After the French-Belgian film Raw premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, stories began popping up on culture blogs and in newspapers. These were accounts of attendees who fainted, vomited, and in some cases had to be hospitalized. The cause, reportedly, was the movie’s graphic scenes of blood, bodily processes, and cannibalism. After all, Raw focuses on an over-achieving, vegetarian young woman, Justine, who while enduring the student initiation at her veterinarian school is forced to eat meat—specifically, rabbit kidneys—for the first time. The experience causes a transformation in her body and psyche that manifests itself as an insatiable hunger for flesh, often raw, sometimes human.
Broaching these allegedly extreme reactions to Raw with its star, Garance Marillier, who plays Justine, is a surefire way to elicit a stern look and strong rejoinder.
“I’m sorry for those people,” said the 19-year-old French actress through a translator. “What really bothers me is the buzz that goes around that because it reduces the film to being this horror film, when there’s so much more to it. It means there’s a coterie of people who don’t go because they think they’re going to be turned off, and there are other people who go because they’re really into horror and they’re disappointed.”
Indeed, Raw ((Grave in French), which opens today and is written and directed by Julia Ducournau, is not your average campy gore-fest. Melding tropes from horror genres with comedy and drama, it employs its bloodiness as a means of exploring female sexuality and womanhood (an early scene in which Justine and her freshmen classmates are drenched with animal blood is a sly reference to Carrie, another film that used horror to depict female adolescence). Justine is a straight-laced young woman thrown into a world of not just carnivore-ism, but unabashed bacchanalia—when the students aren’t dissecting dead cows and sedating horses, they are partying and co-mingling with sweaty, half-naked abandon. Her hankering for raw chicken breasts, her older sister Alex’s severed finger, and her gay roommate’s shoulder, among other delicacies, becomes an expression of appetites both carnal and nutritional.
“The rabbit kidney is really the catalyst that starts the whole thing. But [while] it could have lead her in a direction of following her impulse to be violent and destructive, she’s going to fight against it. That’s what really transforms her—that struggle to bridle those impulses,” said Marillier.
For the record, she had no problem with the bloody, cannibalistic scenes. “You know, it was sugar. I was eating candy. If there was any difficulty, it was finding the reality in the scene so I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m just eating sugar.’”
Raw is the feature-length debut for both Ducournau and Marillier, but the two have worked together twice before. As Marillier said of her director, “I feel like she gave birth to me in the cinema world.” More specifically, Marillier was a wild, hyper 12-year-old kid in Paris when her mother, a theater production administrator, saw a casting ad for a tomboy in an upcoming short film. Thinking the opportunity might help her young daughter channel her energy into something more productive, she sent her on the audition. The project turned out to be Ducournau’s short Junior, the story of a tomboy who contracts a gastrointestinal disease that causes him to shed his skin and become a young woman. They also collaborated on the television movie Mange, about a girl struggling with bulimia (Marillier was her sister-in-law). After she graduates from school this year, Marillier will shoot another film—not with Ducournau this time, and about which she remains mum.
It is safe to say, though, that it probably won’t involve consuming human flesh. But for those who might be concerned, Justine’s appetites have had little effect on Marillier’s own.
“I will never get tired of meat. The only thing that could possibly bring me to be a vegetarian would be the good of the planet,” she said. “Vegetarians don’t know what they’re missing.”
See Kristen Wiig and Jane Fonda as Hannibal Lecter: