Since her stunning breakout feature Grave (Raw), French writer-director Julia Ducournau has impressed with her ability to marry an unflinching fascination for bodies and graphic genre thrills with complex meditations on identity, acceptance and sexuality.
Having shaken the Cannes Film Festival to its core this year with her blisteringly graphic and surreal thriller Titane – which made her only the second female director to win Cannes’ Palme d’Or – Ducournau found the time to speak to David Mouriquand about her cinematic gut-punch, one of the most talked about films of the year.
Have you recovered from the Palme d’Or victory and Spike Lee’s now-infamous slip-up (Cannes Jury President Spike Lee accidentally announced the title of the Palme d’Or winner at the beginning of the awards ceremony)?
(Laughs) I’m not sure! I think that in order to get over it, you have to process it first, and I think I still haven’t! I can’t get over it, and even when I do process it, I doubt I’ll get over it! The emotion I felt on that stage when I got the award was like nothing I had felt on this level before.
It was a bold choice on the jury’s behalf to award the top prize to a film that’s so daring, on every conceivable level. Where did the bold premise for Titane come from?
Well, there’s never a snap moment – “Oh, Eureka! I’ve got an idea!” – it doesn’t work like that. Or maybe my brain is too slow for that! It all came to me over several months, during the post-production on my previous film, Raw. I tend to always think about the next film when I’m in post, because that means it’s already been several years you’ve spent with the same film and you’re aching for a bit of fresh air.
The process of thought and images that came to me stemmed from this recurring and terrifyingly vivid nightmare that I had for years that I was me giving birth to car engine pieces. Every time I would wake up from this nightmare, I was very disturbed. I couldn’t really put words to it or explain why it disturbed me so much, but at the same time I thought that it was a very interesting image, one I had to do something with.
So, a film born of a nightmare?
Yes, but before even the nightmares, my first impulse was that I wanted to talk about love. This is something that’s totally inherited by Raw, because that film was not a love story but there were elements of it, side-tracked to the main story of emancipation. I asked myself why I was unable to have love as a main topic for a film and I realised that it was very hard for me to talk about love. I didn’t feel like I was able to, and that if I did, I would belittle it somehow. So, I decided to take this as a challenge: with Titane, I wanted to talk about love the way I know how, which is only unconditional and absolute love. Love beyond sexuality, beyond gender, beyond what the characters represent for one another.
There are some obvious comparisons to be made between Titane and various body horror films, and an easy parallel to draw with Cronenberg’s Crash. Beyond these, what were your influences?
I don’t know about my influences, but there’s a lot of Greek mythology in there. I regularly go back to these epic stories, and thought about the mating of Gaea (Goddess of the Earth) and Uranus (God of the Sky), the birth of titans and their blurred genders. All of this, coupled with my nightmare and the idea of unconditional love gave me the end scene. I came up with end scene first, actually. Afterwards, I developed on the other side, trying to get as far away from it as possible for the beginning. That’s why the start of the film is something very baroque – a lot happens, it’s very violent, and there’s no love at all. It was about creating that journey that would lead towards a very simple set-up at the end, which consists of a room, a bed and two people, who are going to give birth to a new world somehow.
I wanted to talk about love the way I know how, which is only unconditional and absolute love. Love beyond sexuality, beyond gender…
The lead character, Alexia, feels like she’s on a journey towards finding her humanity, but at no point do you psychoanalyse or even offer a pathology for her. Were you nervous that audiences may choose not to go on this journey with her because she could be seen as antipathetic?
I knew that was going to happen and that it was going to be a huge challenge – it’s pretty hard to relate to her, at least in the first 30 minutes of the film. That was the gambit – if I didn’t show her like that at the beginning, then my ending has no meaning. Then there’s no progression and no transformation. What I want is to see the birth of emotion and humanity in her. I knew that with the mise-en-scene and her body experience – and God knows she’s going through a lot with her body – that was my entry point. It’s not about judging her or not judging her or not relating to her – I wanted people to feel what she feels, to create a link between her and the audience so that we don’t let go of her.
Your films deal with physical transformation and bodies, and nowhere is this better seen than with this very visceral link you create with Alexia.
