Scratch at the layers

Julia Ducournau on her daring new film Titane, a visceral study of humanity’s ugly complexities
By Hannah Holway | Film+TV | 3 January 2022

When French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature film, Raw, was released in 2017, reports of extreme bodily reactions (fainting, vomiting) at screenings almost overshadowed the subversive, shocking and relatable power of her cannibal-body-horror. Since then, Ducournau has carved a space for herself within a recent wave of women-directed horror films, from 2017’s Revenge to 2021’s Censor, which move beyond the oft-exploitative confines of the Final Girl trope to centre complicated, ‘monstrous’ women and their stories.

Both Raw and the director’s Palme D’or-winning latest, Titane, can be viewed as portraits of female sexuality, darkly comic horror stories, and boundary-pushing coming-of-age tales; but don’t call Julia Ducournau a provocateur. It’s a term she actively rejects, preferring instead to see her films as studies in humanity, its often ugly complexities, and the ways in which we contort ourselves as we search for intimacy and connection. A full-throttle thriller centred around Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a showgirl-assassin with a titanium plate fitted in her skull due to a childhood accident, Titane may feature car fucking, serial killing and a spontaneous nose-breaking, but scratch at the layers Ducournau references, and there lies a story of love, loneliness, and identity.

Hannah Holway: The first time we see Alexia being violent, it’s ‘justified’ almost through the fact it seems retributive; it’s a reaction to someone harming her. The next time she is violent, it seems much more random. Was the intention here to portray Alexia as completely ruthless, to break down the expectations we may have of her character?
Julia Ducournau: I think what links both scenes, and what I’ve always had in my head, is that Alexia’s reason for being violent was when someone was getting too close. She is repulsed by humanity – her own and humanity in general – and she’d rather have intimate intercourse with a car, something that is metal and does not react, rather than being in contact with flesh and with humans. When she learns that she’s pregnant, this is so antagonistic to her. Knowing that she has life inside of her creates a derailing. But you’re right that for the first time she expresses violence, with the guy who basically stalks her, it’s a retaliation of sexual assault. She’s just come out of this car show where all the women are being objectified, and she tried, through her dancing and looks to the camera, to reverse the narrative; not to be objectified by everyone else. But she still remains in a very specific context that is objectifying to women. So when she gets out of this, to me it’s logical that people, especially men, see her as a designated target – we don’t know anything about her yet. She retaliates [to the man] in a situation where basically I think none of us would have retaliated, or not in that way, because obviously you’re always petrified by what’s happening. 

She is repulsed by humanity – her own and humanity in general…”

For me, this scene is a step further in our understanding of [Alexia]. The reason she can retaliate isn’t because she is better, or braver, or anything. She just doesn’t feel fear. She has psychopathic traits that allow her to not feel that fear, and that’s why she goes as far as she does. I really wanted to make it step-by-step in our understanding of her. For me there is a grey zone there because what she does is only retaliation, but she does it in a way that is not quite the way that [we would].

Still, ‘Titane’ directed by Julia Ducournau, 2021

There are no beauty shots, because I find beauty in the flaws.”

HH: You’ve said that when women make horror films, it’s often more about a horror from the inside, and more to do with identity. It reminds me of a quote from Fleabag which I think about a lot, which is “women are born with pain built in.” Does this play into your focus on filming and exploring female bodies in particular?
JD: The way I want to film female bodies is trying to avoid any form of representations. Obviously there is a trick in the car show where I try to mimic the female gaze; the way she moves on the car, with the car, and the way she reclaims her desire there, you know? She looks at you through the camera so that you’re not looking at her, she’s looking at you. That would be the only intentional step aside that I do as far as female bodies are concerned, because here it was a matter of killing the male gaze in the shot. However, in both [my films] you have a lot of intimate scenes, of characters showering, or just in bed, and being in discomfort. For me it’s a way of really trying to portray the female body as being universal. To try to not make it a case. I do believe that the female body is very much a topic in our society since the dawn of time, and I want to get rid of that. That’s why I ask my make-up artist to not do beauty on my actresses, other than special effects make-up when we need to. I really need to see bodies that are just as mundane and beautiful and flawed and universal.

Vincent [London, who plays Vincent in the film] had to do heavy weightlifting for a year and a half in order to be believable in the shoes of someone who takes steroids on a daily basis. It’s certainly not to make him glamorous, it’s really to portray this irony of a body that’s on the verge of collapsing constantly, and yet [he’s built] up this kind of armour of a body. I remember there were some scenes where he was concerned about the fact that we see his belly. [He wanted to be] constantly toned up and I told him, “The one doesn’t exist without the other. When you’re all muscled-up, it’s actually an allure. It’s really just you trying to convince yourself that you’re not dying” [laughs]. It’s very important that we saw both; and in that there is no glamour either. There are no beauty shots, because I find beauty in the flaws.

As far as pain is concerned, obviously it’s in the journey of my female characters, and to a certain extent with my male characters too. But I’m trying not to ‘gender-ise’ things as much. And I really try to at one point treat both my characters the same way, without any stereotypes or whatever. But it’s true that, for example, as far as pregnancy is concerned, it’s definitely part of the female journey here. What I wanted to portray is that actually, pregnancy doesn’t have to be bliss. If it is, great! But we cannot look down on women who express that it’s been painful, that is hasn’t been the best time of their lives – and maybe they didn’t even want children in the first place. There are many ways to go through that experience, and it’s for no-one to judge.

Still, ‘Titane’ directed by Julia Ducournau, 2021

HH: Dance is a really important element of Titane – there was dancing in Raw, but here it’s at the centre of some of the most engaging scenes, and is also the focus of the first time we see Alexia as an adult. As Alexia doesn’t have many lines of dialogue in the film, how much is the physicality of dancing used as almost a substitute for that dialogue?
JD: Absolutely, 100 percent. From the get-go, I knew it was going to be a lot about actions and physical expressions. Because when you’re talking about love – and believe it or not, that’s really what was at the centre of my head when I started writing Titane – I didn’t want to lose the physicality, and the very unconditional, absolute aspect of the feeling, by putting words on it. I thought that would belittle what I was trying to make you feel. For me, my point is always to make you feel what the characters feel; it goes through the body 99 percent of the time. And maybe for one person, if you felt that love, then mission accomplished. But I certainly didn’t think that there would be extensive declarations of love. Especially when you’re thinking about the fact that my movie is really built on layers that you have to get rid of, to get an essence of intimacy, of the emotions, you know? To be perfectly honest, the last “I love you” at the end, I really, really struggled writing it. I was considering not putting it in the film, I was like, “Come on man, this is such a reduction of what you want the characters to be for each other.” And yet, it’s a stepping stone you can’t escape, the “I love you.” So I kept it in editing. When you know that you’re going to be very terse, very dry with words, obviously the bodies can explode with everything they can tell us, and that’s great.

Dancing is not only a dialogue between my characters; it’s also a dialogue with you as an audience. It makes things so immediate, so instant. You understand things so clearly, I think, through dance. And that’s why I’m a huge dance buff. I go to the opera and the ballet very often, [I have] since I was a kid. And this immediacy of the relationship you have with the characters, through love, is something I really wanted to find here. You’re right that there are more scenes of dancing [in Titane] than in Raw, but it’s also because here, the dance scenes are actually pivotal, in terms of narrative stakes. Every time, they’re here to say something. It’s not just to make you look at someone dance, and be a nice scene – never! It always says something that you didn’t know about them before, about their relationship, about what they are. It was very interesting to think narratively about dancing.

Dancing is not only a dialogue between my characters; it’s also a dialogue with you as an audience.”

HH: Your work has often been described as ‘transgressive’, a term also associated with the New French Extremism and New European Extremism. I was wondering how you felt about this term, and if you would describe your films this way?
JD: The first thing I find interesting is that the expression ‘New French Extremism’ is something I learned about only through foreign journalists. I mean, it’s really not something we use in France, so I was very confused. I actually asked a UK journalist to explain this to me, because I was not familiar with the term at all [laughs]. It’s a really weird term, by the way– I’m not sure I condone it. I understand that people might find my film ‘transgressive’, so I have nothing against that term, but I don’t like the term ‘provocateur’. I hate that. For me, it’s incredibly belittling, somehow. Because there is always this feeling that it implies something gratuitous. I like to provoke feelings within the audience, but I don’t like the term ‘provocateur’, I like the verb, but not the noun. But transgressive… it’s all relative, and transgression is a subjective apprehension. I’m ready to believe that some people find my film transgressive. I don’t have a problem with it.

Titane is out now.

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