There are few filmmakers as fearless and visionary as Julia Ducournau – the French director who made history with her Palme d’Or-winning sophomore feature Titane. An expert on bodies and humanity, Ducournau tells Lillian Crawford about her latest masterpiece and what keeps her motor running.
Julia Ducournau is intense. From her 2011 debut short film Junior to her features Raw and now Titane, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, the experience of watching one of her films can only be described as a kick in the cunt.
But there’s something much deeper to Ducournau’s filmmaking than sexual cannibalism and metal fetishism. Her films are boundary-fucking meditations on human experience, specifically on the fluidity of identity. She has a razor-sharp sensitivity, whether tapping into pubescent sexual anxieties and body confidence in Raw, or the hesitance we might feel to let down our defences in Titane. It’s a mirror designed to discomfort us, because we know she’s right.
I wanted to discuss these deeper reflections with Ducournau, and her openness in conversation was just as powerful as it is on the screen. Life is fucked up and it’s changing all the time, and here is an auteur who isn’t afraid to reflect that back to her audience.
What were your influences for the sexuality and fetishism Alexia explores in the film?
The thing with cars is her saying she rejects the humanity in her, and that she would rather seduce and touch a dead material, such as metal, than flesh. This says a lot for me, without words. I don’t need to say, “She’s a psychopath” or whatever. She rejects humanity, and her humanity. A lot of people talk about how female sexuality develops in Titane, although I thought this was truer for Raw. That film has a lot to do with the birth of sexuality in someone quite young, who is emancipating herself through the discovery of her “monstrosity” through cannibalism and the pleasure of the flesh. I’m not sure it makes sense for Titane.
Titane is much more about feelings than sexuality. Apart from the car show, which is all about mimicking the male gaze and oversexualising women, until Alexia gets into the picture at the end of the shot, I tried to not shoot the bodies in a sexual way. It works for Alexia and it works for Vincent as well. Even when Alexia is with Justine, the only thing she’s interested in is the metal she has in her nipple. She goes to dig it out and that’s what happens with the nipple being completely torn away.
What I love about your films is how you deconstruct socially constructed binaries of identity, both in terms of sexuality and gender. What distinctions did you want to make in Titane?
I think there is a freeing movement towards Alexia’s humanity which implies that at one point she can decide to be whoever she wants to be for whatever reasons she wants. At the beginning, she takes on the identity of a teenager because she’s being chased by the cops and that’s the only exit she can think of at that moment. She takes on that identity thinking she’ll be able to run away from it as soon as she can.
Unfortunately, she finds someone who also wants her to be that person, and they discover each other in lies. It’s his fantasy, and her lying to flee the police. And she gets trapped into that because he looks at her as someone that’s not her and their exchanges can only end in violence. They fight at one point, but it could have been way worse than that.
It’s also about these two people who come to need each other for survival. So in order to survive she decides that actually she would rather be what this man wants her to be than go back to where she was with nothing and have the cops on her ass. She agrees to that at one point and this is when they can start to create this relationship, which is still a lie, but now she is more willing because she decides to go back. For me it’s really about how these people are going to find the love in them, to be able to look at the other one for who they are.
But the question is: who is she at the end? Is she still the Alexia we met at the beginning? No, she’s not. Is she still Adrien? Partly, but not completely. At the end she is the sum of all this and this is when she actually manages to be happy and to feel love for the first time. I say happy, there is not a lot of happiness in my film! But it’s a journey towards who you are no matter what. The rest does not matter. No matter your gender, no matter where you’ve come from, no matter what you’ve been through. When you’ve found a person who accepts you and loves you, the only thing is to become who you are and that’s it.
For me, the way the film questions the notion of gender is that by the end you feel that the notion of gender is only a social construct. It’s completely irrelevant as far as identity is concerned.
What do you hope people who see Titane will take away in terms of those constructs being broken down?
I just hope that they will reflect upon what humanity is. There is one thing that’s sure for me and it’s that nothing is set in stone. I’ve always seen everything as a constant metamorphosis or transformation. That’s how I see life.
For me, the ending of the film is very optimistic. Is the baby less human? It’s just a baby who was just born – is he less human because he has a spine made of metal and a metal plate in his head? Vincent looks at the baby with love, to say he’s going to take the baby with him. I don’t feel that the baby is less human. He may be stronger – I shouldn’t say he or she, I should say “it”. It’s just because in French the word “bébé” is masculine, so I tend to do it in English as well.
