The lineup for this year’s Cannes Film Festival was filled with unpredictability, but at least one certain outcome: “Titane” would get people talking. By the end of the festival, the arrival of the second feature from 37-year-old French director Julia Ducournau would find her becoming the second female director in history to win the Palme d’Or, after Jane Campion took the prize for “The Piano” way back in 1993. That outcome is all the more exciting in light of the movie in question.
“Titane” follows Ducournau’s 2016 cannibal coming-of-age drama “Raw” with another provocative look at sexuality through the lens of genre. Brace yourself: Newcomer Agathe Rouselle plays Alexia, an erotic dancer with a sexual attraction to cars, one of which gets her pregnant. Oh, she’s also a serial killer, and goes into hiding after her latest killing spree by posing as the long-lost son of a workaholic fireman (Vincent Lindon) with a steroid addiction. The ultimate movie-as-mic-drop experience, “Titane” left viewers speechless, but also gave them much to talk about, as it used its shocking, unpredictable ingredients to launch a complex exploration of gender fluidity unlike any seen before.
A few days before her historic win, Ducournau sat down with IndieWire at the Cannes offices of Unifrance to discuss the themes of the movie, the extensive preparation that went into it, and how she’s evaluating opportunities as her career momentum continues to build.
“Titane” exists on a continuum with your other work. Your short film “Junior” deals with a tomboy who becomes more traditionally feminine; “Raw” is about a girl who becomes a woman; now, “Titane” deals with gender in a more expansive non-binary way. How intentional has this progression been for you?
It’s a good question. I can tell you that I do try to create affiliation between my films. If you look at it from the outside, when you finish one, you move on to the other one. It’s a new phenomenon every time, but I have tried to make it a continuous gesture. It’s like the same film. My characters are just growing up. That’s how I feel. You have some small Easter eggs in my films, from “Junior” to “Raw” to “Titane,” some details in the sets that are the same and some costumes that are the same. I’ll take one picture that I put in another movie, like a fireman, and use it in this one. I’m too sentimental.
More specifically, how did you map out your approach to gender fluidity? It creeps into the premise, since Alexia’s transformation isn’t so clear from the first act.
Weirdly enough, gender fluidity is a topic and it is not a topic for me. It’s one of the main themes of the film, but it’s not a theme that I had a plan for. It’s pretty natural for me to think like that. It’s not a political pamphlet. It’s just the way I see the world. I see the world as it should be — fluid, and more fluid every day, in so many ways. For “Raw,” I was always talking in interviews about how I don’t like to put things in boxes. It’s the same with gender. I think that gender is not really relevant for someone’s identity. I don’t think our gender defines us. However, because that’s not yet something that’s socially understood, it becomes a topic. I’m saying this for everybody: For me, as a woman, I don’t want my gender to define me at all. When people say I’m a woman director — I mean, that’s always a bit annoying, because I’m a person. I’m a director. I make movies because I’m me, not because I’m a woman. I’m me.
So in this respect, Alexia’s character comes from my will to show that femininity is so much more flexible and blurry than what people think it is. That’s why we start with a sequence shot in a car show. I made it seem as though the cars and the girls are essentially the same at the start. They’re equally objectified. Then we get to her and she gets out of the male gaze because she reclaims their desire, and she owns the car with the way she dances. But as much as she gets out of the male gaze of the shots when we get to her, I use the whole setup as a trap, as a lure. It feels like a bit stereotype, the whole thing, and I play with that stereotype. Afterwards, it’s going to be all about constructing it, layer by layer by layer. Actually, she can be pretty violent; actually, her sexuality is pretty fucked up. Oh, actually, she can be a man. You thought she was a woman! All that.
Sound logic. But what about the idea for her to get knocked up by a car?
[laughs] That comes from my will to build my movie around the birth of a new world. I usually have the end in my head and then work from that. I wanted to create a new world that was the equivalent of the birth of the Titans after Uranus and Gaia mated. The sky and the Earth. That’s where it comes from. The idea was to create a new humanity that is strong because it’s monstrous — and not the other way around. Monstrosity, for me, is always positive. It’s about debunking all the normative ways of society and social life. This was the case with “Raw” as well. Her monstrosity had her emancipated. From that, obviously, I thought, “How can this happen?” And that led me to the car.
It’s almost too easy to compare your work to David Cronenberg, and to mention “Crash” in the context of this movie. Just how much is his filmography relevant to you?
