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Photography Carole Bethuel

Julia Ducournau on the twisted, disturbing love story of Titane

The French auteur and director of 2016’s Raw discusses shock values and taboos, and how society makes women ‘designated victims’

Titane is a hard film to describe, especially in a single sentence. So much so, the French auteur behind it, Julia Ducournau, decided to entice financiers by presenting a finished screenplay on spec. No plot hints, no teasers, just a PDF of genre-bending, how-can-any-of-this-be-shot chaos: take it or leave it. “I never gave a logline,” the 38-year-old director explains to me in the Londoner Hotel, during the London Film Festival. “I didn’t think any pitch or synopsis could talk about what’s really happening between the characters, or between you and the story.”

Ducournau had previously shocked and gnawed with her 2016 cannibal-themed debut, Raw, but Titane was its own runaway juggernaut: in July, Spike Lee and his jury awarded Titane with the Palme d’Or, making Ducournau the only woman other than Jane Campion to win the festival’s top prize. Yet Ducournau’s problem remained: how does one summarise the premise? The one titbit most non-attendees of Cannes knew was that a woman is impregnated by a four-wheeled vehicle, but that’s certainly not what the film is about. “I’m not interested in cars,” Ducournau says. “They interest me for what they represent and how I can film them. But I don’t even have a driver’s license.”

Subsequently, Titane confounds expectations. The first half-hour elicits gasps, laughter, and other guttural noises with its bone-crunching deaths and vehicular pleasures. Then a transformation occurs: Titane reveals itself to be a highly sensitive, arguably queer father/son love story – with a dark, Ducournau twist, of course. “I decided to create a film that would be an experience, that would be an energy, that would have a trajectory where you shed the layers of the film, little by little,” the director says. “It starts very baroque and colour-saturated, and the action is very violent. Then you shed these layers to get to something more essential, and you end up with a very simple setup: a bedroom and two characters.”

In the prologue, a small child, Alexia, and her father (Bertrand Bonello) miraculously survive a road accident; emerging from the hospital with a titanium plate in her head, Alexia immediately hugs the family vehicle. Fast-forward two decades later: Alexia, now an adult played by Agathe Rousselle, is a tattooed, tough-as-nails stripper whose neon-lit workplace involves scantily dressed women gyrating over car hoods in front of men whose focus is on the more metallic type of body work. When Alexia finishes aggressively dancing to “Doing It to Death” by The Kills, there’s barely anyone watching.

Then, yes, Alexia, using the seatbelts as S&M tools, has sex with a car. But while it’s odd that her orifices leak oil the next day and her stomach starts to bulge, Alexia is also amid a murder spree: first a man who sexually assaults her in a carpark, then many others, including a lesbian lover, Justine (Garance Marillier, who played another Justine in Raw). Once on the run from the police, Alexia notices a poster for a missing adult, Adrien, last seen as a seven-year-old boy. So she does what anyone in that position would: she tapes up her breasts, cuts off her hair, and smashes her nose in, all to start a new life as a man.

In search of an actor capable of depicting both Alexia and Adrien, Ducournau’s casting agent discovered Rousselle, then mostly a model and photographer, on Instagram. “Most of the shoots I did, I was cast because I looked androgynous,” Rousselle says. “My face is androgynous, but my body is not at all. People would be confused when we did fittings, because they’d be like, ‘Oh my God, she’s a woman.’ Because my face looks like I could be both, but not my body – I have too much of an ass for that.” The 33-year-old actor is so convincing and compelling in both roles, you can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. However, she claims that switching posture, for instance, is simpler than you’d think. “If I want to look like a girl according to current standards, I’ll cross my legs. If I want to pass as a boy, I’ll manspread a bit. They’re easy things to do.”

“In the end, it means that society imposes on us the fact that women are designated victims. Which is a revolting thing, actually. It’s something that is so consequential that, as a woman, it brainwashes you” – Julia Ducournau

Alexia and Adrien, by design, are two separate entities to outsiders. “Adrien’s always been in Alexia,” Rousselle notes. “She can just do that. But most people in life can, if you consider yourself quite fluid – not non-binary, but fluid. If I go out in a miniskirt, dressed up, with makeup, I’ll walk a certain way. Then if I have to walk my dog late at night, I’ll wear a big jacket and walk like a dude so I don’t get harassed on the street.”

