“When I see a stereotype,” says French director Julia Ducournau, “I try to kill it.” She certainly did that in July by winning the top prize at the Cannes film festival. The most revered and exalted award in cinema, a world away from the erratic glossiness of the Oscars, the Palme d’Or tends to honour films that both further the language of cinema and shed light on the loftier questions of earthly existence. You expect humanism, seriousness, perhaps a dash of difficulty. What you don’t expect is in-your-face sexuality, serial slaughter, a ferocious, electrically coloured techno-metal aesthetic – and radical DIY nasal surgery.
But that’s what you get in Ducournau’s Titane – only the second Palme d’Or winner by a female director, the first being Jane Campion’s shared win with The Piano in 1993. Her win, says Ducournau in transatlantically inflected English, “was incredibly powerful to me. Through this prize, a lot was happening. It took 28 years [since Campion’s win] and I believe it’s not going to take 28 years again.” She points to 2021’s award successes for women – Chloé Zhao at the Oscars with Nomadland, Venice winner Audrey Diwan (Happening), Romania’s Alina Grigore in San Sebastián (Blue Moon). “That can’t be looked past. Women kicked serious ass this year.”
When Spike Lee’s jury gave Titane the Palme, Ducournau thanked them for “recognising our hungry, visceral need for a more inclusive and fluid world, and for letting monsters in”. Titane is a visceral monster indeed – a shapeshifting, wildly kinetic, sometimes downright deranged blend of thriller, nightmare horror and futuristic black comedy. “Titane” is French for the metal titanium (it can also mean a female titan), and the film has a metallic hardness throughout, in its look, its music, its heroine’s nine-inch-nails demeanour.
Ducournau exudes imposing assurance, and projects a somewhat metallic look herself, a Vogue-cover glamour suggestive of an experimental rock chanteuse or a Russian tech billionaire, her hands studded liberally with rings.
Titane, I suggest, is considerably less respectable than you’d imagine a Palme d’Or winner to be (notwithstanding Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994) – not your expected sober, searching look at humanity. “I feel that my film talks about humanity very much,” Ducournau insists. “It’s the only thing it talks about.”
Titane’s heroine is a young woman named Alexia who has a metal plate in her head, makes a living doing raunchy dancing at car shows, and also kills people. Running from the law, she masquerades as the lost son of a firefighter, with whom she forms a tense, tender relationship. Beneath its layers of frenzied excess, Ducournau sees Titane as a love story between the pair. “There’s something pure and absolute about their love that emerges, beyond all the representations and lies and social constructs that we’ve been through in the film.”
Alexia is played by Agathe Rousselle, an intense-eyed newcomer with extraordinary, sharp-edged facial features: her presence is unnerving and ambiguous, at once embodying vulnerability and all-out feral intensity. Rousselle herself has described Alexia as a psychopath, although, Ducournau says: “There’s so much more grey zone about this character.” Wanting someone unfamiliar in the role, she set out on a search for androgynous faces; it was her casting director who discovered Rousselle on Instagram. “Of all the people I’d seen,” Ducournau says, “she was the one I wanted to film the most. I knew that her facial angles would transform every time I put my camera somewhere around her, that I would not get the same person.”
Rousselle is also very scary, I say. Ducournau looks puzzled. “You mean, because I’m scary as well?”
I didn’t say you were scary.
“You said, ‘also’.”
No, I meant Rousselle is angular, and also scary. Do people tell you you’re scary? Ducournau laughs. “I don’t think I am, actually. Confident maybe, but not that.”
Confident she certainly is. Enough to tell Titane’s co-star Vincent Lindon – one of French cinema’s most eminent male leads – that he would have to completely transform his body for the role of fire chief Vincent. That involved committing to two years of weight training – in his early 60s, at that. When I earlier asked Lindon about Ducournau, he made her sound, if not scary, certainly formidable. “She’s arrogant, and irresistible, like the great generals, like Napoleon. You want to give her everything. I said: ‘I give you my brain, my heart, my body, I trust you, do what you want.’” It sounds like inflated actorly rhetoric, but when you see how far Titane takes Lindon from familiar territory – he’s more often seen in downbeat roles, embodying careworn, bourgeois crisis – then you see he’s not joking.
Born in Paris, Ducournau, 38, is the daughter of doctors – her mother a gynaecologist, her father a dermatologist. The inside and the outside, I say. She gives me a look of disapproval. “No, that’s a gross comment. It’s about the individual. They always told me that there’s one case per patient, that everyone reacts differently, everyone – and it’s incredibly humane to say that.”
She studied at the Sorbonne and at elite French film school La Fémis, places that presumably require some degree of confidence. “Oh my God, that’s so funny! I never saw the Sorbonne as somewhere you had to be very confident in. There’s no way you can achieve anything by not being in constant, utter, painful doubt – especially in my job. Directing is pretty much making choices all the time – all the time, choices, choices – and you have to work with your instinct a lot. That doesn’t mean it goes with confidence – it means that I’m gonna go there and I’m gonna make it work, no matter what.”
You can’t easily imagine Ducournau losing her cool, but she admits she’s nervous about that evening’s London film festival screening of Titane. “I’m dreading it. I’m so scared that I’m gonna get booed or something. At every single screening, this is one of the fears that I have.”
And has it ever happened?
