In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
IN CONVERSATION - Julia Ducournau
“My movies are a crossover and I like mixing genres” explains French writer-director Julia Ducournau. “I like mixité in general, in life, in people and in art. I think it's part of our richness and so my movie is a crossover.” Oddly for a film with grisly and gory scenes, the issue that threatened to thwart the production was her affection and interest in mixité. “In France we don't have crossover movies. They are hard to sell because they are hard to label and the main question that was raised about my movie in the funding phase was not the gory scenes, but the mixité. Is it a comedy? Yes. Is it a drama? Yes. Is it a horror? Yes. All I can tell you is that this is the identity of my movie.” In defence of this identity, Ducournau would cite the work of the Nouvelle Vague enfant terrible, Jean-Luc Godard. “Some people were giving me a hard time and there is one thing I always told them. I said: ‘Listen, if PIERROT LE FOU by Jean-Luc Godard is not a fucking crossover movie, then I don't know what that is. It mixes at least five different genres at the same time and it's number one on every favourite, best or French masterpieces list, and it’s a crossover.’”
In conversation with FrightFest, Ducournau discussed the consistency within the process of change from script to final cut, and the unconventional temporality of RAW. She also reflected on the theme of metamorphosis in her work that intersects with her own personal metamorphosis, yet like in art one that is offset by a similar consistency.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I have written since I was a kid, inventing stories or poems that were also small stories. I very much like telling stories and when I was in high school I thought I'd like to do this for a living, but I didn't know how. Being a novelist is very hard and it's difficult to make a living from it. But the other thing is I had an education in movies because my parents are big movie buffs, and for them it was as important to watch the work of famous directors like Hitchcock and Kubrick, as it was to read the famous French writers like Honoré de Balzac. So we had a lot of rituals of watching classic cult movies at home. When I was eighteen I heard about this film school in France called La Femis and it just clicked in my head: Of course film school. I'm going to be a screenwriter. This is how I am going to tackle my passion.
I was twenty when I went to the school, in the screenwriting department. The first year is a common year where everyone gets to direct shorts, which is super-smart because you get a sense of what is it to be on set, and how important a project can be for a director. So I directed my first short and even though I was very bad at it and it was terrible, it felt incredibly logical to me that I should direct everything I have written. If I had given my script to somebody else to direct I would have felt that I had not completed my mission, because there is a continuity between the writing and the directing that go to the bottom of my story. The writing is about what I am going to say, and the directing is about how I am going to say it. So it's another way to tell the story and this is how it all clicked.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Is there a consistent evolution a film undergoes across these three stages of the process?
It is consistent, I don't think it changes drastically. I understand what people mean when they say there is a different version of the film. It's true that when you shoot it, you have to somehow kill the script in your head and see it differently - try to make it something else. If what you have onscreen is exactly what you had in your head when you wrote it, then you've failed! It has to be something more, it actually has to be way more. So that's why people say this and it's of course the same with the editing. However, it doesn't mean that they are a drastically different things. For example, when I write my editor always says that I write scripts that are already edited, very structured and there's no way that you can take a scene out without everything crumbling.
The temporality of this movie is not at all classic, it's not Hollywoodian by going from one character to another. There are no installation shots, it's always scene to scene in a way that is a bit impulsive. Retrospectively you hopefully feel a sense of wholeness, but it's a bit like a heart beat. There is a lot of precision in the writing because the order of the scenes is not random, and every new scene represents a step towards the evolution and the climax of my character. In the editing we have only deleted two scenes and changed the position of another two. But for the rest of it we are working on the rhythm of the scenes, which is incredibly important because it gives an organicity to the movie. This is why I agree with you in theory, but in practice it's a bit different. I mean it's different for everyone of course.
RAW is unapologetically an art-house film that lends it a claustrophobic feel by not following the Hollywood or commercial model of building outward from the idea. Rather you are more inclined to stay close to the idea and leave the why and the how as ambiguous questions. How would you respond to this reading of the film?
