No filmmaker working today makes movies quite like Julia Ducournau.
The writer-director’s critically acclaimed feature debut Raw is a lurid coming-of-age story that uses cannibalism as its central metaphor. Raw’s stylish visuals and cannibalistic violence may grab your attention, but it’s the film’s singular perspective and resonant themes that add bite.
Ducournau’s flamboyant follow-up, Titane, makes Raw look like A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Titane tells the story of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a cold-blooded young woman who has sex with a car, gets knocked up, and goes on a killing spree. The film’s second half sees Alexia hide from police by posing as a grieving father’s (Vincent Lindon) missing son.
With its bonkers plot, relentless violence, and gruesome body horror, Titane is one of the year’s most challenging movies. It’s also one of 2021’s most highly-praised films.
This past July, Ducournau became only the second woman ever (and first in 30 years) to earn Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or. Last month Titane swept through TIFF, dazzling audiences and taking home TIFF People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award. And earlier today, Titane was chosen as France’s submission in the 2022 Oscars’ Best International Film category.
In reality, the film’s dark premise and tone serve up one big swerve. There’s a secretly sweet, life-affirming tale at the heart of this outlandish genre-bender. At its core, Titane is the story of two broken people giving each other what they need to feel whole. All the bloodshed and car sex are just shiny hood ornaments.
That Shelf spoke with Ducournau during Titane’s press tour. The conversation touches on Ducournau’s screenwriting method, casting Vincent Lindon, and shooting Titane during COVID.
Victor Stiff – Like most great art, your film poses more questions than it answers, and the audience is so hungry to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding these characters. How do you decide what you’ll reveal and what you’re going to play close to the vest?
Julia Ducournau – Well, you know, it’s funny because I was asked recently the question of the background of my characters – someone asked me if I knew it. And I was like, yes, of course I knew it. I spent three years writing this. You can bet that I knew the background of my characters.
But the background is something that you explore through the drafts, and you get rid of everything that you assume is superficial and doesn’t help in the narrative or doesn’t help in the arcs.
In the end, I know exactly for example, what happened to Vincent’s son, but I’m not going to tell you. I know it because I actually wrote the scenes, but I’m not going to tell you because in the end for me, I made the decision that it would only be about my two characters. Everything somehow diverting us from that would have to go away. And it’s not always my pleasure to do this because you get rid of some things that you actually like. But for me, my main focus was really both of them (Alexia and Vincent). They are the only thing that matters in my film.
VS – You’re weaving such an intricate story, and you have a mostly silent protagonist. That’s like boxing with a hand tied behind your back. What did you do cinematically to convey their story when so much of it is very subtle and nuanced?
JD – I guess that’s why I rely so much on the tools of cinema. I mean the image and sound. This is the first thing I write in the script, actually. In France, we have this tradition of having a cinema of texts. You have a lot of dialogues and it’s very much a cinema of writers actually which I love for [some] of them, and I have nothing against, but somehow I don’t the express myself like this.
I usually think about the scene visually speaking, so I would write in the script everything that has to do with the image, the lights, the costumes. The only thing I don’t write out is the camera angles because that would make it unreadable, but I will write all the sound effects, all the special effects as well, and this is incredibly precise.
So I go as far as I can with all the tools that cinema can bring me in order to express something. And if at the end of that, I am not there yet, then I’m considering dialogue. So that’s how I work. It’s really image first image and sound first, words afterwards. And it’s all the more important with such a topic as love in Titane, because when I decided to put love at the center of my next film, it was a huge challenge for me because I didn’t think I could do it, to be honest.
I did not believe I was able to talk about love. The reason why I didn’t think that is because the way I see love, the way I want to express love is as what it could be, as a becoming. And that becoming, or this possibility, somehow embraces the idea that this isn’t conditional and absolute, and that for me, love is something that helps us go beyond representations and beyond social constructs and beyond any preconceived ideas that we could have of someone else and just go past that and need that person, because that person’s there and this person is there for you. And that’s it.
