Before Titane and before Raw, master of body horror Julia Ducournau introduced her vision to the world with the metamorphic short film Junior. 10 years on, its Kafka-esque vision of the female body still remains central to the filmmaker’s work – Eleanor Brady explores the fantastical externalisation of the worst years of our lives.
“Thank you to the Jury for letting the monsters in.” These were the words of Julia Ducournau as she made history as the second female director to be awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or prize in Cannes for her daring and provocative Titane. The idea of what it means to be a ‘monster’ is central to Ducournau’s work, with her feature debut Grave (Raw) offering a gory depiction of cannibalistic desire and Titane set in a sleazy netherworld of murder, illicit sexual activities and graphic body modification. Ducournau has become synonymous with the 21st century style of horror filmmaking known as New French Extremism, a term coined by James Quandt as a form cinematic extremity that uses intimate subject matters to break taboos. Yet, Ducournau’s films achieve far more than mere provocation. She has crafted her own unique cinematic universe, exploring the essence of femininity through society’s treatment of the female body, the foundations of which were built in her directorial debut, the 21-minute short film Junior released 10 years ago.
“Mom I think I’m sick,” 13-year-old Justine aka ‘Junior’ bemoans as she clutches her stomach and turns increasingly pale. While the doctor dismisses her symptoms as a “classic case of stomach flu”, it soon becomes clear Justine is actually undergoing a complete physical transformation. The film begins with Justine getting ready for school, where Justine is experiencing a temporal dissonance between herself and her own body. She also feels disassociated from her female counterparts, preferring to go by ‘Junior’ instead of Justine. She attempts to participate in gendered banter in order to be considered one of the boys, burping in class for laughs, play fighting and labelling other girls as sluts, mimicking her male peers. Yet these forced attempts highlight how Justine is not accepted either by the girls or boys, who say: “I respect women not bitches... and then there’s Junior.” She is invisible, with no makeup, short skirts or heels that change the outside perception of the other teenage girls – in particular her popular older sister – from accepted to desired. Justine’s ambivalence and failure to conform make her physical transformation all the more grotesque.
The grotesque became synonymous with contemporary horror cinema in the 1990s, as an extension to Theatre of the Grotesque. According to philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1984 work Rabelais and his World, “Exaggeration, hyperbolism and excessiveness are generally considered fundamental attributes of the grotesque style.” The grotesque body “transgresses its own confines” and “in the act of becoming…it builds and creates another body.” Bakhtin’s physicalization of the grotesque takes it from the domain of the fantastical and gives it a sense of realism. Seeking to understand the connection between gender and the grotesque, Mary Russo in 1995’s The Female Grotesque describes the grotesque as that which “deviates from, undermines, or rejects normative constructions” of behaviour and bodies, especially those pertaining to gender difference. The female body becomes grotesque as soon as it begins to deviate from societal norms, instead becoming a source of disruption to everyday life.
This disruption begins when Justine starts to feel unwell at school, as her behaviour grows increasingly erratic. Something more sinister is at play, as that night Justine’s mother finds her leaning over the toilet, as her joints begin to crack. “Something is wrong,” she says. Justine’s symptoms reach fever pitch, as she begins to drip with sweat and exudes mucus as her skin begins to crack and peel off in chunks, her former self shedding off onto her bedroom floor. “Am I a strange girl? I think I’m strange”, Justine asks her mother. Ducournau employs the physically grotesque to make Justine’s transformation appear both abnormal and disruptive, rather than relying on the familiar biological process of puberty.
Feminist film theorist Barbara Creed argued in 1986’s Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection that horror is created in the breaching and shift of boundaries from normal to abnormal, locating the experience of horror in what she calls “the monstrous feminine”,emphasising the importance of gender in the construction of a female character’s monstrosity. Creed builds upon Julia Kristeva’s ground-breaking 1982 theory of “the abject”, defined in her essay Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection as one’s “reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other”. She argues that experiencing the abject and understanding the distinction between the subject and the object is a crucial part of identity development.
Justine’s fantastical transformation exemplifies the abject, in the uncertainty and danger she feels in her developing body. Ducournau’s close framing highlights this, as Justine peels skin off her back in the shower, her bedroom floor and body exuding sticky mucus. The graphic detail is both disturbing and uncomfortable, Justine’s body experiencing a similar phenomenon to the biological process of metamorphosis experienced by insects and amphibians. When Justine arrives at school the next morning her teacher exclaims that “a new life begins.” Like a larva to a butterfly, Justine has metamorphosed from a girl to a young woman.
Junior does not merely explore physical change, but changes in societal attitudes too, where the grappling of corporeal change results in social estrangement and pressure. Post-transformation, Justine is aware that boys begin to treat her differently as her own body is now not unlike her sister’s. Justine realises that she is not the only one with peeling skin, as she observes girls comparing their bodies in the bathroom, it becomes apparent that Justine is not alone or unique in her transformation. Justine’s transformation, which is not dissimilar to the exaggerated movements and physicality of Frank Kafka’s work, also provides commentary on social circumstances. When Justine and her sister finally take a stand against their male classmates, she says, “Don’t call me Justine” and goes back to play fighting with her best friend Karim, who treats her the same despite her changed body.
While Justine’s transformation in Junior is more literal than the characters in Ducournau’s later work, the themes of grotesqueness and female transformation remain central. Five years later, her feature debut Raw continues the story of Justine’s bodily transformation, as Garance Marillier returns to the role of Justine to delve deeper into the ideas of Junior, but with a darker, more disturbing twist. Yet Raw takes the grotesque a step further, using the monstrous to explore innate female desire. Fast forward another five years and Titane further redefines the boundaries of femininity, solidifying Julia Ducournau’s position as one of the most innovative filmmakers working today.
Eleanor Brady works in politics and campaigning and lives in London. She often writes in her spare time and her words on film can also be found on Screen Queens. She enjoys genre-bending cinema, vintage clothes and really bad horror movies.
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