cannes 2021

Titane Director Julia Ducournau Doesn’t See Herself As a Film Festival Provocateur

“Honestly, I think if I were a man, nobody would say that.” Photo: NEON

Julia Ducournau might be close to cornering the cinematic market on the concept of shock and delight. It’s hard to talk too much about the writer-director’s latest film, Titane, without ruining the breathtaking experience of seeing it. The central thrill of watching Titane — which premiered at Cannes this week to laughter, shrieks, and raves — is that it’s utterly fresh from moment to moment, even more so than Ducournau’s first feature, 2017’s faint-inducing cannibal coming-of-age story Raw. As Ducournau put it to me, sitting on a patio smoking in a pair of towering heels a few days after Titane’s premiere, “You think the whole movie is going to be [one way.] And then you wait a little bit, and you go to another layer, and another layer, and another layer.”

Here’s a brief attempt at plot summary that barely scratches the film’s deceptively shiny and chrome surface: Titane kicks off with a horrible car accident, after which a young Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) gets a titanium plate implanted in her skull, then grows up to be an exotic car-show dancer-slash-model whose sexual proclivities tend exclusively toward the vehicular. She’s also a serial killer, who yanks a sharpened knitting-needle-esque implement from her wild blonde hair and plunges it into the brains of anyone who dares cross (and/or kiss) her. After one violent murder too many, Alexia is forced to go on the lam, where, through a very bizarre set of circumstances that I won’t ruin here, she takes temporary refuge with a roided-up, desperately sad, middle-aged firefighter named Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who turns out to need her just as much as she needs him.

What follows is utterly unpredictable, profoundly graphic and horrifying, and, ultimately, life-affirming and beautiful. Titane is a triumphant scream of a movie, a balls-to-the-wall, darkly funny body-horror extravaganza about aching loneliness, found families, and breasts that leak motor oil. It’s also deeply queer, a story about the ways in which gender, sexuality, and love can and should be blurry. It’s the best film I’ve seen at Cannes so far, and I couldn’t wait to talk to Ducournau about how she put it all together.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling too much, but we’ll try! Tell me about how this idea started for you — how long was it after Raw and where were you in your life?
I started thinking about this when I was in post-production with Raw. When you’re so much immersed in a film as I was with Raw for so many years, at some point you start going crazy, and you need to find another story you can cling onto. Because it’s just too much. So I wanted to have new images in my head, new ideas for what’s next. I just had this sort of frustration about Raw — maybe it’s stupid to say frustration, but love is on the side in that film. You have unconditional love between Justine (Garance Marillier) and Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), but the movie is really about Justine’s emancipation. So I wanted to confront myself and tackle the topic of love, because it’s something that, for me, is incredibly hard to talk about. It’s somehow transcendental; it goes through you in such a transformative way that it’s, for me, very belittling to put words on it.

And yet, if you think it’s something you can’t do, you have to do it. Obviously, for me, it can only be about unconditional love and absolute love — I think I’m not someone who can talk about the daily life of a couple. It has to be more transcendental. I do believe that love is a feeling that you have for someone, for who they are, regardless of everything. The “them” is incredibly hard to define: It’s regardless of gender, regardless of their origins, what they do in their life. So I started thinking about the founding texts of our civilization, like Greek mythology, which is always a very strong canvas for me to start building other stories on. They’re so epic. You have all of these monsters and taboos that are constantly conveyed. I thought about the story of the mating of Gaea and Uranus, who are the god of the Earth and the sky, and how they gave birth to the titans. The titans, some are male and some are female, but it’s not really clear, their gender. When you read it, the genders are blurry. I think that’s super interesting.

There are so many pieces to this film that feel disparate at first but then come together so well: There’s the early narrative of Alexia and her sexual attraction to metal and cars; there’s the story of her serial killing; there’s the story of Vincent Lindon’s firefighter and the way they come together. How did you interrelate them?
For me, it was clear — I wanted to create the journey of someone toward her own humanity and toward love. I had to start with someone who felt nothing — nothing of her own humanity, repulsed by humanity itself, incapable of feeling any emotion. So starting from this — with her repulsion for flesh, for what’s life — and going to metal — which feels like a dead material, a cold material — was really reflecting what she is on the inside. She also has metal in her head, of course. The connection was easy for me: When you want to go from something that’s dead, a sullen soul — the way she interacts with metal rather than humans says so much more than any words. You don’t need to psychologize it. You understand it and why she has these feelings for the car.

