Let’s not mince words: ScreenAnarchy digs Raw. We have been covering Julia Ducournau’s powerful debut about a young veterinary student’s unusual coming of age ever since its Cannes 2016 world premiere (Shelagh Rowan-Legg’s review). Matt Brown offered an in-depth look on how the film tackles the dangers of conformism and socialization in his essay “The Normalized Atrocities of Julia Ducournau’s Raw”, and earlier today we published an interview with the writer-director herself, in which she discusses her process as a writer, the fine-tuning of her cinematic language, and underscores how Raw addresses the subject of human identity in a manner that both challenges and transcends stereotypical conceptions of gender roles.
Whether with its gut-punch grittiness, its visual exploration of interrelated themes or both, Raw is quite unshakable and will leave viewers reeling one way or another.
As savory a genre treat as Raw is in terms of writing, pacing, visual direction, and mastery of tone, the film simply couldn’t work without a fearless lead performance. By casting Garance Marillier as her protagonist, Ducournau introduces an exciting new talent to the world stage. (And to be sure, equal praise goes out to Ella Rumpf for her fierce portrayal of Alexia, Justine’s older sister).
Last week I was fortunate enough to meet Marillier in Brussels. Continue reading for an English translation of our French interview, which touched on everything from how she experienced the shoot, to her relationship with Ducournau, and even contains a grisly little anecdote on how to make the process of vomiting hair look realistic.
[note: minor alterations were made to the transcript below to make the interview as spoiler-free as possible.]
ScreenAnarchy: Raw has had a very successful year following its world premiere at Cannes, winning numerous awards left and right. What was your experience of 2016 like and what has been the most unexpected reaction to your film?
Garance Marillier: I think any and all reactions have been sort of unexpected because we didn’t count on … well, this level of recognition. All of a sudden, we were catapulted to the forefront. We didn’t expect the film to spark such a buzz. But of course it’s extremely positive to see. It’s been very rewarding to attend several festivals and see the audience reactions as well as to read the great reviews. I think it’s been a nice achievement.
Which has been the most memorable screening you attended so far and for what reason?
That would have to be Cannes. This left the strongest impression. It was the first time we watched the film, that we went into the public arena and were thrown to the wolves, awaiting the reactions. But it was crazy to see such wild enthusiasm for the film. Phew [Laughs].
Did you ever expect the film to become this successful, internationally speaking, after you first read the script?
No, not at all. I never would have guessed the film could attain such widespread acclaim, especially not in the United States. I thought the audience would be a bit more prudish. But in the end, while we didn’t count on it, it was still our ambition to make a really strong film and we were glad to pull this off.
Were you at all familiar with genre film before starting work on Raw or was this a new experience for you?
No, I really wasn’t familiar with genre film or horror cinema because I ha…, well, it’s maybe not that I hate it, but I can’t easily watch it because I scare so easily. But in terms of genre cinema I do know the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, two tremendous filmmakers, and I have become fan of Lynch’s work in particular. Beyond that, anything that’s more ‘straight-up’ horror, I never watch it. Raw is the only film like that that I have ever seen and even then, for me it’s not really a ‘horror’ film first and foremost.
You play Justine, the protagonist of Raw. What was your interpretation of this character after reading the screenplay for the first time? Did she strike you as the heroine of the story or a victim of circumstance?
For me Justine is obviously the heroine of this story; she’s a fighter. The moment that changes everything is when she is presented with an opportunity to kill but doesn’t go for it. Above all, she’s the only one who battles her monstrous characteristics, the only one to defy her darker tendencies, while her sister, for instance, completely gives in to these impulses. [edited for spoilers] Justine is the only one to battle this sense of determinism, who tries to stand up: “no, I don’t want to be like this, and I’d rather hurt myself than ‘innocents’”. So, incontestably, she’s the heroine [Laughs].
Did she have any characteristics in which you could immediately recognize yourself or was it the difference between yourself and Justine that attracted you to this role?
