong Joon-ho is not Kim Jee-woon is not Park Chan-wook. They don’t make the same cinema at all, but it’s just in the way that the crossover has become something that is unanimously understood that, as someone who loves crossover movies more than anything, I can only be completely seduced and bewildered by it. Not to mention, they have some of the best directors in terms of mise-en-scéne. I am constantly clapping. You see me, seriously, I’m clapping at shots because they’re so crazily framed. Oh my God!
Do you see yourself as belonging to a director class that is distinguishing itself in a particular way right now?
I don’t like to belong to anything. I don’t like when people say if I belong to a wave or a train or a trend or stuff like that. Personally speaking, I think it’s very claustrophobic and a bit reductive to say that we belong to some particular wave or something. I really, really like that there is a young generation that mixes both genders in the genre business. It’s super-promising. I mean, seriously, in the last like three years we have had so many amazing, elevated genre movies that are radical and super-smart. I’m super-happy about that.
Things feel playful and experimental, like there isn’t a belaboring of rules or boundaries. Directors are just running clear past them.
I love everything that you say. I hope I belong to this generation. If I’m not believing in waves I believe in generations, and I think this is really cool.
This interview has been edited and condensed.