Working with bodies is something that I really dig into very much. It’s something that’s another way of accepting a character. I knew that there was the possibility that audiences may not connect with Alexia, but I had my strategy for this not to happen. With main characters, we tend to think that we have to relate to them, that we have to understand them. Both understanding and relating is cerebral, but you can also live things with people in a very organic way that calls from your own experiences of pain and uneasiness, and this is another way of connecting with a character.
This is Agathe Rouselle’s first time on screen – how did you prepare her to play such a challenging and physically-demanding role?
It was a huge bet to get a non-professional doing a part that is mostly silent. I did a huge casting of non-professional actors and actresses, because I wanted to cast both genders and needed an androgynous look for the character. When I chose Agathe, I thought that she had the perfect look. But she couldn’t act, really… It was her first time in anything, so I knew we were going to have a lot of work to do. I took me almost one year with her to rehearse – not the lines of the script because she doesn’t have many, so I made her learn a lot of monologues from famous movies or from series. Like Sidney Lumet’s “I’m mad as hell” monologue from Network, a lot of monologues from Twin Peaks and Killing Eve. Villanelle in Killing Eve is a very interesting character with a variety of let’s not say emotions, because she doesn’t feel any emotion, but of being. We worked on all this in order for me to see what she was able to give, and so she knew how to react.
The second part of the work was on her body – not just the fact that she had to learn striptease and pole dancing, but also working your body. How to stand in different ways depending on whose identity she’s adopting, and how to fight in a ruthless way. We had to rehearse every single fight at the dojo, where she learned boxing, in order to be credible as a character who is fearless.
Her physicality must have been primordial to get right, as the film touches upon identity and fluid sexuality through several dance sequences…
Dance was very much at the centre of the project. For me, it was always obvious from the start that my movie was going to be one of few words, as the two central characters have completely turned inside themselves, and inside them is this big dark pit of nothingness. It’s hard to put words on that and their bond, which is about so many layers being progressively taken down one after the other. So, dance is a good way of making bodies dialogue. The dancing shows where they stand with regards to each other, how they evolve during the movie and how their relationship has changed. You don’t need words or a full brief to make it clear to the audience that these two are animals sniffing each other out. Dancing is a dialogue with the audience.
It’s still not acceptable today as a woman to have a very violent film with a very violent lead female character.
When Raw premiered in Cannes in 2016, there were talks of audience members fainting, and now with Titane, a lot of the discussion surrounding the film tends to be around how “shocking” it is. Does this bother you?
It does bother me, to be honest. Because as a filmmaker, your main goal is to break the fourth wall by any means possible – you want your audience inside your film and your film inside your audience. Nowadays you have a fifth wall, which is social media. People read everything that gets said before they see it, including random things by people who aren’t critics. This is a fifth wall that needs to come down, and this is a big one. Seriously, I’m way more concerned about this one, because it creates really unnecessary expectations that are completely flawed, and no one can make their own opinion on things anymore.
There is no real way to have a direct experience in a cinema anymore – that is incredibly shocking to me, and I think it’s a real shame. Everyone loses here. And you also have a sixth wall, which is all the marketing “set-ups”. Because they are set-ups. I was in Cannes when Raw premiered and I didn’t see anyone faint or throw up, like many said. It didn’t happen. This sort of new marketing tactic is something you now have to fight against as a filmmaker. I’m not used to it, but it’s very disconcerting.
Do you think there’s the possibility of a sexist double standard too?
To be honest, it might have something to do with the fact that it’s still not acceptable today as a woman to have a very violent film with a very violent lead female character. I do believe that it is more uncomfortable for people when a woman shows violence or expresses violence in any way. That’s still the case, even if the film might be less violent than others being made by men. I hope this is going to change, and I have more hope for this changing than the fifth and sixth walls! (Laughs)
It’s strange, because as violent as the film is, not many people are talking about the hope there is at the end, and how it’s a lot more optimistic than Raw…
I know! So much more! (Laughs) Thank you, because that was exactly my point – Titane is not only about the discovery of unconditional love, but also the birth of a new world, a world that is stronger. The end of the film is about accepting monstrosity and being ready to love it, no matter what. I think it’s incredibly optimistic!