Julia Ducournau and Body Horror
It’s the fairytale ending that all horror filmmakers desire when they sit down to work: a screening that erupts in nauseous chaos. It’s a badge of honor that few earn, but most covet, especially those who deal in body horror. Reports of people running out of the auditorium in a fit of vomitus discontent or fainting in the aisles only help to elevate a new film to a sought-out challenge. Suddenly, thrill-seekers have to know: Is it really that bad?
French auteur Julia Ducournau has not spoken whether this was her intention when she crafted her feature debut, 2016’s Raw, a tale of a young vegetarian’s descent into cannibalism. However, when the film hit Toronto International Film Festival and ended in patrons needing emergency medical attention, she is quoted as simply saying that she was “shocked” at the turn of events. She might be the only person who couldn’t have seen it coming, but in spite of the gruesome nature of the film, it was still widely praised by critics and audiences.
In 2021, she brought her sophomore feature Titane to the Cannes Film Festival. This time, there were no reported faintings. The film won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s most prestigious award that almost guarantees its recipient will reach legendary status and be known in cinema history as one of the greats. This is a pretty giant flex and indication of Ducournau’s unbelievable talent, considering Titane’s plot, which focuses on a female serial killer who has sex with her car and goes on the lam with some pretty nightmarish consequences.
Ducournau has come out swinging in the New French Extremity, a category beloved by adventurous cinephiles who like their movies dark. With counterparts like Gaspar Noé and Pascal Laugier, Ducournau has tough competition, yet her first 2 films have put her steadily ahead of the pack. Although brutal, there’s something less nihilistic about her films, and distinctly feminine in a way that is refreshingly, disgustingly honest.
In spite of the stomach-churning content, both Raw and Titane are quite touching.
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Coming Of Age, With A Twist
In her first short film Junior, Ducournau laid the groundwork for the themes she would explore in the future. It stars a young Garance Marillier as Justine aka “Junior,” a pre-teen tomboy who contracts a stomach virus and then undergoes a slimy, skin-shifting change. Themes of puberty are no stranger to the genre of body horror, but there’s something in this twenty-minute gross-out that feels more empathetic to the process.
Junior is happy with who she is, but when she undergoes her metamorphosis, she isn’t horrified. She doesn’t hurt anyone. She simply undergoes a disgusting change and becomes more womanly. The tonal shift from Junior sticking her fingers into the ripping skin of her own back (in relentless, grueling close-up) to the short’s sweet conclusion is seamless, almost dream-like.
Five years later, in Raw, Ducournau took the coming-of-age story and expanded the darkness, somehow still creating something poignant and soft underneath a grisly exterior. Justine (Garance Marillier again), a meek and obedient rule-follower, struggles to maintain her sense of morality against her new insatiable urges after being forced to eat rabbit kidney as part of her vet school’s hazing ritual. Every time we see Justine give in and consume, they handle it in a way that clearly shows she is losing her sense of self in animalism.
She experiences hunger as she never has and shames herself for eating meat; it’s difficult not to draw comparisons to the appetite oppression that young girls are all too encouraged to adopt. When she loses her virginity, she continually tries to bite her lover’s neck before eventually biting deeply into her own arm, which can be read as Justine experiencing sexual frustration as a result of inexperience and self-oppression. Ducournau used a central theme, compulsive cannibalism, as a metaphor for difficult events in a girl’s coming-of-age: an unhealthy relationship with food, burgeoning sexuality, generational trauma, and sibling rivalry. After all of this intensity, the ending manages to wrap you in a big, darkly comic hug.
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Human Connection And Ripped Flesh
The plot of Titane sounds like a fever dream of disjointed ideas. Alexia (Agatha Rouselle) has a titanium plate in her head from a car accident, which has seemingly left her with kinship and sexual attraction to cars. She’s also a ruthless serial killer, using her sharp hairpin to stab anyone who attempts to be close to her, with the exception of her emotionally cold and distant father.
After she accidentally lets a victim get away, she goes on the run and changes her appearance and gender to match that of a missing boy named Adrien. This is further complicated by the fact that she not only must bind her breasts, but her rapidly growing pregnant belly – the work of a sexual encounter she had with a Cadillac.
When Adrien’s aging firefighter father Vincent unconditionally accepts the person he sees in front of him as his son, Alexia experiences love in a way that she is not used to. She transforms into Adrien and starts living with Vincent, and the more she receives and gives unconditional love, she begins secreting motor oil from her breasts and vagina.
All of the things that helped her as a murderer – her cold, steel-like exterior and her seemingly mechanical thought process – she is losing. Her driving force is oozing out of her orifices and as her body further rejects the pregnancy, her skin starts splitting to reveal a titanium belly underneath. Once she knows love from a human, she can no longer survive as a machine.
Julia Ducournau navigates the margins between horror, drama, and black comedy and stitches them all together in a way that dares you to laugh or feel warm inside, against the grotesque imagery playing out in front of you. The aggression of both Raw and Titane feels feminine; the characters are women, and these are stories about the feminine, human experience. It can be brutal, shocking, and at times a little hard to stomach, but in the end, it’s got a lot of heart.
It might be the first time women are able to experience emotional catharsis through a cannibal or gender-fluid serial killer. These are deeply flawed women with souls and the films are not judgmental, just understanding. It’s unconditional love for the viewer, and it feels like the future of the genre.
What Is Your Favorite Julia Ducournau Film?
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