Oh that's great because it feels that you really understood what I wanted to do. I just think that movies are not supposed to be easy. I mean it is entertainment, but you have to deviate from it and this is where the entertainment resides for me. But it doesn't mean that it has to be easy. For example, MULHOLLAND DRIVE is incredibly entertaining, but it is certainly not easy. There is a misconception that movies should be easy and they should always be in full possession of the information, which to me is a complete kill joy. I don't like movies that explain themselves throughout and especially through dialogue, which is immediately a turnoff. If I hear a director explaining how you feel or what the story is about, I am out of there. You lost me…I can't do that. I try to create scenes that are going to be visually self sufficient and to be honest, the best thing for me would be to not need dialogue. The way I write dialogue is that it has nothing to do with the movie, but through which the characters reveal themselves. I call this organic dialogue because it is a part of their personalities expressing themselves, and if you don't know them then it's a good way to meet them. The best dialogue of this kind is obviously the opening of Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS, which is about tipping the waitress. It is mind blowing and every single character reveals themselves, but it has nothing to do with the movie. It doesn’t explain to you what they are going to do, and so it's cryptic and clear at the same time.
As exploration on the theme of transformation it connects to the essence of what cinema. The actors are playing characters in a story that you as a storyteller are constructing. Therein the·mode of performance and storytelling almost breaks·down on a metaphysical level, of which your film is an example.
What you are saying is very important for me because I've been working around metamorphosis for a long time now. Even when I was in film school my first impulse was to talk about the metamorphosis of bodies starting with small shorts. I remember there was a girl scratching her forehead out of nervousness because of this family situation. She was scratching herself so bad that a hole in her forehead started to appear, which is of course an incredibly surrealist image. That was my first play with special effects by the way, and it was really bad. But this thing of opening the body to let something new come out it was already there and it is something that I tackle in JUNIOR, my shorts, and in RAW as well. But then I realised that the body metamorphosis also is true for the way that I personally see the world and untied determinism, the ultimate freedom. It was not only about the body, but it was also about the full identity. It was the idea of an identity quest that makes you go from skin to skin in order to reach your essence somehow. So I linked the body metamorphosis to the identity metamorphosis. I then realised that the way I was shooting bodies and this metamorphosis, was actually a metamorphosis because of the way I mixed genres and the way I make movies, they are never what you expect them to be. Somehow they build feelings in you that you did not expect. A lot of people tell me: “I did not expect to laugh” or “I did not expect to cry.” Life is full of emotions and so it’s good if you feel them fully [laughs]. And I like the idea of saying that I make metamorphosis about metamorphosis. It's what I try to do because the idea of having a movie that is just about laughing or crying, or just about bring scared, even though I can watch it, making them would be completely boring.
One of the central themes is of nature versus nurture – the parent relinquishing their offspring to nature in order for them to discover their true self. The film could also be seen to connect to Jungian ideas of the confrontation with our Shadow complex.
I looked at it in a more anthropological way, also psychoanalytical as well and you're right, there is a Jungian part to it. I think for me it is about asking myself where does humanity reside? The relationship to the body is a very good starting point for asking this question because when your body becomes autonomous, and by autonomous I mean if it has a rash, or if it starts craving for things that your mind is warning you that you can't go there, what does it say about you. Are you the same person? Are you outside of humanity? Are you a monster? Where is the ‘you’ in that? It's a very good starting point to see where humanity resides and the small answer I give in this movie, and there will probably be more to come because I will have enough of a lifetime, is Justine is born to humanity in the moment where she experiences her animality in the sex scene. She realises that she can be dangerous to someone else, and she then turns it back onto herself. For me it is at the level of morality that I place her birth to humanity, and nothing else, because she embraces her animality fully to the point where she's scared to lose her. But the moment where she has to turn it against herself makes the whole difference when compared to her sister, who just responds to her primal needs. If she has to eat, she eats and she doesn't question it. But Justine can't do that and for me this is my small answer in the movie. But I hope I will be able to go a bit further in the next ones.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
It's interesting. Yes and no. I'm going to explain myself. With this movie it is like something has blossomed in me that was already there. I feel exactly the same, but a blossomed version of myself. However, I do hope that I am not only that blossomed self. I hope that I have many other mutations to go through with the other films, but it is weird because you can't say that you're a different person. I don't believe that you can say that because if you were a different person, then you would have trouble sticking to your movie that you started writing six years ago, as I did. Six years ago I was probably a different person, but I still stuck to it and so there is a consistency. However, you are probably more aware of your artistic gesture and this is what I discovered with this first feature, because now of course when I see my movie, I only see the flaws. But I am aware of something that I have done that I would probably not have done ten years ago, and that it makes sense, and there is a system here. So making movies is like trying to decipher the mechanisms of your own system, and let's say I have found one key outside of many mechanisms.
RAW is in UK theatres from 7th April 2017.