Titane, Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to her notorious 2016 cannibal film Raw, was called “the most shocking film of 2021” by the BBC earlier this year when it played the Cannes film festival (it eventually won the fest’s top prize, the Palme d’Or). The French film jolts via violent outbursts and body horror, but also in the overall unpredictability of its narrative: part of the great fun of watching Titane (named after the French word for “titanium”) is not knowing what turns it will take from scene to scene. The film’s official synopsis used in its marketing blatantly sidesteps summary—“Titane: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility.”
“You not knowing what’s going to happen in the next scene is just putting you through my character’s POV and trying to feel what she feels or to feel what he feels,” Ducournau told Jezebel this week at New York’s Conrad Midtown hotel, while she and her actors were in town for the New York Film Festival. “And that’s not like just some kind of whim or anything. It’s essential for you to feel the emotion and especially the love at the end that I want you to feel.” She said that some time during the drafting of her script, she abandoned a traditional three-act structure and “started seeing my film as like an ascending arrow.” And like any arrow worth shooting, Ducournau intended hers to strike.
It worked. We talked the day after the day after Titane played the NYFF to rapturous response. The reaction to the challenging and frequently hyper-violent movie is heartening to Ducournau, but not exactly surprising. “I have a huge trust in the audience, otherwise I wouldn’t be making movies at all and not these movies in particular,” she said. “But it’s still a big relief and enjoy because it means somehow you’ve been understood in a way that you would not necessarily expect.” Ducournau said that while she is proud of her big Cannes win, and that she recognizes the historical significance of being only the second woman in the festival’s history to win the Palme d’Or (Jane Campion won in 1993 for The Piano), she was insulted when in its wake she received questions insinuating that she won simply because she’s a woman.
The movie, which opens in U.S. theaters Friday, arrives on these shores with a certain reputation. Titane has been described as a story about a woman serial killer who fucks cars, but that barely scratches its metallic surface. Without giving too much away and lessening the film’s impact, its brooding central character Alexia (newcomer Agathe Rousselle) performs a brutal rampage, flees her home, and assumes the identity of a missing boy, whose father, Vincent (veteran French actor Vincent Lindon) is all too willing to accept her as his son. Under the guise of Adrien, Alexia is a non-speaking, bound-up, ticking time bomb.
I wondered how Titane’s writer/director and stars describe the movie to people who haven’t yet seen it. (Okay, I was just looking for a shortcut to drive us through the preceding paragraph.)
“I just tell them it’s a ride,” Rousselle told me. Reflecting later, she added, “This movie shows that even when you’re a psychopath, even when you are in a very bad place, love is still available somewhere, at some point for you.”
“I don’t tell them what it’s about,” said Ducournau. She illustrates her allergy to pithy summary by explaining she’s gone out of her way to avoid pitching her film to investors. “I think it wouldn’t at all pinpoint the experience that I try to build up here. That is an experience of us. So how do you pitch an experience of us?” she said.
“The movie is only about love. It’s only about love,” said Lindon. “It’s two people who are lost. They don’t believe in love anymore. They’re going to build something like a new love, something that they need.” Ducournau wrote the part of Vincent specifically for the 62-year-old Lindon, a star of French cinema who’s been in movies for nearly 40 years. His character indulges in his own form of body modification, injecting himself with what are apparently steroids to maintain a muscular physique. The film left an impression on his body. Lindon told me that he didn’t actually inject anything, but instead lifted heavy weights to give his sexagenarian body a pneumatic aesthetic. He’s maintained his fitness in the time since filming wrapped last year. He said that when he read Ducournau’s script it went “directly to my heart.”
Rousselle said that while filming, she and Lindon would be so immersed in the moment that sometimes she didn’t quite know what they were doing, beyond the basics of blocking and their lines. “You’re so present, you don’t need to verbalize anything,” she said. “Sometimes you just don’t need to explain much.” On top of the situational ambiguity, she approached her character at a remove. “I don’t know her,” she said. “She just lives through her impulses. So, no, I don’t know what’s going on with her. But I think that even if you don’t know your character, you have to love the character. You have to find something inside of the character that will make you want to impersonate them.” When asked to pinpoint how she did that, Rousselle said the process was not so intellectual as to be easily put into words. “If you overthink while acting, it just doesn’t work,” she added. After watching her character’s carnage, it was surreal to take in the chatty Rousselle, looking chic in a ribbed turtleneck and with a padlock-sized key hanging from a tiny hoop in her right ear (like a miniature version of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814-era adornment). She was the diametric opposite of a hulking, taciturn serial murderer.
Rousselle said she was scouted via Instagram (she says she’s done some modeling previously), which led to a “very classic” audition process. To become Adrien, her character shaves her head (and eyebrows) and breaks her own nose. Rousselle consequently spends most of the movie in androgynous drag. In a way, it’s the role the 33-year-old first-timer was born to play. “My whole life I’ve been dealing with being kind of androgynous,” she said. While initially as a child this was “annoying,” she eventually learned to have fun with it. Did Titane count as having fun with androgyny? “I wouldn’t say fun,” she answered. “I would say intense and raging and crazy.” Rousselle told me she broke the tip of her actual nose during a scene in which she moshes with fireman characters at the station during off-hours (Vincent is the captain of a fire squad and immediately puts his perceived son to work). “We did it like 10 times and I’m telling you: dancing to gabber [an ultra-fast style of techno] without drugs is extremely tiring. We were really pushing each other.”
Rousselle is frequently nude in the movie, not only when she’s in the throes of passion in her car lover’s back seat. “I don’t really care about that,” she said of being naked on screen. “Everyone’s seen an ass and boobs before.” Besides, she explained, there was typically a small crew on set during the nude scenes, and when nude during most of the movie, it was by way of prosthetics as Alexia’s body undergoes metamorphosis. In the film’s press notes, Ducournau says that she aimed to make the nude scenes “as non-sexualized as possible,” and attempted to do so via “lighting to reinvent the skin each time.” (Titane’s lighting and overall cinematography, by Ruben Impens, are as stunning as its many twists.)
“I think that somehow I’m really trying to push through and broaden the idea that we have of female bodies for sure,” said Ducournau, who expressed similar intentions when I talked to her for Raw. “But also here, more specifically than in Raw, [the idea that we have] of female violence. I think that it’s still unacceptable nowadays to have a feminine character that is violent and whose violence isn’t justified or psychologized. And I think that it is sexist for everyone to think that when it’s men it’s OK, and for women it’s not. It feels against nature. The idea itself of the social construct that is behind that and that is behind gender in general, to me, is so limiting for my characters, for us as individuals, for us and our interactions in society and for us as a species. That’s something that I really try to debunk in every aspect of my film.
Rousselle said her takeaway from the film matched a punk ethos that she has carried through life: “You can be and you can do whatever you want.” Unconventional as it may seem, this really does seem like the ideal debut for her. “I was never really interested in playing in, you know, like a French movie where you walk in the streets of Paris and it’s like…” she trailed off rolling her eyes.
While talking to Ducournau, I mentioned the theme of bodily autonomy I detected—Alexia and Vincent customize themselves to suit their needs—and the writer/director responded that, to the contrary, one of her goals was to portray the vulnerability of the human body.
“All I’m trying to do really with bodies is to portray them in a very vulnerable way,” she explained. “It’s a common experience that we are all like somehow very humbled by our bodies, constantly. Humbled by mortality, obviously, through our bodies, but also by pain that we feel and also by just being dissatisfied with our own bodies. And I think that’s something that makes us very endearing.” Endearing sure is one way to put it!