GORE IN THE STORE
Directed by Julia Ducournau.
Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella.
France/Belgium 2016, 99mins, Certificate 18.
Released on Blu-ray in a limited edition by Second Sight Films from 26th April 2021.
Early on in writer/director Julia Ducournau’s 2016 debut feature, first-year veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) is asked by the school’s doctor: “How do you see yourself?” Justine replies: “Average”. There is however nothing remotely average about this art house coming-of-age cannibal hybrid. Nor, fittingly enough, is there anything average about Second Sight’s stunning limited edition blu-ray release both in terms of disc content and in the gorgeously designed slipcase, booklet and collectors’ art cards that accompany it.
Having been brought up in a strictly vegetarian family, Justine follows in the family’s footsteps by enrolling at the same veterinary school her parents graduated from, and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior. Having barely had a chance to unpack and be introduced to her gay male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), the hazing initiation rituals orchestrated by the senior faculty begin their onslaught. These culminate with Justine having to eat a rabbit kidney after her and her fellow newbies are drenched in animal blood. After being pressured into consuming meat for the first time, Justine suffers an allergic skin reaction before a craving for meat takes hold and she’s pocketing burgers from the canteen and chowing down on raw chicken breast from the fridge. However, Justine’s cravings for meat will transition from animal to human flesh following an unfortunate accident, forcing her to confront family secrets and wrestle with her newly acquired animalistic instincts.
In what sounds like classic grind house exploitation hype, during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, several audience members allegedly fainted during the film’s graphic scenes and required medical attention. (Clearly, they hadn’t been repeating to themselves: ‘It’s only a movie…only a movie…’). Whilst hardened gore hounds would certainly sneer at this over-reaction, the film does contain some genuinely raw (no pun intended) real sequences involving animal dissection and veterinary practice which I can appreciate could be deemed upsetting. Given the film’s subject matter, the actual on-screen cannibalism is however relatively restrained (at least when compared to the notorious Italian gut munching nasties of the 80’s). But its intimacy, coupled with the searingly committed performances of Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf, sell the prosthetics (and light-touch CGI in one scene) and achieve far greater impact as a result. If I am honest, after revisiting the film it made me ravenous (not for human flesh you’ll be pleased to know). I actually feel the most wince-inducing moment involves a close-up botched Brazilian wax job.
The brutalist architecture of the location lends the film visual comparisons with David Cronenberg, as does aspects of the body horrors presented. Overall, it has an art house sensibility which is somewhat jarring with the gore and jet-black humour, (and may account for the Toronto audience’s reaction). The clear early visual nod to De Palma’s CARRIE, whilst audacious, seems to hint at an intention to position the film firmly in the horror genre, but there are multi-faceted aspects at work which straddle genres, and takes them confidently in its stride.
Ultimately, it is an exploration of humanity, or as director Ducournau states in the interview feature on the disc entitled ‘In the Name of Raw’: “I think it’s the story of a girl who becomes a human being”.
Speaking of the discs extras, there’s a rich bounty to get your teeth into which provide plenty of food for thought (and that’s enough of the puns). The extraordinary Garance Marillier is interviewed a fresh, providing her with an opportunity to look back on her experiences and close collaboration with her director. Producer Jean des Forets shares some of the practical considerations in terms of the film’s budget, and its selling challenges. As well as a previous audio commentary with Julia Ducournau and film critic Emma Westwood, there is also a new commentary by film critic Alexandra West to lend a fresh critical perspective. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ new video essay contributes a perfectly succinct, and frankly perfect 12-minute summary of the film’s themes and concepts. There’s tons more content including footage from the Australian premiere, panel discussions, an alternative opening, deleted scenes and trailers.