People may not have booed her films, but they have allegedly fainted. With her 2016 debut feature, Raw, Ducournau seemed to burst into existence fully formed, with an absolutely singular voice. In fact, she had previously made a mark with her 2011 short Junior, about a girl going through adolescent shifts of gender identity, a process involving much peeling and dripping prosthetic skin. Raw scooped numerous prizes, at Cannes and elsewhere, including London film festival’s Sutherland award for best first film. A coming-of-age drama steeped in blood, carnality and savage humour, it was about a veterinary student who discovers her inner cannibal. It was a triumphant outlier at a time when France’s cinema seemed to have drifted away from the so-called “new French extremity” of the turn of the century, embodied by Gaspar Noé, Claire Denis’s gore-soaked Trouble Every Day and Marina de Van’s extremely bizarre body-horror drama In My Skin.
Ducournau’s imagination could come across as blackly morbid, but what she does is simply natural to her, she insists.
“Everything comes from something very personal – I’m not going to tell you what, but I can tell you that I’m everywhere in my films. None of them are autobiographical, but it all stems from something that I have in me.
“Everything I do comes from such a deep, sincere and loving place in me – it also obviously has my energy. If we got to hang out tonight and have a drink, it would probably feel it matches what you see in the film because I have a lot of energy to spare.”
Given how aggressively her films rattle audience sensibilities, you wonder whether they strictly come from such a loving place towards her viewers. To take a blunt example, there’s the ruthlessly confrontational scene in Titane in which Alexia, running from the law, decides to alter the shape of her face, in an act of guerrilla auto-rhinoplasty that could make the toughest viewers blanch.
“Do you realise that during that sequence you don’t see anything?” Ducournau says. “You don’t see anything. For me that’s a whole achievement. All is about how I make you anticipate the worst, and because I plant this idea in your head, you can actually get to feel her pain.”
Indeed, we may not see anything at all, because we may be flinching away from the screen. Basically, then, this is her version of the shower scene in Psycho, all editing and suggestion? “Yeah. Hitchcock was actually very important in the making of Titane. Not Psycho, but Vertigo was a big reference.”
Ducournau sees her Cannes win, among other things, as a blow struck for genre cinema – and maybe it’s significant in the case of Titane that the French word genre means both “genre” and “gender”. “The nice thing about this prize is that it acknowledges that using genre, you can be very much in touch with what it means to be human. It was something that was frowned upon for a very long time – genre movies could only exist though their shock value, only be a niche. I’m very happy that this prize shows the opposite of that.”
A committed horror aficionado, Ducournau saw the notoriously nightmarish The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the age of six, when she came across it by chance on TV. “I don’t think I felt a lot when I saw it. It did not traumatise me at the time.” If it sounds like the kind of primal moment that might have formed her imagination, it wasn’t, she says. “I think reading Edgar Allan Poe was a moment for me that opened a space in my mind, but not this – it was too by chance.”
What does she look for watching horror now? “Honestly, I look to be scared – but I’m never scared. I used to be and I loved it, but when you get to be a director, you know exactly how things are made. You look at everything and you analyse everything – the sound, the effects, the actors, the camera angles. It doesn’t ruin the experience of cinema for you, but it makes it certainly very different – it’s very hard for me now either to be scared or truly to be moved.”
Directing hasn’t completely cauterised her sensibilities, though. Recently, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round moved her to tears; she loves the director, she says, because he’s a master of that “grey zone” she values. She also enthuses about the current boom in female horror; she particularly rates British films by Rose Glass (Saint Maud) and Alice Lowe (Prevenge). For her, female horror is “a horror that comes from the inside. With most male directors, it’s something that comes from outside, that attacks you. For women, it comes from something that has more to do with identity. In daily life, as a woman, you are so often subjected to outside attacks that it creates shifts in your own identity.
“I think there is a violence that is very specific to female film-makers, as far as horror is concerned – a violence that is inside, not a violence you have to fight, a violence you have to handle within yourself. This inside-outside thing makes the whole difference.”
It’s difficult to categorise Titane as female horror per se because the film is so much about subverting gender stabilities. With protagonist Alexia later becoming Adrien, the film has inevitably been read as a trans drama, but Ducournau seems shocked by the suggestion. “What? Oh my God! My character is not transgender – is this what you understand? It definitely talks about being fluid in our understanding of gender. For me, it was really to do with being able to shed any representation or social construct that goes with gender.”
Gender is not the only preconception that Titane challenges – borders also crash down between the human and the mechanical. I mention the scene where Alexia appears to have sex with a car…
“She doesn’t appear to,” Ducournau says, with manifest impatience, “She does have sex with the car. I think it’s pretty clear by the end of the film.”
I’m surprised she’s so categorical about this, given her insistence on the “grey zone”. This is precisely the moment in Titane where we ask ourselves if we really saw what we saw. But Ducournau is adamant. In her work, what you see – however outre – is what you get.
“This is the universe I create, and these are the rules of that universe. So yes, she very much does. Is there any doubt about that?
“If I show you something, it’s really happening.”
Ducournau is now a bona fide auteur star, but she’s resistant to becoming public property and is very guarded about her personal life. “Who cares what I do on a daily basis, or what I am, or whatever. The only thing that counts is the art, my films – they’re my only true way of expressing myself, and after that, I’ve said it all. And then you take it, and you make it your own – and that’s how we communicate.”
Ducournau has already had one US experience: before shooting Titane, she directed two episodes of the TV series Servant for M Night Shyamalan. No doubt the Hollywood offers have been coming in since Cannes, but Ducournau has been so busy promoting the film in the US and elsewhere, “I don’t even have time to call my agent.” Now France has audaciously named Titane as the country’s official submission to the Oscars. You can only imagine the palpitations it would give the famously conservative Academy voters. Trigger warnings may be in order, especially for anyone who’s had a nose job.