In 2021, the 75th year of the Cannes Film Festival, Julia Ducournau became the first female director to win a solo Palme d’Or, the top prize. Her film Titane is radical and revolutionary: a film where a woman has sex with a car and gets pregnant. Yet the truest subversion may be the aching tenderness within this body horror film. Titane is unlike any film I have seen, but also, ultimately, a lovesong you can dance to.
The film stars Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, a mute exotic dancer with a titanium plate in her head, and Vincent Lindon as a fireman searching for his missing son. Their lives crash more noisily and messily than cars could.
Titane releases on Mubi on January 28. I spoke to the 38-year-old French filmmaker before her Cannes-conquering masterpiece came to our screens.
'Titane' is a triumph in the body horror genre that surprises with extreme sensitivity. How important was it for you to make this film feel both soft and metallic?
One doesn’t go without the other. For me, the same way there is this whole echo between darkness and light in the film, between an animalistic aspect and the very sacred aspect. I’m just trying to explore all the moments where all these extremes intertwine. The film itself, in construction, is like an arrow having an ascending movement. It doesn’t obey the traditional structure of three acts, its more like it sheds its layers throughout. It’s true what you’re saying about the softness and the hard aspect of metal, how they coexist and intertwine, that guides the whole creation of the film.
I was wondering if the mechanophilia in the film is kind of a metaphor for our growing connection with technology. In a way, smartphones have become like limbs for so many of us.
Not at all, actually. It’s funny, because I have actually learned the term ‘mechanophilia’ only through interviews. For me, cars are more used for what they represent socially, and how they are often portrayed as an extension of masculinity. I’m interested to see my character’s desire to kind of subvert, and reverse, this masculine transfer that the car can represent.
I found it remarkable how solemnly you approach the act that defines the film: Alexia has sex with a Cadillac, and is impregnated. Therefore a relationship with an inanimate object can be as profound, as real as any other relationship.
Oh yeah yeah, absolutely. I really tried to establish a kind of seduction between her and the car, I did not want to fetishise the scene. I wanted it to be like a two-character scene: with them looking at each other, with the headlights being the eyes of the car.
I see Alexia as being deeply repulsed by humanity, who is very reactive when someone overcomes the threshold of her vital boundaries. It felt, to me, very logical that she, who is a little bit dead inside — portrayed by the [titanium] plate in her head — will set out to prove that she would rather have intimacy with a material that is cold and dead, than with flesh. That for me says it all, it means that she has no connection with humanity whatsoever at the beginning of the film.
Meanwhile, the relationship between her and Vincent is not a real parent-child relationship, and they both know that, but both want to make it real. So identifying as a parent/child is as important as being a parent/child.
Yeah, she’s pretending to be his son (Adrian), and he’s pretending to recognise her as his son, and the idea was to see how, from these lies, you could have truth emerge in the needs that they have for each other: to be looked at and to be acknowledged, and not to be alone anymore. Love can emerge from that. Because for me, love is truth, love is the moment where you can see the person in front of you outside of any representation, you can see the person for their core, and so it was, again, kind of an ascending journey that starts with lies and climbs to the truth of the film.
Now this is my reading of the symbolism: The fireman, at one point refers to himself as God and therefore refers to his son as Jesus, the son of god. Then Alexia being impregnated by the car — this could be a stretch — is like an immaculate conception…
Oh, it’s not a stretch. You read that well. In the film, I tried to use Biblical references — not in a religious way, obviously — but for the symbols they convey for us. Through the film, Alexia’s character goes from being Jesus — with the metallic brace, I’ve tried to shape it like the crown of thorns, and she’s showing her hands like showing the stigmata — to being Mary, with the immaculate conception. Obviously, we’ve seen her have intercourse with the car, but the way her belly gets swollen is very sudden, very abrupt. Then there is this moment in the bathroom when she comes back to Vincent, and he’s completely drugged out, and I tried to position them like Michaelangelo’s Pietà. For me, by the end, she’s both Mary and Jesus at the same time.
