Telling Stories through our Morphing Bodies

The ways our bodies morph and change offer significant potential for exciting, creative storytelling

Writer: Daniel Jacobson
Editor: Priyanka Peres
Artist: Lucie Gourmet

In July 2021, French filmmaker Julia Ducournau became the second female director in history to win the prestigious Palme D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. However, Titane, Ducournau’s second feature film, is far from your standard awards season drama. Amidst almost universal critical acclaim, David Ehrlich, writing for IndieWire, described Titane as “the most f***ed up movie ever made…or the sweetest”. Cinemas reported panic attacks and fainting during screenings. Indeed, when I saw Titane, one viewer seemed to be retching, and I completely missed one scene as I would have covered both my eyes and ears.

Titane, like Ducournau’s debut masterpiece Raw, belongs to a genre of film known as ‘body horror’. Pioneered by directors like David Cronenberg and John Carpenter in the 1980’s, body horror films provide their horror, and their storytelling, by depicting human bodies morphing and altering in grotesque, often disturbing, ways. Undeniably this genre is not for everybody, probably including me. However, if we take the idea that successful storytelling comes from showing how characters grow and change, body horror presents alluring possibilities. Driven by talented, emotionally intelligent, young filmmakers like Ducournau, body horror seems to be experiencing a popular resurgence.

The central tenet of body horror is that a character transformation can be demonstrated by a loss of bodily autonomy, control and by painful metamorphosis. Such scenes, that draw on primal biological instincts of fear or disgust, are often used to convey a deeper message in the film. of In the 1983 film Videodrome, director David Cronenberg provides a very early and prescient, if on-the-nose, message about the overwhelming psychological power of new media by presenting a man slowly transforming into a television. Indeed,  common film transformations differ between stories to reflect their various themes: the aggressive, angry, inescapable zombies of 28 Days Later are far removed from the lumbering, aimless masses of Shaun of the Dead.

Intriguingly, the stories told using this technique are often poignant and emotionally affecting, underneath a gory, visceral surface. For example, Ducournau’s debut film, Raw, which tells the story of a young, vegetarian student who develops a taste for flesh, is actually considered an eloquent depiction of the struggles  of fitting in and  progressing into adulthood. In Relic, Natalie Erika James strikes at the heart of what makes dementia so scary by presenting how patients are often transformed into a shell of their former selves. Arguably the greatest transformation in modern literature, that of Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, can be interpreted in any variety of ways, from a loss of independence to a vivid portrayal of burnout.

A particularly interesting area  of body horror’s potential is in telling stories about cancer – possibly the ultimate triggered loss of bodily autonomy. Indeed, Alex Garland’s Annihilation used principles surrounding the driving forces of cancer and how it evolves as a reflection of human drive and self-destruction.Body horror is undeniably not for everyone. However, what Ducournau and others are showing, is that our morphing bodies are storytelling tools, with shocking potential and poignancy.

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