On the same topic, Ducournau believes that men don’t realise the fear that women live with. “When you get out of your home as a woman, you act according to what could happen, especially if it’s at night, especially if it’s a place you don’t know, especially if it’s an empty street,” the director says. “You have strategies like walking differently, or keeping your keys in your fist, in case you have to defend yourself.

“In the end, it means that society imposes on us the fact that women are designated victims. Which is a revolting thing, actually. It’s something that is so consequential that, as a woman, it brainwashes you. Even if you’re assaulted, your first reaction would be to freeze. It’s very hard to retaliate. In your head, it’s like: it’s a well-known fact that there’s nothing you can do. You’re trapped by the social construct.”

Alexia’s rescue plan involves tricking Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), that she is his long-lost son. While Vincent doesn’t outright voice any doubts upon meeting Alexia’s Adrien, the ageing firefighter refuses a DNA test a tad too quickly. The nuances of Vincent’s thought process thus unfold through body language, as Lindon also famously does in his Claire Denis collaborations. “The two movies I’ve worked most with the body are Titane and (Denis’ 2002 romantic drama) Vendredi soir,” says Lindon, 62. “If I could do a movie without speaking, it would be my dream.”

Lindon demonstrates different scenarios in which he enunciates random numbers instead of words to get his message across. “If I’m not happy with my child, I can say, ‘Two two two two two two three. Five six. Seven nine!!!” In fact, Vincent’s deeper interactions with his pretend-son are purely non-verbal: a dance-off to The Zombies with violent undercurrents; the way he turns around, like a father, in Adrien’s bedroom to offer privacy. “There’s not enough body language in movies,” Lindon continues. “French movies, sometimes, are too much blah blah blah. Just move on. I understand. I’m not stupid.”

“All taboos are supposed to be disturbing. But I thought: I’m going to try to understand why it’s hard to tackle, and then I’m going to work on that” – Julia Ducournau

Although Rousselle barely speaks onscreen, she workshopped numerous wordy scenes from movies and TV shows at Ducournau’s request: Donna in Twin Peaks, Villanelle in Killing Eve, the “I’m mad as hell” monologue from Network, and so on. “Julia made me explore a range of emotions,” Rousselle explains. “But there’s nothing about Twin Peaks in Alexia. The closest is maybe Killing Eve. But my character is never angry like in Network. Well, she’s angry, but she doesn’t do outbursts. She just kills people.”

To prepare for Alexia’s psychopathic tendencies, Rousselle watched Monster and We Need to Talk About Kevin, and studied interviews with serial killers. “Ed Kemper, Ted Bundy, and Aileen Wuornos had facial expressions but would keep the gaze very blank. Even though they’re charming and funny sometimes, there’s nothing. No light.” But apart from checking out David Cronenberg’s Crash, the fetish for topping gear didn’t require research. “Honestly, the fact that she’s attracted to cars, it would’ve been the same if she were attracted to trees, and the fact that I’m attracted to men. It’s like, whatever. It’s just an attraction.”

When I spoke to Ducournau about Raw a few years ago, she listed murder, cannibalism, and incest as the three taboos of humanity. Raw – a coming-of-age horror, also with characters called Alexia and Adrien – contained two of the three. “Incest was the hardest one for me to tackle at the time,” Ducournau says. “All taboos are supposed to be disturbing. But I thought: I’m going to try to understand why it’s hard to tackle, and then I’m going to work on that.”

As Adrien and Vincent develop a close chemistry, there’s a sense that the non-biological duo are on a collision course of some sort. “The unconditional love that Vincent and Adrien share is a form of love that embraces all types of love,” Ducournau says. “It’s absolute, it goes beyond any representation, any social construct. It goes straight to the fact that these two people are there for each other, no matter what, no matter who they are. And there’s a very disturbing, somehow incestuous part of the relationship when she starts desiring him. Which is, for her, a big step in her journey towards her humanity. But considering the relationship they’re starting to have, it's disturbing.”

“The unconditional love that Vincent and Adrien share is a form of love that embraces all types of love. It’s absolute, it goes beyond any representation, any social construct” – Julia Ducournau

Regarding Adrien and Vincent’s bond, Lindon comments, “It’s a meeting between two lonely people. One doesn’t want to love anymore, and the other can’t love anymore.” In the year leading up to the shoot, Lindon changed his diet and worked out every day; in the film, Vincent injects himself with steroids to maintain a muscular figure. “Alexia is afraid of life, because she didn’t get the love she wanted. But Vincent’s afraid of death, and so he tries to become younger and younger.” Is Vincent supposed to be the opposite of Bonello’s character? “It’s not something I had in my mind.”

Bonello isn’t an actor but the acclaimed auteur behind Nocturama and Zombi Child. After a scheduling conflict meant he couldn’t appear in Raw, Bonello was cast again due to Ducournau’s fondness for having fellow filmmakers on set. “You don’t direct directors the same way as actors,” Ducournau explains. “They’re aware of the stakes, and they have an instinctive sense of the right note for a line.” Unlike Vincent, Bonello’s character avoids eye contact with his daughter. “It’s like Bertrand is looking through her. He’s not trying to acknowledge her presence. But Vincent looks at her constantly, because he’s sculpting this fantasy of his son. He has to make sure everything’s perfect. It’s why it opens a door for them to actually have a relationship and end up in love.”

As with any movie when you’re following someone’s journey for two hours, part of you empathises, or at least tries to empathise, with that lead character. But when I tell Rousselle that I can understand Alexia, she shoots back a confused look. “But she’s a psychopath. If you’re a person with feelings, you can’t relate.” Pause. “I can relate to the fact she never gives up. She could give up 100 times in the movie, but she never gives up. Never, never. If she has to suffer and go through hell, she’ll do it.”

However, Rousselle is adamant that Titane isn’t meant to be an allegory for transgender issues. “It has nothing to do with trans identity. I’ve seen lots of people talking about that. She turns into this guy not out of an identity crisis, but out of survival.”

“This movie is so modern, so new, so rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s a love story... If you do a movie, and there’s no love story, you can do it your way – but if you don’t speak about love, I don’t give a fuck” – Vincent Lindon

Similarly, when I ask Ducournau if Titane riffs on the idea of strangers instantly forming families out of loneliness – maybe like in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps or if Tinder existed for wanting new relatives – she instantly shoots it down. “I don’t think she wants to form a family at the start at all. She only cares about herself. She’s someone who rejects everyone, who kills everyone, who rejects her own humanity. I think the plate in her head is there to reflect that as well. There is something in her that is dead cold.”

Likewise, Ducournau refers to Vincent as an antihero. “His fantasy is so obsessive, so overbearing, so intrusive, and sometimes violent, that he can’t be the saviour.”

Another theory I share is that Titane depicts the common fantasy of feeling dissatisfaction with your twenties and then restarting your life upon hitting 30. “I did that in my life,” Rousselle says. “I decided that I wanted to be happy, which was a major decision. I feel much happier now (that) I’m 33 than when I was 28.” But when I mention this reading to Ducournau, the conclusion is that I’m projecting my own baggage onto the film. “It’s fine,” the director says. “Every audience does that.”

“It’s a new start for both Vincent and Adrien,” Lindon says on the same subject. “Vincent thought he was going to die, because without his son, his life is nothing. For Adrien, it’s the same: ‘Wow, somebody is taking care of me.’ This movie is so modern, so new, so rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s a love story. Books, music, everything is about love. All books are about love. All songs are about love. All movies are about love. It’s the only thing which is important on this planet – love. If you’re not able to love anymore, you’re a dead person. If you do a movie, and there’s no love story, you can do it your way – but if you don’t speak about love, I don’t give a fuck.”

During the pandemic, Lindon co-starred with Juliette Binoche in Claire Denis’s upcoming film, Fire. It’s also about love, he says, but “violent love”, and no longer called Fire. He tells me the new title in French, which I don’t understand, so he runs it through Google Translate on his phone: With Love and Relentlessness (according to Google Translate). “It’s about a couple who fight. It’s the best Claire Denis (film). It’s incredible. It’s my third one with Claire, and we’re going to do another one.”

By the end, Titane, too, is about love, having shed its layers, having revved its engine, having allowed Adrien and Vincent to bare their souls and inner machinery to one another. “They start to see and love the person they have across them for real, for who they are, no matter their gender, no matter if they’re related or not,” Ducournau says. “Because they need each other so much.”

Titane opens in UK cinemas on December 26