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After her debut film, Raw, a bloody feminist horror movie about a vegetarian college student who develops a taste for human flesh, it’s hard to know what fans of French director Julia Ducournau were expecting her to do next. But no one, it’s safe to say, expected Titane. Ducournau’s second feature follows Alexia, a car-obsessed exotic dancer and sometime serial killer (played by first-timer Agathe Rousselle) who, on the run from the police, breaks her nose and binds her breasts to pass herself off as Adrien, a boy who has been missing for years and whose father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), is only too happy to take her in. Oh, and Alexia also has sex with — and is impregnated by — a Cadillac. Hiding her identity from her adopted dad is made even harder by her swelling belly and the motor oil leaking from various body parts (don’t ask).
Titane is so brazen, bold and fearless — a go-for-broke mashup of body horror, family melodrama and radical gender theory — that it’s surprising to hear that Ducournau, after the success of Raw, spent a year crippled by anxiety and unable to work. She had the idea for Titane while making Raw — a dream where she imagined giving birth to auto parts was an initial spark — but it was a long journey to bring her radical vision to the screen.
It seems to have paid off. Titane won the 2021 Palme d’Or, making Ducournau just the second female winner in Cannes history (28 years after Jane Campion was the first with The Piano). Now, it’s France’s entry for the 2022 Oscar for best international feature. In a revealing talk with THR, Ducournau discusses the “excruciating pain” of writer’s block, why gender fluidity is inspiring and how she finally got up the “fuck-it energy” to make her radical new movie.
I’ve read that both of your parents are doctors. How did growing up with two physicians impact the way you see the world?
It had a big impact. When both your parents are doctors, and they talk about their jobs over the dinner table every day, you get an early apprehension or, let’s say, knowledge of your own mortality. And when you’re aware of your mortality, you’re also more aware of your body. Obviously, you can see that in the work I do. But there’s another impact, and that’s the fact that my parents, they have a very humane job. I have a lot of respect for that. They taught me a lot about how each individual is unique. Every patient is different. That triggered my exploration of what it means to be human, which is very much at the center of my work. My work is always about the individual, about the one specific case, not about the group identity.
Raw was very well received, both critically and commercially. What pressure did you feel trying to follow that success?
When I got out of Raw — and by got out, I don’t mean when I finished the film, but when I finished traveling with it around the world to festivals and award shows — I was obviously very tired. I had two main fears. The first was the fear of outside expectations impacting my second film. The second one was actually more insidious: I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to love my second film as much as I loved Raw. I honestly didn’t know if I had it in me. I felt pretty drained after the whole circuit. It was hard for a film that didn’t exist yet to compete with one that was fully finished. It feels absurd, but that’s the comparison I had in my head.
I had writer’s block for a full year. It was painful. Writer’s block is not like you go on holiday for months. You never stop thinking about it, you just wake up, you take a shower, get dressed and sit by yourself in front of your computer, and you wait. And you wait. Until it’s night and nothing comes. It was like that every day for a year. At one point, I started feeling real anger — anger toward myself, anger toward outside expectations but also anger toward Raw because that film was taking up too much space in my life. That anger led me to a point where I thought: “I don’t give a fuck. I’m just going to do something. I don’t care what anyone thinks.” I think that energy — that fuck-it energy — is at the core of Titane. Once I got angry, I decided I was going to do exactly what I wanted.
Did you already have the story for Titane?
I already had the idea. The idea came to me when I was in production for Raw. I knew how it would end because I very often start with the ending. I knew what feeling I wanted to convey. I just didn’t have the right energy to do it. But when I decided, “I don’t care anymore, I’m going to do it my way,” it released me from all constraints. Like, the idea of the three-act structure, which I just tossed out for Titane.
What makes the film so radical is how you defy expectation — not just with the radical story and extreme imagery but with almost every scene. Episodes that start out shocking turn sweet, horror moves to comedy, and back again. Gender fluidity is a theme in the film, but it seems the whole movie is fluid.
Trying to deconstruct and ultimately destroy expectations is my understanding of freedom. It’s at the core of everything, every scene. I like to play with different genre typologies. You start with a scene that feels very comedic, and then it twists to become strange and dark. Or it goes the other way. Sometimes in the middle of the darkest, bleakest scenes, I want you to laugh your ass off. And then I’ll hit you again. I never want myself, or the audience, to be comfortable with their expectations. I think that’s what art is for. Nothing good comes from being set in stone.
How did you prepare your lead actress, Agathe Rousselle, for that? This is her first film, and she had no professional training.
A lot of it was technical. I knew the film had very little dialogue, but to test her potential, I made her work on a lot of dialogue, repeating scenes from Twin Peaks and Killing Eve. We also worked a lot on her physicality. At the time, she didn’t know how to fight, but with Alexia, you have to believe she can kill anyone she wants. We went to the dojo, and she took dancing lessons. I was lucky because we had a whole year to prepare. I always told her how difficult it would be — how physically demanding, the nudity, the prosthetics — that it would be very hard. I also guaranteed that she would feel safe on set. That meant a very small crew for the nude scenes. My crew is majority female anyway, so that was a plus. But I was always transparent about what I was going to shoot and how I was going to shoot it. It’s only by building that trust that you can get someone to give their all, which she did. If your actors don’t feel safe, you can’t get anything from them.
What surprised me about the second half of the film is how emotionally touching it is, as the relationship between Vincent and Alexia/Adrien develops. Was it difficult to write those more melodramatic, emotional scenes, like when Vincent discovers Alexia naked in the bathroom?
They weren’t difficult to write at all. The bathroom scene is pretty much the reason I did the whole film — when he comes in, sees her, knows she’s not his son but loves her unconditionally. It’s the one I wanted to touch people. To make people feel elated. On the surface, it’s an incredibly simple scene. It’s one wide, two medium and one close-up. That’s four shots. But the question of where you put your camera and [at] what distance is crucial. If we were too close, it would feel overbearing, like I was forcing the emotion. Too far away, and no one would feel a thing. As simple as it looks, it really wasn’t simple to direct.
Titane won the Palme d’Or. What does that mean for the burden of expectation for your next film?
I’m not going to lie to you, I’m exhausted. I don’t know where the next year is going to take me. But, honestly, it was so hard writing Titane, it took so much out of me, I can’t imagine anything will top that. I really hit bottom with this one, and the fact that I overcame it makes me completely peaceful and confident. Doubt is a big part of the process — I need doubt to create. But I’ve been through the worst. Whatever comes is likely going to be painful. But I can handle it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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The Harder They Fall