The firefighter, Vincent Lindon, the main male character — for him, the way he plays in the film is in opposition to her biological father. Her biological father never looks at her. He constantly cancels her presence from the moment she’s a kid. That’s why her impulses and her death drive blurt out of her. She doesn’t have a constructed look at herself from one of the pillars of her birth. Vincent, on the opposite end, the way he looks at her is a look that is incredibly …. he’s like a vampire. He wants to create a fantasy [of her]. But in his craziness, in his madness, he still has what she is looking for: attention toward her. That’s how I built him, in opposition to her father.

What’s your writing and creative process like?
It’s hard to summarize the process into words. I think it’s mundane and boring. But the writing is very solitary. You’re alone for a very long time. I work at home, by myself. I have some consultants who I see every so often when I need them, and then I go back to myself. You’re at home, but you’re totally cut off from the closest person to you because you’re so much in your head. I can never stop thinking about something when I know that I have it. I get immersed into the story. There’s nothing else I can think about. All I do is read things that I know will help me build the story. I don’t watch so many movies — it’s mostly books, and I loved going to museums when we used to have museums. When you’re in front of a painting or a photograph or a sculpture, nobody explains it to you. You look at it and you wait to enter it, alone with your thought process. It’s incredibly stimulating for the imagination. After that, it’s seriously 95 percent pain and 5 percent grace.

What works of art were running through your mind while writing this and making this?
So many things. Nan Goldin’s work, the photographer, is something I very often go back to. The energy of some of her pictures. The way she looks at people and at the absence of people. She has a series … and it’s just an empty bed with sheets and the light coming through the side. It’s really moving. It’s mind-blowing. She photographs her friends as a group, and they’re super lively. It’s really raw. They’re not super beautiful or anything. It looks loud, like they’re having the best time. She’s been living in a house with all of her friends, and they’re marginals, but they look like kings and queens. She has love for what other people might find ugly and disturbing.

With my DP, when we’re talking about contrast, you have to be very precise. It can look very cartoonish, and if you go a bridge too far, you’re done. You’re outside of the character, outside of the situation. So I gave him pictures of paintings that are very good with contrast. I gave him a poster of “The Empire of Life” by René Magritte. I also showed him “Summer Night” by Homer Winslow. You know, in the shot, where [Alexia is] puking in the sea? We’re trying to produce the light of this painting at this moment. The amazing thing about this painting is that everything looks lit by the headlights of a car, but it was in the early 19th century.

Tell me about finding and casting Agathe. Her performance is so intense and she’s so committed, and the movie hinges on her entirely. But it’s her first role. How did you find her and what sort of direction did you give her?
It really was all about the body all the time. She doesn’t have many lines. From the start, I knew I had to find a fresh face. Otherwise the different stages of her transformation would feel fake; if people could project something onto the actress going through it, they’d think about other films. I would have hated that. The transformation for me is really profound, and I want people to relate to it on a very deep level. So I knew I had to cast an unprofessional woman. Or man, because I also [auditioned] men for this part. I looked for people with androgynous looks on Instagram and various other social medias with my casting director. Agathe was on Instagram, I think. We looked for the people you sometimes find in edgy fashion shoots. And then there was the idea that I had to find someone who, even though they’d never acted, I felt a bit of music in them. It says a lot when someone can say a line without bumping anything.

Afterward, it was a full year of work. I had to basically teach her to act. We worked a lot on other scenes, monologues mainly, because it was just the two of us. I wanted to have her separate from the rest [of the cast]. We worked on the famous monologue from Sidney Lumet’s Network. We worked on Donna’s monologue in Twin Peaks, over Laura Palmer’s tombstone. And one from Villanelle on Killing Eve. For me, it was not about the words, it was to convey the right emotion.

