Driven to Love

Titane filmmaker Julia Ducournau speaks with Mitchell Beaupre about destroying societal expectations of gender, the unspoken nature of love, and finding art in a bunch of dancing firefighters.

I wanted to get to the essence of the person, no matter what their gender is, their sexuality, no matter if they’re from the same family or not. That was the challenge for me, to see if I could make you feel the love.” —⁠Julia Ducournau

Back in 2016, when writer-director Julia Ducournau delivered her debut feature Raw, audiences had no idea what they were in for. While no medical emergencies were reported at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, a Midnight Madness screening at TIFF resulted in ambulances being called in to treat multiple filmgoers who had passed out.

The film earned a mighty reputation, and that was only solidified once it emerged to the public. Perhaps Kat sums it up best: “I left the theater cackling, feeling energized and in love with cinema and life and women—and yet the film also made me anxious and worried and grossed out and violently sad.”

This extreme mixture of emotions wasn’t a one-off for Ducournau, who has followed up that lightning rod of a debut with perhaps an even more headline-grabbing sophomore feature. From the moment Titane debuted at this year’s Cannes, it was clear that it was going to be one of the most talked-about films of 2021.

Reactions out of the fest declared Titanesingular, shocking, repulsive and incendiary”, with Cronenberg comparisons aplenty for this body horror that seeks to reinvent how we see the human anatomy. The Cannes jury awarded the film the Palme d’Or, with jury president Spike Lee so eager to give it the prize that he misunderstood a question at the announcement ceremony and announced it prematurely.

Adèle Guigue as seven-year-old Alexia in Titane.
Adèle Guigue as seven-year-old Alexia in Titane.

The intense reactions out of Cannes were simply the beginning for Titane, which has gone on a barnstorming tour of just about every major festival this year, shocking and awing audiences along the way. Marking Ducournau’s return to TIFF Midnight Madness, Mav took some time to shout out the performances from Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon, while Brittany wrote, “At times I had to watch through my fingers, at other times I was smiling ear to ear”. At NYFF, EJ spoke to the thrill of seeing the film in a theater with an audience “squirming, groaning, whimpering and (nervously) laughing”. Also, just in case you’re wondering, yes there have been more medical emergencies with this one.

Titane defies easy explanation; one can’t really give a brief plot synopsis without getting into spoiler territory. Abandoning the three-act structure, Ducournau’s film is constantly turning, ripping itself apart only to build back together as something entirely new in its explorations of a troubled young woman, Alexia (Rousselle), and a complicated firefighter, Vincent (Lindon).

Mitchell Beaupre straps in to speak with Ducournau about her unique approach to love, how Raw paved the way for her latest feature, and the fascinating arc she takes us on with her main characters.

According to just about everyone on Letterboxd who has seen Titane, you are essentially responsible for saving cinema in 2021. So many reviews are speaking of not only their love for the film, but the specific thrill of watching it in a theater with other humans, sharing intense reactions alongside other people. What does that mean for you to have created such a collective experience?
Julia Ducournau: For me, it’s not only meaningful—it’s essential. Titane and Raw were both crafted for the theater. This is in terms of image, obviously, but also with the sound, which is something very much less talked about that makes a huge difference. When you want to create a corporeal experience that is based on your bodily sensations, when you try to make the audience relate to the characters on that deeper level, the sound is something that helps a lot. That’s very specific to sound in the theater.

For example, something I use a lot with my sound designer and my mixer are sub [woofers]. I love subs because they make you feel the scene physically. You feel them through the floor, and you feel them in your chest. However, these subs can disappear very easily if they are not played with the specific amplifiers and sound system. It’s not something you will ever feel on your computer or on your TV, and obviously even less so on your phone. This is something totally linked to the theater experience, and a big part of the sensation I design for you to feel what my characters are feeling down to their skin.

Agathe Rousselle as the adult Alexia in Titane.
Agathe Rousselle as the adult Alexia in Titane.

While the film is an extremely effective body horror, another thing we’ve noticed people engaging with more than anything else is the love at the heart of Titane. What compelled you to take audiences on this totally visceral journey that results in such an outpouring of and deep understanding of love?
Whew. That’s a bit hard to answer. I decided to put love at the center of Titane because when I was in post-production on Raw, I noticed that while love was present in the film, it was still a sidetrack. I actually began to wonder why I chose that, and if I felt that love was something I could express in a film.

I asked myself this question even more so when the idea is to make you feel what the characters are feeling. How do you make the viewer feel the sensation you have in your body when you love someone? That’s something incredibly difficult.

It was a very interesting challenge to try and aim at that, rather than to talk about love with words. For me, words tend to belittle the feeling a little bit, and also to belittle everything that this film embraces in terms of trying to see past all the presentations that the person in front of you might undergo.

I wanted to get to the essence of the person, no matter what their gender is, their sexuality, no matter if they’re from the same family or not. That was the challenge for me, to see if I could make you feel the love. If I could actually tackle the topic in the unconditional way that I see it. That’s why I decided to do Titane.

I must say, as a non-binary person myself, something that resonated for me personally was the queering of gender in the film. The way that you blur these lines between masculine and feminine, and call into question what those words even mean. How did you want to explore the idea of gender within the film?
At the start, it was about trying to have a character that broadens the spectrum of what gender means, but also what our humanity means. I wanted to show that there are a lot more options, and a lot more ‘gazings’ than we actually want to believe there is.

As I was writing the script, I also came to the conclusion that, for me, gender is not relevant in order to define someone. It’s only relevant in terms of societal expectations, which have nothing to do with the individual. I think that it is incredibly limiting to our comprehension of individuality, but also to our comprehension of the interactions we can have with others.