Obviously, it is relevant to me because Cronenberg’s work has been foundational for me, the same way Greek mythology was when I was a kid. I was building myself up as a young adult at the age of 16 and growing up. This work became a new foundation for me beyond my parents. It’s still relevant. However, it’s not very interesting to do an homage to him. Expressing yourself in a movie is already incredibly hard. If you have to put other people into that — oh, I’m going to put him into my film and talk about that — you’re toast. But his work is in my DNA, and he’s an influence among others. I could talk about some painters, some photographers as well. It’s not only the work of David Cronenberg.
So name someone else.
Well, Nan Goldin, mainly. She’s someone whose work I very often go back to. Her energy in her work! She’s incredibly frontal and sincere, so raw. She doesn’t make any compromises with her subject or herself when she photographs herself. This is also in my DNA, someone whose work I carry with me everyday. The thing is that there is a difference between being just a fan and admitting that you have influences in your life.
How do you feel about the term “body horror”?
I do feel think this is a real term, but I don’t think I make body horror. I use body horror tools in my films, which I believe are dramas, or love stories. I use these tools because I express myself like this in the way I relate to the body. But it is a completely honorable term.
Agathe Rousselle goes through such a dramatic transformation in this film, and she’s a real discovery. How did you find her?
It was very hard casting. I wanted an unknown person, a fresh face, because I knew if I had a known actress in my film that people would have projected things onto her transformation and it would have felt fake. That’s what I thought. I was afraid it would feel fake. In order for us to relate to her transformation and believe she is actually becoming that person and not somebody just wearing costumes, I needed someone who was a white canvas. And she had to be very androgynous. That’s why, during the casting, I look at both women and men for the part. I needed a face, a new face, and it wasn’t a question of gender. The thing is, when you cast non-professional people, you have to make sure that person at least has “it” — some kind of balance and flexibility in the way they can be directed. So once I chose Agathe, we worked together on the part for a year.
Yeah, I had to teach her! We worked on a lot of scenes from different movies. We worked on scenes from “Network,” “Twin Peaks,” “Killing Eve,” stuff like that. Her character is constantly mute, so in order to act, we had to use other scenes to direct her and get this out of her — to work on the body, the way she was getting into the character.
There is a lot of dancing in this movie — and many different forms of it. At times it seems very choreographed, but elsewhere it’s looser. How did you approach dance as a form of communication?
It’s not a musical, but she’s a dancer, so it had to be choreographed for the car show. I knew that would have to be similar to striptease or pole dancing. We hired a coach for that, a professional pole dancer. Agathe learned all of that. The thing for dancing is that for me, it’s all about bodies having a dialogue. You can see the stakes of the scene just by watching them move. They don’t have to talk. I always try to go as far as I can with the image before I add words. For me, I’m more of an image person. When you talk about love, words can be belittling. They get in the way of the sensation you want to convey to the audience. It’s really just a matter of sensation, to understand how love can be so foundational. That’s why I hope you can see, in the scene later on where the firemen are dancing and she’s separate — if you had added some words on there, it would’ve been a shame, a mess. All you need is to look at them and see that they’re not dancing together. Vincent goes to them and says, “Don’t talk about my son,” and then they’re together for the first time in complete harmony. You don’t need more than that. It’s a dialogue without any real dialogue.
To what extent do you think your films are a reaction to other depictions of sexuality in current cinema?
It’s not a matter of being too conservative, but what’s interesting to me is that most sex scenes are unnecessary in films. That’s the first thing. For me, if a sex scene is not relevant to add a layer to a character’s journey, then don’t write it. Don’t do it. If it’s just to see two people fucking, it’s irrelevant, I don’t like that. Most times, sex scenes are just not necessary. Secondly, most directors are men.
That’s it. [laughs]
“Raw” was a breakout film for you and you obviously must have been approached with new opportunities as a result of that. Instead, you made “Titane,” and that seems to have worked out well for you. How are you evaluating your next phase as a filmmaker?
It’s all based on what I want to do. After “Raw,” it was more interesting to me to make my second feature in France than abroad. You have to understand that here, this genre is still very young, and there is a lot to build here with it. I think that’s very interesting. In the U.S., I think it’s very old tradition. You have so many genre directors. That’s not a problem, but you’ve done it. Here we are the beginning of something, which is very exciting. So that’s why I wanted to do “Titane” in France. I do have the desire to go make something in the U.S. I will do it, for sure. However, I think my main territory will always be France. I’ll go back and forth but I will never stop making French films.
So you’ll get your Marvel movie out of the way and then head home.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m too organic for superhero movies?
Neon will release “Titane” in the United States later this year.