I’m trying to push the walls, that’s it. That’s not an agenda. I start a story and at one point the characters lead you as well. And that’s where it took me.
It’s interesting to reflect on the gendering of language, and how in French words themselves are masculine or feminine. In writing this film, did that present linguistic problems for you?
After the scene where Alexia breaks her nose and fully transforms, I wrote “Adrien”. At the beginning I was writing “Alexia”, and changed from that point on without saying anything in the script because I assume people would understand what’s happening. And I used “she” as a pronoun throughout the whole film. I really wanted to convey this idea that she was everything.
I want to talk about cars, and their association with a certain sort of masculinity. What was the process in choosing the vehicles in the film?
It was immediate, because I wanted the symbol of the car, which is for me as well and in commercials everywhere, an extension of masculinity. It has always been presented like this. By the way, I don’t have a driver’s licence, so that’s not like a daily fetish! I don’t really care about cars normally but I wanted to play with that.
Especially with the car I chose for Alexia as her working car and then the car that she has this seduction with. I wanted a car that was really bloated, one that was super in-your-face. Very big and imposing. I tried to make her desire overcome this scene and overcome the car, so that scene is all really about her having pleasure and not about the car, you know, doing it the other way round! It was actually a really simple set up. It was all about the lights, not having too much but just flashes for pleasure and climax. And to linger with her at the end, to see how she overturned a symbol that was quite masculine and toxic.
That definitely comes through in the soundtrack, moving from that climaxing score towards Bach in the final birth scene.
I’m glad you mentioned the instrumental music because I’ve been asked about the songs in the film a lot and this music is very important. What I told my composer, Jim Williams, at the start was that I wanted the film to begin with something very minimalistic with pulses, something almost atonal with a lot of heavy drums. Then the idea was to end with something sacred. Not in a religious way, but with what is sacred about the birth of a new world.
In the car scene, it’s the first time we hear the choir with quite a big climax. But it’s still almost atonal, we’re still at the beginning of the film so it should still remain a bit animalistic and off-putting. My main reference for this was Ligeti’s Requiem. When you take this form of the sacred that is very ancient and animalistic and you reach this classic and tonal Bach piece from the St Matthew Passion, it’s interesting to see how we’ve progressed from a death drive, which is chaotic and messy, to something which is crystal clear, the love that they share at the end.
The physical impact of the film produces a bodily response or empathy in the audience. How do you approach that haptic form of affect your films inspire?
There is no hierarchy in emotional and physical response for me. I don’t consider emotions more noble than body empathy. They are different tools, and it depends on where you are in the story. Body empathy for me is very important at the beginning of the film because at that point it’s impossible to relate to her. She’s too far away, we don’t have any values in common. So knowing that I needed her to be distant at the beginning, and yet knowing that most people would leave the film after five minutes if they could not relate to her, I had to find a way in.
For me that entry point is always the body. The body is a place where everyone can commune. We are all equal in front of our vulnerability, our mortality. The fact that our body image is always shit for everyone. Let’s not pretend that anyone is happy with their body. If you have what is called a “perfect body”, you’re never going to be satisfied by it. So for me, all this is incredibly moving and something I really like to work on.
That goes for the prosthetic make-up, because I don’t do beauty make-up, I only do effects make-up. I try to make the body hairy and sweaty in order to make it real. If you see someone planting a nail in their hand in front of you, and you don’t know the person but you just see “Bam! Splat!”, there is a nail. Your first reaction is gonna be “Aagh!” immediately! Your body reacts immediately because you know it must be painful, even though you don’t know that person at all and you haven’t experienced that yourself in the past.
Alexia makes you feel what she feels, literally. But since it’s the story of someone who gets in touch with her humanity and discovers emotions and love for the first time in her life, I need to make you feel her emotions as well. That comes through Vincent, because he is much more the bearer of emotions than her. It’s through Vincent that we find her moving at the end. Especially knowing that we’ve seen her kill at the beginning of the film, and yet you manage to be with her at this moment. There is no hierarchy. I want to use both.
Lillian Crawford (@lillcrawf) is a writer on all things film, culture and gender. Her musings can be found at Little White Lies, Letterboxd and Varsity.
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