To call Julia Ducournau’s cannibal coming-of-age story “sexy” would be wildly misleading, but there is at least one scene that deserves the label - initially, anyway. You know the one I mean. During hazing rituals at a veterinarian college, Justine, a sexual neophyte, wanders into a dorm room wearing only her underwear. She’s instantly covered with gallon of blue paint, but no one laughs at her expense. Instead, someone calmly picks out another student covered in yellow paint and sends both them into the bathroom. “Don’t come out until you’re both completely green,” the hazing leader says.
If nothing else, the painter in you must have seen the set-up as a literal wet dream come true. So simple and so carnal. Until, of course, Justine starts living out the fantasy with a little too much enthusiasm and bites off her partner’s lip.
The scene can be looked at like any good painting, and deconstructed to find wider meaning. It’s a simple distillation of Ducournau’s vision and talent as a filmmaker. For one, the concept is hot, but the execution quickly oscillates over to distant and cold. The moment is also a perfect evolution of Justine’s character, who came to college as a vegetarian/virgin and is suddenly acquiring an inexplicable taste for meat. The metaphor, however, isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. Ducournau packs so much meaning and emotion using what seem to be only base elements, but the result feels fresh, alive, and, well, raw.
The actual canvases Ducournau and her cinematographer Ruben Impens use, ie the framing choices of each shot, often favour wides and Westerns that allow plenty of other elements to enter the frame. The opening, for example, is shot at such a distance that we have to make assumptions about what’s happening - only receiving the true details near the end of the film. But withholding what we can see creates an even more satisfying finale when it’s all revealed. Justine’s sexual awakening follows the same path. She goes from wearing a dress overtop her clothes out of protest and modesty, to seducing herself in the mirror by dancing to a filthy rap song and making out with her own reflection. Later, she’ll passionately sinking her teeth into a few boys she also thinks look good.
In the hands of a male director, it’s all but certain many of these scenes would have lost their shading. Ducournau instead opts for the drabbest hellscape of a college you can imagine, then allows the debauched underground parties to explode with strobing danger and nudity. French nudity, of course, in that same liberal and matter-of-fact way that the some of the Old Masters would depict it.
Many of the dots painted early on are satisfyingly connected, and the resulting picture leaves a heavy impression. In the ever-growing gallery of female directors, Ducournau is one to watch out for.