Why Palme d'Or-winning horror Titane is all about love

Julia Ducournau, the director of cult horror Raw, explores the boundaries of sexuality and genre with her uninhibited new film Titane. We speak to Ducournau and Titane's game-for-anything star, Agathe Rousselle, about this brutal film's tender core

Feature by Xuanlin Tham | 16 Dec 2021
  • Titane

A girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Dancers pressing themselves against the bodies of automobiles, metal and flesh drenched seductively in neon light. An erotic collision between woman and car. A match to petrol as the final flourish to a killing spree. This is the world of Julia Ducournau’s Titane: the flame-licked, battered and beautiful work of a filmmaker deeply invested in mythmaking.

“I like to create my own world,” writer-director Ducournau explains, “so it’s logical for me to try and create a form of mythology within my film. My characters start as archetypes – archetypes I’m going to try to deconstruct.” She drew inspiration from the biggest stories of all – creation myths. “I thought a lot about the story of Gaia and Uranus, where the gods of the Earth and the sky, by mating, gave birth to the Titans.” Ducournau weaves a tale where humanity is violent and monstrous, but also resilient: “[Gaia and Uranus] repopulate the earth with something that stands for strength somehow. Hence the title of my film – ‘titane’ means titanium, but it’s also a feminine way to put the word ‘titan.’”

While Titane feels otherworldly, it retains the intimate fascination with human flesh of Ducournau’s cannibalistic first feature, Raw. “As far as bodies are concerned,” she says, “[it’s] deeply rooted in a form of realism: the way I treat wounds, the way I treat the skin and the blood.” The body that grounds Titane, enacting both myth and realism, belongs to Agathe Rousselle. In a feature film debut that sears itself into our retinas with its viscerality, the actor’s performance as Alexia is phoenix-like: rebirth and transformation are wrought through self-destruction.

It’s a largely wordless performance, but Rousselle wasn't daunted by the fact her body would be her chief mode of communicating to camera. “I’ve worked as a model,” she says, “and if you know that you can look good on camera, you’re not scared of looking like shit, you know? Ugliness – I don’t have a problem with it. Knowing what a camera does to me was really freeing. I was always someone really physical; I’ve done dozens of different sports.”

Rousselle's mercurial lead role in Titane gave her the opportunity to discover new modes of physical expression, including how to give “an aggressive lap dance” to a car. “I had no idea I could dance like that before,” she laughs. “It was not a part of my femininity that I really embraced. Between this and going to the mosh pit, I would always choose the mosh pit; not the same crowd.” Rousselle underwent three months of dance training with Doris Arnold, or “the queen of pole dancing in Paris” as she enthusiastically relates. “She taught me everything. And now I’m super happy to know how to twerk,” Rousselle grins, a sparkle in her eyes. “At parties, I entertain people.”

The film is propelled by Alexia’s transformational arc. The femme fatale-esque exotic dancer that we meet in the film’s neon-drenched opening must soon mutate, both bodily and psychologically. “When [Alexia] is dancing with the car, she’s definitely active in her own narrative,” Ducournau emphasises. “She’s not as passive and objectified as the other dancers. However, she remains enclosed in the very stereotyped realm of the car show.” Eschewing a traditional three-act structure in favour of tunnelling deeper and deeper under her main character’s skin, one way that Ducournau charts Alexia’s evolution is through dance. But first, she needed to give Alexia a dance partner.

Fleeing from the cops, Alexia painfully rearranges her bodily and facial features to adopt a new identity: that of Adrien, the missing son of steroid-addicted fireman Vincent Legrand (Vincent Lindon). Ducournau envisioned Alexia and Vincent as two archetypal titans meeting. “I often refer to Vincent’s character as being a golem, and also a centaur, as far as his body is concerned," she says. “And obviously, [Alexia] is a form of cyborg as well.” A strange bond sees the two characters gradually tear down their walls, especially in scenes where they dance with each other, allowing music and movement to tether them together. “It came very naturally to create these dance scenes when I was writing, because when you have a character that can’t talk” – Vincent presumes his newly-returned son is reticent to speak due to trauma – “you have to find a way for [the characters] to interact.