I don’t know if I immediately recognized what I just described as something I have in common with her but it’s true that I feel a lot of affinity with and empathy for Justine because I think there’s nothing more beautiful than fighting against your darker side or inner demons. It’s all too easy to say, ‘well, this is just who I am, this is me, it cannot be changed’. Everyone is like this; ‘you won’t change me, too bad. People never change’. But she, on the contrary, fights this impulse. Justine is also someone who defends her values, but is a bit restrictive in this like when she turns everybody against her in her defense of animal rights. With me personally, and without going into too much detail, that’s something I try to defend every day of my life: my values, my principles with which I’ve been raised and, simply put, standing up for what I believe in. That’s what I really have in common with Justine.
Transformation and transgression are central in Raw, a film that provokes audiences to question what we accept as normalcy. Julia Ducournau has already talked about your physical performance in past interviews but can you explain how you realized Justine’s gradual transformation with your body language?
Well, first of all you should know that I love working with the body; it’s what stimulates me enormously when I act. So for me this was really an exciting challenge. It required an enormous amount of work on top of being able to juggle the different stages in her evolution because at first Justine is, as you know, obviously naïve and very innocent but at the end she’s a lot more intense, and deeper. It was a matter of learning to play and see these moments in her evolution and being able to juggle them because of course we don’t shoot in chronological order. But it really starts with how you hold or position your body. Each part of the film has a different aspect in this evolution in the sense that she feels completely different from one moment to the next and we see this reflected in the body. It was therefore necessary to really work out an entire choreography with Julia throughout the entire shoot.
Perhaps this is because I have a tendency to watch a lot of horror films, but Raw is not as shocking or grotesque as some sensational reports led me to believe.
But, of course not.
Still, the film contains no shortage of intense moments. I’m thinking for instance of a close-up when we see Justine vomiting these long strands of hair that she had been eating in previous scenes. Much like the film as a whole, this looked incredibly realistic and I was wondering how you were able to pull off this scene.
Well [Laughs], for that scene I had 5 strings of silicone or synthetic hair in my mouth, mixed with grenadine or a type of product that gave the hair a reddish hue; also glucose syrup to give it this sticky quality and the look and texture of bile that Justine is vomiting. This hair was very thin and woven crisscross in my mouth, from left to right, forming figure eights to interlace the hairs in between my teeth, ensuring they would stay in place. I really had to pull to get them to unhook. It required quite a bit of preparation.
We only did a single rehearsal for this scene. At first it was absolutely awful because the practical effects guy/prop master had mixed yoghurt with this green stuff, and also milk, and it almost made me vomit simply be looking at it. This was overkill. The first time we actually shot the scene for real, I thought I had gotten the hang of it and had mastered the technique of pulling this hair out of my mouth again but when I retched everything fell out on the floor … [Laughs] disgusting. I really had to workshop the technique to get the scene right and use my mouth correctly.
How did you prepare yourself for the more extreme aspects of your role? Because this is really a scenario that requires a fearless performance. Were there any performances that inspired or informed your creation of Justine?
Well, in terms of the courage that was required to pull off certain parts of this role, it was reassuring for me that I already knew Julia’s previous works and her manner of directing actors. Because of this, I already had blind faith in her and her abilities, which allowed me to go much further, and even an extra mile that I would not have been able to with anyone else. I didn’t really have a role model in mind, or a particular performance in mind that I modelled my acting after. The only actor who really inspired me has nothing to do with this type of film and doesn’t even have the same sex as me. The actor in question is Wagner Moura, who plays Pablo Escobar in Narcos.
I don’t know if it’s immediately apparent why this was the case, but it’s his downward glare. Even in the first episode of Narcos, season one, when he arrives at the police station to have his mugshot taken for the first time, he tries to intimidate those around him with this downward look. There’s a shot of him just standing there, doing nothing, but he steals the scene just with his look. This really inspired me: how to do nothing yet project a crazy intensity. He was my primary inspiration for Raw and I know that sounds weird or surprising when I explain it but it’s just like that.
Not at all, plus you told me you didn’t watch any horror films so …
Exactly, I had no real reference points in genre films that I could pull from.
You already talked about this relationship of mutual trust between yourself and Julia, and just how important this was to allow you to feel comfortable while shooting certain scenes. But how did your professional relationship with her actually begin and evolve throughout the years?
We met during the casting process of Junior (2011), Julia’s first short film and also my first casting. After this successful collaboration we worked together on Mange (2012) and then 2 full years passed during which we became very close off set. We are both very sanguine people, have compatible characters, and there was a real connection between us. We saw each other all the time. Gradually she started talking more and more about this film she was writing, Raw, saying that the part was not for me but that she was writing it with me in mind. In the end there was no casting process for the lead and it became sort of evident I would get the part.
Our relationship has evolved a lot because of this mutual trust and the kindness Julia has always shown me. I know I can trust her even when she takes me into a somewhat grim direction like with Raw, for instance. And at the same time, I know she will never take me places I really don’t want to go. This is where I can really trust her blindly. Even if the terrain is harsh or sort of audacious she will never put me or the film in danger. We have an extremely beneficial relationship where we both advance and neither has to waste any time waiting on the other. We never mince words but always talk freely. I have been so fortunate to meet someone like Julia. We share the same views on acting, we both consider actors to be musicians and dancers at the same time because everything is told through the body.
As you explained, the film explores dangerous and darker areas, but Raw also possesses a rich social commentary and elements that could be termed feminist. Do you agree with this label? Is Raw what you would term a feminist film?
Perhaps I’m a bit clumsy in explaining this but it’s easy to label Raw a feminist film because, these days, it’s still rare to see films with strong female characters, … but we feel obligated to place the feminist label on it. Actually, I think it’s necessary to do the opposite. When you look at men, for instance, Christopher Nolan who is currently making his war movie, Dunkirk, we would never say he’s making a masculine film because he makes a story with strong male characters. But then with Raw, because we are dealing with a film made by women, centered on strong women, all of a sudden we have to label it feminist? This bothers me a little. Yes, Raw is a film with strong women who have powers and make use of them but that, by definition, does not make it feminist; just a film of and by women.
Raw is a coming of age film and a movie that, at least partially, starts a conversation on the nature of hazing rituals and growing up. You are a young actress and Raw marks your first experience with a production of this scope. What was the shoot like for you and what is your number one takeaway from this new experience?
First of all I count my blessings to have been able to start with a film as strong as this one; especially an audacious film. And of course, when you arrive on a film set at the age of seventeen, you learn a million things at once. I had to take a step back, and approached everything lightheartedly, focusing mainly on my work. I wasn’t thinking to myself ‘now that you have your first major role everything is gonna change’. I was focused on what I had to do on set, and that was all. But all things considered I learned a million things. Above all not to have any fears about taking a step back from everything that comes at you. We often think that the more we master the technique we lose our spontaneity, and our precision [‘justesse’], while actually it’s the opposite. When we have technique we are able to play everything and have the nerve to dare everything so we can find this precision [‘justesse’] and gain perspective. I was scared to be eaten alive by this character, by Justine, but I knew I needed the technique and I really learned the craft throughout the shoot. And I’m very happy to have been able to do so.
After having watched Raw, how do you hope audiences will leave the movie theatre?
I like the fact that they’re a bit rattled, or shaken up, that they have seen something powerful … you know when you leave a film and you haven’t entirely left yet? That it takes you a little while to adjust? I love films like that, the ones that linger with you. And at the same time I hope they grasp the message – well, not really the message because everyone sees and interprets the film how he or she wants – but the social aspects of Raw that you mentioned, and this sense of anti-determinism. Not just the horror aspects of the film, watching only for sensational purposes. I want it to go further than that.
Do you already have other project lined up or films that you are considering?
I do have other projects, but actually I’m still in high school, and I’m yet to get my degree, so that’s my priority [Laughs]. I have time. I have no interest in rushing myself or accepting whatever part comes my way just because the opportunity presents itself. I find it absolutely necessary to make solid and suitable choices for my next role to avoid being typecast. I’d rather take my time with both feet planted firmly on the ground and my head on my shoulders.
That sounds very levelheaded. Thank you for a wonderful chat.
Don’t mention it. And thank you!
Anything but undercooked, Raw presents fans of intelligent cinema with a buffet of riches. American viewers can discover the film in select theaters as of this Friday, March 10.