What made you pick a fireman for the father character? It made me think of the ‘Hero Syndrome’ where some firemen start fires in order to mount rescues. Did you want a character who considered himself a saviour?
As far as Alexia and Adrian were concerned, I’ve never seen Vincent as a saviour. From the beginning since he’s aware she’s not his son, I think he’s fully aware of his fantasy, and he’s just trying to not make it crumble. By shaving her head, giving her the right clothes and all, he is trying to sculpt his son back to life. That’s what makes him such a desperate character — and also unpredictable. I think, till very late in the film, we still see him as a potential threat to her.
So I’ve never seen him as a white knight. I’ve always seen the character as the golem with feet made of clay, strong but incredibly vulnerable. There are fireman stereotypes in our head — these big bulky men, huge heroes ready to save everybody — and I wanted to show someone who, sure, can do his job and save people, but at the same time he’s unable to save himself. If you want to kill the stereotypes, you have got to show them first, and the fireman is a masculine stereotype, just like the exotic dancer is a stereotype for women. The idea was to show that these two characters were never what we expected them to be.
When you were working with Rousselle on such a demanding character, what was your brief to her when it came to bringing Alexia to life?
We worked a lot because she had never shot a film, and so we had to work on her acting and her physicality, and I had to explain to her what it meant to be shooting for nine weeks in a film that requires a lot of focus and endurance.
Despite her character being mute, I needed a feel of what she could give, and how I could direct her. I made her learn a lot of monologues from other films, namely Sidney Lumet’s Network with “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Twin Peaks as well with Donna’s monologue over Laura Palmer’s grave, to see if she could come up with sheer dramatic emotion. And also Killing Eve, quite a lot.
Wow. So you used intense verbal cues to get to the non-verbal intensity of the character?
Exactly. You have to start with that. Otherwise if you can’t have the sense of how to direct the person with words, you’re at the risk of having someone who doesn’t express anything on their face because they don’t know what to do. Then she had to learn dancing, and I wanted her to learn how to fight, so we did a lot of dojo, and a lot of stunt rehearsals as well.
The scene where she lets go — where she’s on top of the fire-truck and breaks into a dance — is overwhelming. It fills the viewer with this spectacular, overt, liberating kind of grace. It reminded me of the end of Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round…
Oh! I love the ending! Oh my god, I love this film and I love the ending! I cried my eyes out.
It’s one of the best climaxes, truly. I was reminded of it because the lead character has been bound and tied up within themselves, and for them to find release feels so beautiful.
Thank you very much, I appreciate it. You used the word ‘grace,’ and that was exactly what I was looking for at that moment. I was looking to film her as being a complete character that everyone is looking at. She has suffered so much from not being looked at by her own father, and now all of a sudden she’s complete: she’s both Adrian and Alexia at the same time, and there is this kind of absolute that emanates from her that I wanted to show. It’s not like the first dance in the film that was very extroverted, that was on the outside. This is dancing with the same moves on the inside, more subtle. But at the same time there is this softness, this grace, I was trying to capture and I’m glad that you saw it.
Like the way your film makes us feel, what are the films that overwhelmed you with their audacity? The films that confused you and gave birth to questions.
It’s funny you just mentioned Vinterberg, and he is a director that interests me very much. I loved Another Round, very emotional, really messed me up, but in terms of what I’m also trying to work on, [his 2012 film] The Hunt was a bit more spot-on for me. In The Hunt, the way he plays with our expectations and our preconceived ideas as an audience, it’s extremely masterful. And I’ve been very, very… pushed to my boundaries with that film, in a very good way, it makes you reflect upon yourself very much. I always say he’s the master of the grey zone. Nothing is black and white, he’s always very complex. I really like him.
As a final question, why is the body horror genre so dear to you? Is there a freeing of the gaze there: with the male gaze and female gaze both superseded by the gaze horror demands?
There’s something about gaze, that’s for sure, because the skin is the first receiving area of the gaze. For me, this means it can project a lot of representations of lies, and this is something we have to open. We have to let the skin open, the representations open, in order to dig into something that is less easy, more unknown — but that is for sure more complex, more rich. I think that’s why I like to open the skin.