FRONTRUNNER Meets Director Julia Ducournau

One might call her the stereotype killer filmmaker in the industry, but that would be inaccurate as she is doing much more than that. Titane, French director Julia Ducournau’s second feature film following the highly-acclaimed Raw (2016), is an experience that keeps on giving. This year, she won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, only the second woman to do so after Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993. The film, as with all of her work, is endlessly recognized for her so-called “monsters” to lead the story, and for challenging the audience to understand what lies under our skin: acceptance, fluidity, pain, love, gender, and more. Ducournau takes us on quite the journey with one of Titane’s main characters, Alexia played by newcomer Agathe Rousselle. She fucks a car, is on a serial killer spree with a hairpin, has a thing for nipple piercings, and makes us anxiously wonder: do we even have a clue about what goes on in our bodies? The answer is no. We don’t. 

FRONTRUNNER sat down with director Julia Ducournau to open up about the… and once again the human body, to critique Western societies’ perception of everything taboo and how to use cars as a metaphor to debunk stereotypes along with the bursting patriarchy, which shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Agathe Rousselle in Titane (2021)
Dir. Julia Ducournau
Released by Altitude and Film4
Photo credit: Carole Bethuel

Congratulations on Titane and for successfully amalgamating so many important facets of human life in your film. Mortality, birth, instincts, violence, love, pain, and more. How did you develop the story and the characters to explore these crucial parts of human life in less than 2 hours?

It’s a good question. There is no agenda when I am writing. I am not someone who crosses out boxes thinking ‘yeah, now I got this theme and this other theme as well’. It all evolves naturally with the characters and through the time that I spend with them. In the end, it probably derives from things that I think about a lot, but it is not done in a way that is planned. The fact that Alexia takes on a teenager’s fake identity is something that made sense in the character’s journey as she ran away from the cops. She thinks that’s her only escape in that present moment. It also triggers the question about gender and what it means, especially when she knows that she wants to reach this simple setup of two people being able to express unconditional love for each other. She is not aware, but she discovers along the way that gender is something she must get rid of as it is a social construct that prevents my characters from truly loving each other. It is always about the characters and thinking about their journey. Their professional choices were important. Alexia is an erotic dancer at a car show and Vincent’s character played by Vincent Lindon is a fireman. This was intentional because to debunk stereotypes you must show them first and then you can decide what to do with them. You debunk, direct, and then kill these stereotypes. 

I think about it often that if we break our bodies down into the smallest of particles, we are nothing but cells, flesh, and matter. So, I don’t understand when people say they are shocked by both Raw and Titane. It’s the human body and these are the extremes it can go to through instinct, needs, urges, and cravings. Do you think people are often uncomfortable with what is under their shell, their skin?

Yes. I think so. It’s a funny thing. Since my first short film Junior (2011) I have been working with the human body and even before in film school. It has always been about opening up the body and I have noticed that there is something that has to do with the unsaid. The taboo. Your skin is protecting you from getting too deep or revealing too much of yourself and facing your mortality. In our Western civilization that’s definitely a taboo. It’s incredible how the body can be a totem for this fear and these anxieties we share but no one wants to talk about. That’s why I am so passionate about expressing things through the body. It’s not that I am crazy, it’s not a fetish. What can be said through the body is leading up to this dialogue we never have. Whether it is gender, mortality, vulnerability, or inner pain. They are the matters we never talk about. Personally, I hate leaving things unsaid and there are many unspoken issues in the world that will hopefully allow me to make more films in the future. It’s insane how much you can convey with the body with the experience of the body and the pain. For example, when we shoot, I never put makeup on my actors. I don’t do beauty makeup. Not because my films are so realistic, I know, they are not. Someone on screen… I am not a good example as clearly, I’m wearing eyeliner right now, but it is something that is quite moving to show the skin as it is, seeing the pores, the dark veins, the hair, and the sweat. I want to show my characters the same way we see each other at the end of the day when we take off the makeup, we haven’t shaved our legs, or when we find ourselves too fat or too thin. This is something that we never talk about, yet it happens to everybody. No one is satisfied with their body. No one. We pretend by wearing the right clothes, like Spanx and we try so hard to look like something we are not. I think it is interesting to find this in characters because it makes us relate to them. Even though we can’t necessarily stand by them when we talk about morals but through this endearing vulnerability of the body, we can relate to them. That’s where I find beauty.

It’s so thought-provoking when filmmakers play with the notion of gender. Alexia’s androgynous appearance is an introduction and never the pivotal point of the story. As viewers look past and accept it, they hopefully notice the stereotypical importance of cars in the film. Cars are a key symbol and an indication of boiling masculinity. When people think men, they think cars. Alexia destroys this masculinity and it’s intoxicating to watch. It’s funny, because for me when men take care of cars; polish, fix, exhibit, and admire them signifies such feminine behavior. I might be wrong so could you share your thoughts on this? 

From the beginning, it was clear that cars were an extension of masculinity. That’s the only reason why I wanted to film cars. I don’t even have a drivers’ license and I don’t care about cars in life. I am very interested in the inside of the cars as the film demonstrates that in the beginning under the hood and the car itself. I like the idea of trying to film the dead metal and the pipes that are cold and establish a connection between the human bowels and insides. Trying to bring something alive like that is exciting to me. It’s an echo of the ending to the film when the metal on the baby is alive. It’s no longer this dead part that Alexia has in her head that outcasts her from humanity. I have decided to make the car show as a oner, a single shot because I wanted to reverse the take on the action, girls, and dancing. In the begging, I tried to mimic a male gaze by looking at the car and the girls the same way. Basically, objectifying the girls. When we get to Alexia’s dance sequence, I tried to change the shot because she is not dancing next to the car as an accessory anymore. She is dancing with the car. We are already establishing a relationship with that particular car. The fact that she looks through the camera lens makes us passive when she was the one who was supposed to be submissive. She reclaims the narration by becoming active. The audience is not looking at her anymore. The cars are important because of what they represent and how you mentioned the way men treat cars is the extension of their pride. To have her desire and strength overpowers that. This is certainly enhanced in the scene where she fucks the car. Its significance was to believe in seduction between the two characters. Sensual, but again not in a fetish way. I wanted their relationship to be believable that we could even call a work relationship. Alexia’s climax was overtaking the idea that the car would be stronger and more prominent than her in the act.

Titane will be released by Altitude and Film4 across the UK & Ireland on 26 December 2021. Visit http://www.altitudefilment.com for more information.

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