The Human Body: Through a director’s camera & a microscope’s lens

What happens when a daughter of two medical doctors decides to be a filmmaker?

She becomes the 2021 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or awardee for the film, “Titane” – the first solo female winner of the festival’s most prestigious award (Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” was the last film to be graced with the award back in 2019). Known for her distinguished cinematic style on graphic body horror, she is no other than: Julia Ducournau.

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It’s commonplace to find filmmakers focusing their lens on stories about humanity. After all, we turn to cinema to taste life twice. But it’s not commonplace to stumble on an auteur who celebrates what it means to be human through a genre that induces fear while showing humanity at its most personal, through the entity that empowers it to be so – the human body.

As someone who prefers to avoid the horror genre and having studied the human body through the lens of a microscope for 5 years, it’s film styles like this that tickles my curiosity to re-learn the human body but through the lens of an auteur like Julia Ducournau (even if it means I have to stomach the one genre I prefer to avoid).

Titane is a body-horror thriller about a young woman who, as a child, is fitted with a titanium plate in her head after surviving a vehicular accident and soon develops a peculiar sexual attraction for cars – at least, this is one way to describe the film.

The only way for intrigued film enthusiasts, like myself, to soon understand Titane and the cause behind its Cannes success while still waiting for its global distribution, is to peer into Ducournau’s filmography – particularly dissecting her 2016 shocking body-horror debut, Raw.

Regarded by the Rolling Stones as “contender for the best horror movie of the decade”, “shocking” is an understatement for Raw as it uses the human body as a provocative living canvas. It follows the story of Justine, a stalwart vegetarian who enters veterinary school and is forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys, her first taste of meat, in a class initiation. This awakens a form of dormant hunger inside her.

The human flesh is like a preview of what goes on in the mind and body – so when Justine takes her first bite of meat, she experiences a rash the day after when her body rejects it. Despite this unpleasant experience and her body’s reaction, Justine finds herself surprisingly craving for the one thing that goes against her philosophy – she scours her dormitory’s refrigerator and indulges her hunger with raw chicken. Yet still (and of course), her body rejects it and she throws up.

Ducournau’s Raw treats the human body as a character and a form of language.

Instead of being told by Justine how she feels as she navigates through her carnivorous evolution, we’re shown through her actions and the way her body physiologically responds. Justine’s body then becomes a participating character in the story; both communicating with its bearer and the audience, as an entity that either holds the protagonist back or lurches her forward. So when eating animal flesh still doesn’t satisfy Justine’s surprising intrinsic craving because of her body’s constant rejection, she turns to the unthinkable option:

Human flesh.

Through this, Raw ultimately serves us with the question: “Are you your body or is your body you?”

The film concludes its full course meal with an answer (which is too precious to spoil) that leaves Justine’s cravings somehow satisfied at last… but through unsettling visuals of body imagery that may leave its viewers feeling repulsed. In Raw’s screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, some viewers even requested medical services because of the film’s faint-inducing nature.

When interviewed by Vulture about Ducournau’s provocateur direction, she says, “I think provocation is gratuitous” and continues, “I try to stay at the level of my characters. I do not go above their limits… It takes you out of the story. Anything that is not coherent to my character’s journey, I erase it. Provocateur. Huh.”

The French auteur’s fascination with the human body as a central force in her films may perhaps be a direct influence from her parents being medical doctors – her father, a dermatologist and her mother, a gynecologist. Being no stranger to the medical field as well, I’ve witnessed the human body through the lens of a microscope. Underneath the mass of nerves and muscle that make up the human body are our genes – a sequence of nucleotides passed down from generations which serve as the basic instruction for an organism’s existence.

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For years, this made me ask myself questions quite similar to Raw’s themes:

Who am I, my identity, but a copy of others’ identities?

How much of our mind and body is our own?

In which art imitates life, Ducournau cleverly takes time to share these very conscious human moments as she invites us to peer into the lens of Justine’s life – where the camera has become the microscope; a tool to explore answers together with the film’s heroine. There is truth in Ducournau’s determined lens to capture the image of the human body – as harrowing as it may be, it’s used thoughtfully. Raw, underneath all its gore and unsettling visuals, is a coming-of-age story about the horror show that is adolescence, and asserting one’s true identity.

As someone who prefers to avoid the genre that induces fear, it was initially terrifying to sink my teeth into Raw… until I found myself craving to come back for my 2nd, 3rd and 4th bite. Only Julia Ducournau, the first solo female Palme d’Or awardee, was able to awaken that dormant hunger inside me I never knew existed.

Perhaps, this is also where life imitates art.

After all, we turn to cinema to taste life twice.

About the Author

Leeloo Tion is a writer and medical technologist from Misamis Oriental.

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