Her movie makes people faint but Julia Ducournau says ‘monstrosity is always positive’

By Stephanie Bunbury

A car showroom model (Agathe Rousselle) takes sex in a new direction in Julia Ducournau’s Titane.Credit:Madman

Alexia, the driving force in French director Julia Ducournau’s film Titane, was probably born angry, but having a titanium plate inserted into her head as a child has left her even angrier. As an adult, she kills everyone who annoys her, meaning practically anyone who crosses her path. Any warmth she harbours is reserved for machines, although perhaps warmth is the wrong word for a passion that is less animal than mineral. She goes full throttle for a hotted-up engine, for sure – and those engines, fuelled by lust, rev in fevered reply. Alexia is a monster.

Ducournau won’t disagree with that. “Monstrosity, for me, is always positive,” she says in rapid English, her words tripping over each other. “It’s about debunking all the normative ways of society and social life.” Monsters don’t play by anyone’s rules. And monsters, however horrible, are always their authentic selves – even if those selves are constantly changing under the seismic pressure of Ducournau’s crazy narratives.

Adele Guigue as young Alexia in Titane.Credit:Kazak

When we first see the adult Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), she is a dancer at a car show, where pin-up girls writhe to deafening hard rock on the bonnets of heavily pimped machines. “I was very interested in tuned cars for this,” says Ducournau, who doesn’t have a driver’s licence herself. “I tried to adopt a pseudo male gaze, which is objectifying cars and women at the same level. Although I do think cars are actually a bit higher in the hierarchy.” Alexia is nevertheless a hot attraction among all that chrome despite – or perhaps partly because of – the lumpy roll of scar tissue over her ear. She signs autographs for her jostling fans. She also kills one.

‘I tried to adopt a pseudo male gaze, objectifying cars and women at the same level… cars are actually a bit higher in the hierarchy.’

For much of the rest of the film, she is on the run from the police disguised as a young man, passing herself off as the missing son of ageing fire chief Vincent (Vincent Lindon, on blistering form), who is so desperately hungry for love he persuades himself that this weird creature is his long-lost boy Adrien. And in a way, after several attempts to escape the intrusion of being loved, Alexia becomes Adrien. “Obviously,” Ducournau says, “the whole point in my film is to transcend gender.”

Alexia’s body, however, is fighting its own, decidedly gendered battle. When Vincent finally realises his son is not only a woman, but a very peculiarly pregnant one – when her waters break, she leaks sump oil – the two of them become another sort of dyad that is beyond parenthood, incest or even romance. What Ducournau wanted to do at the outset, she says, was to talk about unconditional love. “Love beyond sexuality, beyond gender, beyond what the characters represent for one another.”

Love reached, moreover, by way of bloodshed, crunching bones, the grotesque and the visceral. Julia Ducournau is the daughter of two French doctors; she attributes her unflinching interest in abused flesh to the matter-of-fact way they talked about bodies. True or not, Titane is certainly gruesome. When it was shown at the recent Sydney Film Festival, 13 patrons fainted. Even at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, home to the most battle-hardened audience in the world, there were a few retching walk-outs. And when the film ultimately won the Palme d’Or, the overall response was shock – some awed, some appalled – that a film so utterly outrageous, original and flagrantly rooted in genre should take out the top prize.

French film director Julia Ducournau is overwhelmed when she wins the Palme d’Or for Titane at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.Credit:Stephame Cardinale/Corbis/Getty

The jury’s scandalous choice overshadowed the fact that Ducournau was only the second woman, after Jane Campion with The Piano in 1993, ever to win. Quite right, too. “When people say I’m a woman director – I mean, that’s always a bit annoying,” she told Indiewire. “I’m a director. I make movies because I’m me, not because I’m a woman. I’m me.” Indeed, it is hard to think of a film more distinctly autographed. Jury president Spike Lee said afterwards that he just couldn’t resist a film about a woman who had sex with a car.

Critics described Titane as body horror, comparing it to David Cronenberg’s Crash, but Ducournau doesn’t see herself as a genre film-maker. She says she is making dramas – in this instance, a love story – using body horror tools. Inspiration came from many dark corners: a recurring nightmare of Ducournau’s that she was giving birth to pieces of engine; her resistance to the idea that violence is gendered; and her love of Greek mythology. When she thought about Alexia and her coitus with cars, she was also thinking of the union Gaia, goddess of the Earth, with Uranus, god of the sky, which resulted in the birth of the hybrid Titans “and their blurred genders”.

Agathe Rouselle as adult Alexia: “I wanted to create a character outside this designated female victim idea,” says director Ducournau.

She often returns to the Greek epics. Among literary spaces, she says, it is only here that female creatures are allowed to be violent by nature. In modern fictions, she argues, the bad guy has entertainment value, but women’s violence is morally unacceptable, so it has to be explained by some prior event. “And, ultimately, trying to find an excuse for this to exist is also a way to deny it, to say ‘don’t worry, before this, she was a victim; she was that victim you want her to be’.

“I wanted to create a character outside this designated victim idea. When you make movies, you also create figures – and these are the kinds of figures I want to go against.” Only women calculate how to avoid potential danger the minute they leave home. If we are assaulted, we freeze – the result, says Ducournau, of being told all our lives we don’t stand a chance. “It is impossible to live like this. It enrages me – and this anger I put into Alexia.”

Ducournau (centre) at the Cannes Film Festival with the stars of her movie Titane Vincent Lindon and Agathe Rousselle.Credit:Lionel Hahn/Getty

Alexia’s origins are more various than this suggests. Each of Ducournau’s films emerges over the course of the previous one. Her last feature, Raw (2016), was about a woman who finds her true self as a cannibal. Her first short film was about a woman losing her entire skin. A television film called Mange was about a vengeful bulimic going after those who had bullied her. In a way, she sees them all as one long film – “a continuous gesture”, as she puts it.

‘All my films are about mutation. All my films are about metamorphosis. And all my films are about shedding skins.’

Characters morph into new versions from one film to the next; the same names crop up – including Justine, a nod to the Marquis de Sade’s corrupted innocent, who is an ongoing character – as her running themes are expressed in different ways. “All my films are about mutation. All my films are about metamorphosis. And all my films are about shedding skins,” she says. “That’s very substantially my approach to the characters. They have to be many in order to be one, to reach their essence.”

She is surprised to be asked if disgust is important to her work. “Certainly, some people might feel that in some scenes,” she says. “Personally, I never tackle any scene or character or situation like that. As a director, finding one of your characters or scenes disgusting means you have an incredible distance from it.” On the contrary, she says, when her characters open up layers of their bodies, she feels glad. It means they are getting closer to their true selves.

“Also, I think you should always find something you find beautiful. I try to make every shot a painting. To make something beautiful out of something people would have considered marginal or repulsive,” she says. “You can find beauty anywhere. You only have to look for it.”

Titane is in cinemas now.

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