After her film debut, Original, a gory feminist thriller about a vegetarian college student who develops a taste for cannibals, it’s hard to know what fans of French director Julia Ducournau are expecting her to be. what to do next. But no one, so to speak, is safe Titane. Ducournau’s second feature follows Alexia, a strange car-obsessed dancer and sometimes serial killer (played by Agathe Rousselle) who, on the run from the police, breaks her nose and bound to commit suicide into Adrien, a boy who has been missing for years and whose father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), is just too happy to admit her. Oh, and Alexia also had sex with – and was impregnated with – a Cadillac. Hiding her identity from her adoptive father was made more difficult by her swollen belly and engine oil leaking from various body parts (don’t ask).
Titane so brazen, daring and fearless – a perfect blend of physical horror, family plot and radical sex theory – that it’s surprising to learn that Ducournau, after the success of his Original, spent a year paralyzed by anxiety and unable to work. She has an idea for Titane while doing Original — a dream where she imagines giving birth to auto parts was just an initial spark — but it’s been a long journey to bring her radical vision to the screen.
It seems to have paid off. Titane won the Palme d’Or in 2021, making Ducournau the second female winner in Cannes history (28 years after Jane Campion was the first with Piano). Now, France has entered the Oscars 2022 for best international film. In a revealing talk with CHEAP, Ducournau discusses the “great pain” for the writer, why gender fluidity was an inspiration, and how she ultimately drew on the “damn energy” to make the series His radical new movie.
I have read that both your mom and dad are doctors. How has growing up with two doctors impacted the way you see the world?
It had a big impact. When both your mom and dad are doctors and they talk about their jobs at the dinner table every day, you will soon fear or assume the knowledge of your own mortality. And when you’re aware of your mortality, you’re also more aware of your body. Obviously, you can see that in the work I do. But there is another impact, which is the fact that my parents, they have a very humane job. I respect that very much. They taught me a lot about how each individual is unique. Every patient is different. That triggered my discovery of what it means to be human, which is so important in my work. My work has always been about the individual, about a particular case, not about the identity of the group.
Original was received very positively, both critically and commercially. What pressure do you feel trying to pursue that success?
When I’m out Original – and by the time I leave, I don’t mean when I finish the movie, but when I finish traveling around the world to festivals and awards ceremonies – I’m obviously very tired. I have two main fears. The first was my fear of outside expectations that influenced my second film. The second is actually more sinister: I’m afraid I won’t be able to love my second movie as much as I did. Original. I honestly don’t know if I’m carrying it or not. I feel pretty exhausted after the whole circuit. It’s hard for an unreleased film to compete with a finished film. It feels ridiculous, but that’s the comparison I had in mind.
I had writer block for a year. It was painful. Writers block doesn’t look like you’re on vacation for months on end. You never stop thinking about it, you just wake up, you take a shower, get dressed and sit in front of the computer and wait. And you wait. Until it gets dark and nothing comes. It was like that every day for a year. At one point, I started to feel real anger – anger towards myself, anger towards external expectations but also anger towards others. Original because that movie took up too much space in my life. That anger led me to a point where I thought, “I don’t want to. I will do something. I don’t care what people think.” I think energy – that damn energy – is at the core of Titane. Once I got angry, I decided to do exactly what I wanted.
You’ve got a story for Titane?
I had an idea. The idea came to me while I was in production Original. I know how it will end because I usually start with the ending. I know what I want to convey. I just don’t have the energy to do that. But when I decided, “I don’t care anymore, I’ll do it my way,” it freed me from all constraints. Like, the idea of the three-action structure, which I just gave Titane.
What makes the movie so radical is how you defy expectations – not just with the radical story and extreme visuals but with almost every scene. Episodes that start off shocking turn sweet, horror turns to comedy and back again. Gender flexibility is a theme in the film, but it seems like the whole movie runs smoothly.
Trying to deconstruct and ultimately destroy expectations is my understanding of freedom. It is the core of everything, every scene. I like to play with different genres. You start with a scene that feels very comedic, and then it gets weird and dark. Or it goes the other way. Sometimes in the midst of the darkest, bleakest scenes, I want you to laugh. And then I’ll hit you again. I never wanted to make myself or the audience comfortable with their expectations. I think it’s art. Nothing good comes from being set in stone.
How did you prepare your lead actress, Agathe Rousselle, for that? This is her first film and she has no professional training.
A lot of it is technical. I knew the movie had very little dialogue, but to test her potential, I made her work with a lot of dialogue, repeating scenes from the movie. Double top and New Year’s Eve Killing. We also did a lot of research on her physicality. At the time, she didn’t know how to fight, but with Alexia, you have to believe that she can kill anyone she wants. We went to the dojo, and she learned to dance. I’m lucky we had a whole year to prepare. I always told her how difficult it would be – physical demands, nudity, prosthetics – that it would be difficult. I also guarantee that she will feel safe on set. That means a very small troupe for the nude scenes. Anyway, my crew is mostly female, so that’s a plus. But I’ve always been transparent about what I’m going to shoot and how I’m going to shoot it. Only by building that trust can you get someone to give it all, which she did. If your actors don’t feel safe, you can’t get anything out of them.
What amazes me about the second half of the film is how touching it is, as the relationship between Vincent and Alexia/Adrien develops. Was it hard to write those more emotional, dramatic scenes, like when Vincent discovered Alexia naked in the bathroom?
They are not difficult to write at all. The bathroom scene is the reason I made the whole movie – when he walks in, sees her, knows she’s not his child but loves her unconditionally. It’s something I want to touch people with. To make people feel elated. On the surface, it was an extremely simple scene. It is one wide, two medium and one close-up. That’s four pictures. But the question of where do you put the camera and [at] What distance is important. If we get too close, it feels overbearing, like I’m forcing affection. Too far away, and no one can feel anything. As simple as it looks, it’s really not that simple to direct.
Titane won the Palme d’Or. What does that mean for the burden of expectations for your next movie?
I won’t lie to you, I’m exhausted. I don’t know where next year will take me. But, to be honest, it was very difficult to write Titane, it took me so long, I can’t imagine anything that can get past that. I really hit rock bottom with this, and the fact that I got through it gives me complete peace of mind and confidence. Doubts are an important part of the process – I need doubts to create. But I went through the worst. Whatever comes is likely to be painful. But I can handle it.
The edited interview is long and clear.
This story first appeared in a December issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.