I mean, I don’t care, [about] the gender, I don’t even care if she has metal in her body or not. You know what I mean? It’s like, at one point then, the only thing that matters is their bond, and this is something that I wanted to talk about. So you can imagine that for me, putting words on that feeling that is so transcendent, somehow would tend to belittle it. I knew from the start that I would not be using lots of dialogue and that the images and the situations and the scenes were the tools to get me into that.
VS – Well, speaking of that bond that’s so essential to Titane. I read that you wrote the Vincent role with Vincent Lindon in mind. Writing a role for a specific actor is always a daring move. What did you see in the real-life Vincent that led you to write him into such a pivotal role in your story?
JD – Okay, well, the first thing, we’ve known each other for 11 years. We were friends, but we never talked about work. We never talked about working together before that. The first draft of my script, very early, I instantly knew obviously, Alex being a form of psychopath, I knew that the bearer of emotions in the film would be Vincent.
Not only is he the bearer of emotion because he can express them, which is not [Alexia’s] case, but also because I think that we can relate to his journey in the impossibility of grieving his son. It’s something that we can relate to. We can understand, even though somehow it became this form of madness with his fantasy, and wanting to be a father at all costs, no matter who he has in front of him. But still we can understand the pain it stems from. With her, it’s way more difficult to relate. It’s another level and another type of work.
Knowing that, I really knew I needed an actor with emotions, really someone who would bear his emotions on his sleeve basically, completely at the surface. And Vincent is really that type of actor. He is constantly… his emotions are always here. It’s never buried or takes a long time [to surface] or anything. He keeps everything there, which makes him incredibly extreme and lively, and very interesting to film because he’s always present. And I also knew that he was very corporeal, which is very important for me because physicality has a lot to do with my work, and he’s a physical actor.
For example, onset, I only direct bodies. I don’t talk about psychology. Psychology for me, is something that I talk before in pre-production for a year, year and a half. We talk a lot about the characters, but on set, I direct bodies, and Vincent is like, this is the only thing he wants.
So basically, it was really fluid between us on set because I was like, “Vincent, your arm.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I know my arm. Yeah, I know I have to leave it there. Yeah. I have to go there. I know.” And it was very, very fast and very, very nice too.
And also, the last thing, I do think that knowing him well, I knew that it was time for him to play with his image more and that he was ready for that because he would tell me, but, you know, in kind of biased ways, he would tell me that he, at 60 (when we shot), that he wanted to take some risks with his own image. And here I arrived.
VS – So many filmmakers I speak to, they described the shooting process like going to battle every day. It’s a series of challenges. How did shooting Titane force you to grow and evolve as a filmmaker?
JD – So that was a war every day, a full war every day. It was not just a battle, it was like every day was a new war (laughing). Yeah, that was, I mean, that was an amazing shoot because of many things. But one of the reasons that is very specific, is that we shot in between two lockdowns in 2020 – between August and November 2020. And before that, our pre-production had been adjourned for a few months because of COVID. And I can tell you that my crew – that by the way, I’m so grateful never left me – we all felt that it was vital that we had to go through the film, that we had to finish it before the second lockdown that we knew was going to happen.
So there was this very intense energy, like running after time somehow. And at the same time, feeling that in the horrible, horrible context that we shot the film, it made us feel that life prevailed somehow if we went through the whole shoot. So the crew was incredibly close-knit because of that energy very much, and thank God because it was an exhausting shoot, exhausting challenges, huge challenges every day, not a lot of time to shoot, by the way.
But in the end, I think it transformed me in the sense that we all overcame a lot while doing this thing, things that we didn’t think we could overcome. We actually proved something to ourselves. Finishing the film was a huge achievement for all of us because we really thought that we would get interrupted and that this film would never be done, ever again.
VS – I’m glad that you did finish Titane. What a great work of art you’ve brought into the world. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on all your success.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity.