With Titane, Director Julia Ducournau Births a New Genre

by Lynn Hirschberg
Photography by Neige Thébault

Julia Ducournau wears her own clothing  and jewelry. Hair by Asami Maeda for Wise and Talented using...
Julia Ducournau wears her own clothing and jewelry. Hair by Asami Maeda for Wise and Talented using Oribe; makeup by Phophie Mathias for Wise and Talented using Dior.

Your film Titane, which deftly combines science fiction with present-day reality, while exploring gender fluidity and the power of the mechanical world, was awarded the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. You are only the second woman in history to win the Palme d’Or. What was that moment like?

I had been in Cannes before with my first two films, Junior and Raw, but for Titane, it was different, more emotional. I was in the dark until Spike Lee, the head of the jury, kind of slipped up and told the audience that I had won. Even then, I thought I had misheard him. What helped me get onstage was thinking about Jane Campion, who was the first woman to win the Palme d’Or, 28 years ago. Twenty-eight years! I believe that it will not take another 28 years for a female director to win the top prize again. A movement has taken hold that can’t be denied.

Titane is an unconventional story about a person with a violent past and a deep, psychosexual relationship to cars. How did you find Agathe Rousselle, who plays the main character?

I knew I wanted to cast a nonprofessional actor who had never made a film before. Alexia has to go through a mutation, and I didn’t want the audience to recognize the performer and then marvel at their physical changes. I looked at both men and women for the part, because Alexia had to be fully androgynous. After casting Agathe, I worked with her for a year before filming began. Even though the character is nearly mute, I wanted her to feel internal rage. I had Agathe perform monologues from films and TV: Villanelle from Killing Eve; a speech from Twin Peaks; and, especially, the “mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” rant from Network. She also had fight training—Alexia kills people, and Agathe had to look like she could break bones.

The film starts with Alexia dancing on the hood of a car. Do you have an interest in automobiles?

No! I don’t even have a driver’s license. But to me, muscle cars represent toxic masculinity. In commercials, in movies, you name it, cars are always very male in the worst way. I wanted to reverse that idea by having the car be under the power of a female. My film is about gender, and cars can be seen as a form of identity.

Due to a childhood accident, Alexia has an elaborate metal plate behind her right ear. It reminded me of drawings by H.R. Giger for the film Alien. Was that an inspiration?

Yes, Giger inspired me from the start. The prosthesis is meant to be both metallic and organic: You can see the brain tissue behind it. I love the idea of something beautiful and scary. In many ways, that’s the metaphor for the film: Find the beauty in what is not beautiful; find the light in the darkest corner of humanity.

What were your other influences?

I looked at paintings by Caravaggio; Summer Night, by Winslow Homer; and the “Empire of Light” series, by Magritte. Those paintings are all very dark, and in this film, I wanted the dark to be very dark so that the light would be blinding. The only movie that inspired Titane was 1917. I was mesmerized by two scenes: when the town is on fire, and the forest scene. It’s a war film, but there were moments of great beauty despite the carnage.

You have repeatedly said that despite the violence and the “unlovable” characters, you conceived Titane as an optimistic love story.

Yes. In the end, the characters are free. They find an unconditional love, devoid of any gender representation or social construct. The future may not be how we imagine it—it may even be monstrous, in some ways—but we could also give birth to a new humanity. Nothing is simple!