To me, this movie felt like a queer found-family story. It’s also got a lot to say about gender and sexuality and fluidity. Did you conceive of it as a queer film?
Yeah, I do believe my vision of the world is queer, for sure. It’s not even an effort to do it, it’s just how I see things. But I know talking about that can’t be done lightly. It had to transpire in my mise-en-scène, with light, with angles. Not just the script. It’s also how you portray and deconstruct gender stereotypes. By deconstructing them, you have to build them first. But not in a realistic way. My car show and my fire station are not realistic. You have women firefighters in real life, as much as you have men. But I needed [all-male] firefighters to contrast the feminine with the masculine. So the way I filmed in this context was by going through all of the preconceived ideas about gender, about firefighters and the girls in the car show. For example, in the first shot, [when Alexia is dancing at] the car show, my setup is that women are treated the same way as cars are treated. Maybe cars are better treated than the women, actually.

It does seem that way.
But they’re all beautiful. I didn’t want something degrading for the dancers. They do what they do well, and they’re beautiful. But the fact that you only have men around them says it all. You don’t even have to have the men doing something creepy. It’s just men holding phones. That’s it, and it’s enough to say something. And then when you get to [Alexia], her choreography on the car, you get out of the male gaze. Because all of a sudden, it’s her desire that takes over the scene. She’s looking at you; you’re not looking at her. She’s looking through the camera, owning the situation, owning the car, owning you. “My body, my gaze.” It’s the progression I wanted for this first shot.

The idea of portraying this super-sexualized world for the character, it creates a trap for the audience. You think the whole movie is going to be like that. And then you wait a little bit, and you go to another layer, and another layer, and another layer. And then you realize femininity is not what it looks like. It’s not what you think. It’s so much blurrier, broader, more flexible. Femininity is actually manly, and the reverse is true as well. For me, the gender thing is absolutely irrelevant. You can’t define anyone by their gender. In general, gender is irrelevant for me as an identity definition.

You’ve been described by some critics as a “provocateur”–
[Ducournau rolls her eyes and takes a drag of her cigarette.]

That critique sort of started with the coverage of Raw and how it made people pass out in the aisles. I’m curious how you feel about that interpretation of your work, that it’s purposefully trying to be shocking for the sake of being shocking.
Honestly, I think if I were a man, nobody would say that. How many men direct horror movies that are so much more graphically shocking than what I do? I mean, seriously. I’m sick of it.

It bothers you.
It bothers me, it does. Because it feels like you do one step forward, three steps backward. It’s kind of demeaning to my work. I think provocation is gratuitous. You can say, “I hate this movie, I don’t like it at all,” but you can’t say it’s gratuitous. Everything is so thought ahead. And gratuity is so boring. I try to stay at the level of my characters. I do not go above their limits. Of course, it’s always tempting, like, “I feel like this is going to work,” rubbing your hands against each other. But the moment I think about that, I erase it from my mind. Because it takes you out of the story. Anything that is not coherent to my character’s journey, I erase it. Provocateur. Huh.

How would you then situate and characterize the role graphic violence and body horror plays in your work? Because to me, it reads as incredibly funny. There’s so much teasing of the audience, so much delight in the way you play these scenes.
Of course, there is comedy. Dark comedy. It’s not a battle plan, exactly. I don’t say, “I’m going to put a little bit of this, a bit of comedy.” It’s more complex. For me, I need these scenes as a writer. I know that when something gets too dark, my reflex is to laugh about it. To take the audience with me and just try to have good, dark fun about it. Not to take it too seriously. I’m like this in life, too.

Although, I really do admit that it’s a very nice way to keep the audience with me as well. Because as an audience member, I don’t like to watch movies where, at the end, I feel sticky. It sticks to my skin. I don’t like to feel icky. I like light. And I think as much as darkness is here, and I need to get it out, darkness isn’t interesting if you don’t have a ray of light jumping out of it.

Yeah, to me, Titane feels like a really life-affirming movie.
Thank you! I fucking agree. I agree with that. For me, this is way more optimistic in the end than Raw was. By far. For me, all of this darkness from the start is built up in order for us to get to the light that unconditional love brings. At the end, there is newness. My movie is just like my character. It sheds skin like a snake. At the end, you have something that is just the essence. What’s left is so much love.

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Titane’s Julia Ducournau Doesn’t Think She’s a Provocateur