French director Julia Ducournau, who burst onto the world filmmaking scene in 2016 with her first feature “Raw,” is changing the vocabulary of cinema with her heart-stopping imagery and boundary-blurring approach to genre.
That originality helped propel her second film, “Titane,” to a Palme d’Or in Cannes this year, making Ducournau just the second woman to win the prestigious prize after Jane Campion. “Titane” is the story of a young woman who has a metal plate fitted in her skull after a terrible accident as a child. On the run after a series of violent encounters, she finds refuge at a fire station, and a father figure in a fire chief, played by veteran French star Vincent Lindon. All the while, her body feels the transformative and visceral effects of having coupled with a shiny, sexy automobile at a car show.
But although moviegoers have been known to faint during Ducournau’s films, don’t call her a horror director: She works in the European tradition of visceral cineastes like Pier Paulo Pasolini and Carlos Saura — plus a nod to the body horror of David Cronenberg — and her work defies categorization. “Titane” opens Friday in theaters.
When Spike Lee announced “Titane” as Palme d’Or winner at the beginning of the ceremony, did you think you had heard right?
I was very confused, and a bit shocked as well. I thought I had misheard or he had misread. But I told Spike Lee that it had heart it made it a lively ceremony. We have had to restart this big machine after two years, so there are some quirks, but it makes it more human.
Your lead, Agathe Rousselle, had never acted — why was that important to you?
I wanted the audience to only see the part and accept the part through the film. With my director of casting, we decided to check out models’ profiles on Instagram, and we pulled them from that. I wanted someone who had the energy, a look that was quite fascinating and mesmerizing right away, and she has great angles.
How did you guide her acting, since she didn’t have much dialogue?
To see what she could get out of herself, and get out of the consciousness that all actors have, I made her work on various monologues — Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” the “Twin Peaks” one from Laura Palmer’s grave and Villanelle in “Killing Eve,” since they had a broad spectrum of emotions. In “Network,” it goes from deep anger to deep despair, in “Twin Peaks” is goes from teenage sweet to deep heartbreak and crying. When you don’t have many lines, the worst-case scenario would be that the person was blank.
Did you consider both women and men for the part of Alexia?
For this particular part, gender was not relevant. I really needed someone who had an androgynous look, and someone who had an unknown face on which we couldn’t project anything else. Since the character navigates between genders, and blurs the lines throughout the film, it felt completely normal to test both genders.
What was your vision for Vincent Lindon — he’s been in dozens of films, but we’re not used to seeing him so physical?
The physicality in actors is something I’m looking for — I try to express things with the image first before the words. Vincent did heavy weightlifting for a year and a half. I wrote the part for him, though at the beginning it was unconscious — my subconscious was thinking about him. It’s not the way you’re used to seeing him. In life, he’s someone who moves me because extremes are constantly co-existing in him. He’s like this big suit of armor, he wears his body like an armor, and yet he’s constantly on the verge of crumbling. I knew I could show him like no one had seen him before.
Did you expect the kinds of extreme reactions some viewers have had?
I hope people are in for the ride and watch it to the end and debate, that is what art is for, to create new debate and new questions. Some of the reactions are really something I had not predicted, like the fainting.
Do you consider your films horror films?
I think both my features are hard to label. That’s actually something that I’m seeking. I’m trying to make this experience about what it is to be human, and to mix all these typologies of film. I don’t think I’m making horror. I use the grammar of horror and drama and sci-fi. I try to make them intertwined in a way that my film is its own wild animal.
Both of your features start with car crashes – what’s your connection to these images of metal and pipes?
Metal is cold, heavy, dead, it doesn’t react to our eyes. I wanted to try to make it something alive. In the beginning, the journey through the engine is the journey through the character. I tried to film the pipes like they were intestines and trying to make them organic with the liquid like black oil. The metal in her head makes her dead inside, so I wanted to intertwine all these thoughts between humans and dead metal and reverse the way they react.
How do you feel about “Titane” being called a great queer film?
Absolutely, it’s about blurring the lines. But also because of the first meaning of the word — it is queer, it’s bizarre. Very early on in the writing, I stopped thinking about first act, second act, climax. I wanted an energy and a very optimistic ending, I started with the ending and I worked my way back to the beginning. I wanted a movie that sheds its layers one after the other. It’s the same way that Vincent looks at Adrien, layers after layers, he starts seeing the person behind the fantasy. I wanted to start with very baroque, in your face, super strong colors, violence, layers after layers, then you get to the essence — which is love.
What about being categorized as a “woman filmmaker”?
It’s weird that there should be two categories, men filmmakers and women filmmakers. It’s just common sense that this should not happen. It doesn’t matter when you see a film whether the person who made it is male or female; it’s absolutely irrelevant. A film is a film, art is art.
In Cannes, there were four women in competition, if next year there’s 10 out of 20 films, there’s more chance for a woman to win the Palme d’Or, and it won’t be an exception anymore.
What kind of things were you watching when you were young?
Obviously Cronenberg was foundational for me, so was Pasolini’s work which I compulsively watched around 16. It’s very organic cinema — “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” — it’s abstract but carnal and sensual. Obviously “Salo,” we could talk about it for three weeks. Italian neorealism was an aesthetic shock to me, it was proof of cinematic freedom, remembrance and memories on screen. Carlos Saura’s “Cria Cuervos” had incredible freedom of narration. These movies really put you into the subjectivity of the characters so much. Directors who challenge the form a lot in order to talk about us, humanity, to talk about us in a very free way always inspired me a lot.
Have you been re-watching any old favorites during the pandemic?
Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark,” which then made me re-watch Michael Mann’s “Heat,” both with music by Tangerine Dream. There’s one shot in “Near Dark,” when she’s turning into a vampire, in a pickup truck where they kiss super-passionately. I love how she did that. It’s very sensual, amazing filmmaking.
What else have you been enjoying lately?
At the Francois Pinault collection in Paris, there’s an amazing wax sculpture by Urs Fischer. It’s based on The Abduction of the Sabine Women. It melts little by little, it was super moving. Marble is supposed to last forever, but you feel your own mortality, it was crumbling to nothingness. I had tears in my eyes, it left a crazy impression.