All I tried to do is put the audience in a position of growing empathy with my characters so they would accept the fact that my character is not just one, and she is certainly not what she seems to be. That actually they would accept every single stage of her transformation in order to just admit at the end that she is completely full. That she is one when she’s both Adrien and Alexia, or none of them.

Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, putting her past behind her.
Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, putting her past behind her.

Something that queer people are keenly aware of is the idea of perception, and how perception can often be a threat to people who are pushed aside by society. Could you speak about how that idea of perception played into the way that you wanted to develop the character of Alexia?
It’s absolutely central. The way I look at my film, everything has to do with gaze—with the way you look at someone. A lot of people ask me why I use the body-horror grammar, and why I tear the flesh like this, and that’s why. For me, the flesh and the skin is the first barrier of outside representation, and of outside expectation. We have got to shed it. We have to shed the skins one by one in order to try to be free, and basically to be ourselves—or even moreso, to become ourselves, because I tend to see things always as a becoming more than a state.

The way I tried to portray that in my film is actually with the father figures. Alexia’s biological father is a character who never, ever, ever looks at her. He just dismisses her very existence from the start, which makes her someone who doesn’t have any contours. She does not have a clear identity.

That’s why there is an overflow of impulses getting out of her because there is nothing to contain that. She is completely loose, if you wish.

Then she meets Vincent. Where is his headspace when she comes into his life, and what do they find in one another?
On the contrary to Alexia, Vincent is a very neurotic character. He’s a character inspired by the movie Vertigo, and how Jimmy Stewart’s character completely sculpts his own fantasy onto Kim Novak.

I insisted on Vincent never being this white knight in shining armor. In his overbearing neurosis he also becomes incredibly intrusive. The thing that makes him different from the biological father is that because of his fantasy, he has to look at her constantly. He wants to sculpt that fantasy. He wants to create it.

At this level, he gives her the contours of someone else, but it so happens that at one point she decides that she feels good in these contours, even though they are the wrong ones. They’re not hers, but she feels good. She decides to adopt those contours, which we see the turn happen when she comes back after leaving, and she doesn’t kill him.

That’s where she decides that she feels better in these contours than in the previous ones she had when she was a woman. After that, she begins to get in touch with her humanity through this relationship. She gets in touch with her emotions, which never happened before, and it makes her feel alive. It’s like for the first time in her life she actually starts to exist.

The challenge for her at this level, and the higher stakes, is to actually show herself for who she is to the person that she came to love—and to be accepted as she is. This lasts until the final moment of the film.

Vincent Lindon, as Vincent, working his body out after hours.
Vincent Lindon, as Vincent, working his body out after hours.

It’s a fascinating arc, as we also see the more she gets in touch with her humanity, the less her body looks human.
This is also something very important in the film in terms of where we stand in our own humanity. That’s why at the end she decides to go to him, and to show herself naked, just the way she is. To tell him, “I love you. The way I am now loves you.” You see how it’s a very long journey through, ending on the idea that gender is irrelevant when it comes to identity.

Speaking of that notion of gender in conjunction with how you explore the use of the body in your films, I have to ask you about the pair of firefighter dancing scenes, both of which have a heavy air of homoeroticism. The first is a lovely sequence bathed in this purple light, and later there’s a more aggressive mosh pit. What ideas did you want to draw out in these sequences?
In that first one, the homoeroticism that’s present there is debunking the kinds of expectations we could have of firefighters together. It’s again trying to soften this idea of sheer testosterone. Actually, if you look closely, some of the firemen in the background are very good dancers. They have some really good moves, which makes it even more artistic. Somehow it becomes more of a tableaux than just a regular party, which is something I was aiming for. That’s why I used real dancers to play the firemen at this moment. The idea of tableaux is essential, especially when you use slo-mo like this.

As you mentioned, there is a clear difference between the two scenes. With the mosh pit, we used this very white shower light to blend every extra and Adrien together so that they all look alike. They all have shaved heads, big muscles, and are jumping around all over the place. At a certain point, you don’t know who’s who anymore. That’s the intention, as Adrien is at the point where she wants to keep Vincent so badly that she would do anything to blend in completely.

However, this desire to blend in or to belong is something that I see as quite violent. This is not a positive to me. Belonging is never a positive in my mind, for the identity or for the psyche. That’s why it’s so physical and so aggressive.

Vincent Lindon, Julia Ducournau and Agathe Rousselle at the 74th Cannes Film Festival — Photographer… Julien Reynaud/APS-Medias
Vincent Lindon, Julia Ducournau and Agathe Rousselle at the 74th Cannes Film Festival Photographer… Julien Reynaud/APS-Medias

That scene takes a big shift once Alexia gets on top of the truck, and we see her inner self start to come to the surface.
When she’s alone on top of the truck, it’s the exact opposite of what the scene was before—the opposite of that violence. She’s on the truck in the form of this pedestal, if you wish, because I tried to instill something that was very sacred there. The firemen look at her either like she’s a Messiah, or they look away because it’s too much to look at. It’s too bright, it’s too strong.

At this level, this is for me the moment where she has moved past this idea of belonging and blending in. She’s feeling herself with both Adrien and Alexia, and something even more. This is her in that moment. There is full grace in this moment, which is what I was aiming at. You see all the way through the film how dance is something I use to go against the audience’s expectations.

On behalf of all Letterboxd film lovers, I want to thank you for your commitment to art that rips open our hearts and brains like this—and as a genderqueer person, thank you for making a film that made me feel so seen.
That means a lot to me. Thank you very much, Mitchell.

Titane’ is in theaters now and will be available on VOD from Tuesday, October 19.

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