“Dancing is a very expressive and immediate way to have dialogue between characters,” continues Ducournau, “but also between the characters and the audience. When you receive dancing, when you watch it and receive it, there is an immediacy of the body’s reaction. Every time I go see a ballet, I move my arms just a little bit: it’s like I want to accompany the gestures with my fingers. It creates a physical bond between me and the dancers, and it’s something I’ve always noticed to be very strong.”

The massive physical transformation Rousselle had to embody helped her to find the vulnerability she needed for the performance, dancing with Alexia into the dark. “You go from a very hot blonde, you know, embracing all the stereotypes that people await from women to this...” She pauses to find the right words to describe the frail Adrien. “Piece of crap?” she suggests. “Half-shaved, no eyebrows, broken nose, it’s like, what the fuck?”

Rousselle laughs, gesturing around her face. “That transformation made me as an actress, and the character, very vulnerable. Also because she’s pregnant.” Some days on set required six to eight hours of prosthetic fitting, including glueing on a fake pregnant belly moulded on to Rousselle’s actual stomach. “It was really disturbing because if I ever got pregnant, that’s what I would look like.”

The intensity of the actor’s own bodily experience meant that navigating Alexia’s psychological transformation from stone-cold serial killer to awkward, out-of-place fireman’s son felt organic. “Discovering your own humanity and emotions and everything [is] also a result of this transformation,” says Rousselle, reflecting on the inextricable ties between body and psyche. “She’s not in control.” Losing control – to Alexia’s surprise, perhaps – makes space for someone to care about her, and someone for her to care about. “She has a chance to kill Vincent, and she just doesn’t, because for the first time in her life she feels safe,” says Rousselle. “She literally catches feelings. And for her, it’s very uncomfortable.”

At its core, Titane is a story about the connection between this unlikely pair, and the way the unspoken forgiveness they give each other allows them both to be reborn: slightly less broken, a whole lot less alone. “You have an evolution of their relationship in the way they move together, and the way they look at each other while doing so,” says Ducournau. Reflecting on a magical scene where Alexia and Vincent dance together in intimate slow-motion with the rest of the firemen, Ducournau remarks: “For the first time, they actually look at each other and smile at each other, beyond the representations that they stand for. There is something true about the sheer joy that they share in this moment, where it’s no longer a question of building your own fantasy or pretending to be someone else.” Slowly, emphatically, she adds: “It’s really them looking at each other.”

Ducournau is always concerned with self-discovery, and the painful process of shedding multiple skins to get to the truth of who we are. Where does this leave Alexia? Her mythical evolution – into Adrien, into something in between, and perhaps back again – culminates in one final dance that both mirrors and vividly contrasts the Alexia with whom we began this journey. “All of a sudden, she’s full of all the identities that she took on herself, but that also created this new creature that you can’t really label,” says Ducournau. “She [performs] the same [exotic dance] moves from the beginning, but these moves are [now] digested by the rest of her personality. There is a form of biblical grace in this scene. Some of the firemen look at her like she’s the Messiah; others have to look away because the power of this creature is too much to take in. Obviously, it defies the norm of their masculinity, that’s for sure. But there is something beyond gender in that.” Ducournau emphasises: “It’s about the sacredness of that person.”

And it does feel sacred, the hope that Titane bestows upon its audience. Bringing Alexia’s transformation to life reinforced something that Rousselle already believed in: “No matter what your upbringing was, no matter what kind of shit you went through, you can always overcome it. You can carry your parents’ shit your whole life, or you can just set it free.” Her words come rushing forth, earnest but firm. “Ultimately, you can choose to have something safe and peaceful, which is what Alexia found with Vincent – a safe place.”

It’s all about love, really. “The love that we can have for each other as human beings, beyond the idea of gender, or any kind of determinant,” Ducournau specifies. “Our mortality is a link between all of us, in front of which we are all constantly vulnerable.” So what do we do? We find each other in the dark. “There is no brightness without darkness, and vice versa.

“When you know that’s where you want to go with your film, that you want that brightness, that you want that hope...” Ducournau pauses. “That new world I try to hint at, it’s stronger than ours,” she continues. “And it’s stronger because it’s monstrous, but also because the monstrosity of this new world is looked at with love. Then you have to work your way back to start your story. It has to start in darkness. It’s a chiaroscuro, like Caravaggio’s paintings.”

She smiles. “You can’t have one without the other. It’s not that easy, you know?”

Titane is released 26 Dec by Altitude