This article, part of our coverage of NYFF59, appeared in the October 6 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021)

The first film directed by a woman to win a solo Palme d’Or in the history of Cannes, Julia Ducournau’s Titane folds a surprisingly moving, even tender story of redemption into one of the most thrillingly violent body horror dramas to grace screens in some time. The film follows a murderous, amoral, and pregnant mechanophile, Alexia (a Buster Keaton–like Agathe Rousselle), as she goes on the run following a gruesome mass killing. Disguising herself as Adrien, a young man who has been missing for years, Alexia sets to work remaking her body and identity. The second half of the film traces this transformation in all its strange, disturbing beauty, as Alexia becomes increasingly close with Adrien’s father Vincent, a bereft fire chief played by Vincent Lindon in one of the year’s most affecting performances. An audacious and deeply vulnerable story about trauma, family, and the warped ways of love, Titane opened on October 1 after screening at this year’s New York Film Festival.

On behalf of Film Comment, Isabel Sandoval, director of Lingua Franca, chatted with Ducournau over Zoom about Titane and its fascination with bodies, desire, empathy, comedy, and more.

What about the human body fascinates you the most? Was there a particular experience or memory that was formative in your attraction to the body?

Well, my parents are both doctors. At night they would talk about their jobs and their patients. I grew up hearing that, having medicine books at home, having magazines at home. It was everywhere in my life. It’s something that is pretty common, I’ve found, with people whose parents are both doctors: You have this sense of your own mortality at a pretty early stage in life. It has always been linked for me to a very human way of doing things. My parents are empathetic people, and they have always told me that “each patient is different, each body is different.” I believe that as far as our own mortality is concerned, we are all equal. But at the same time, we all have our own singular experience of our bodies.

I put together a list of the most sensuous and sensual movies. Raw and Titane are both on it because they visually thrum and quiver with the desire emanating from their protagonists. Can you tell me more about the role that desire—who feels it, who’s fueled by it, and who expresses it—plays in your work, especially in relation to the gaze? You’ve mentioned that in Titane you tried to subvert the male gaze that usually dominates how we see women’s bodies.

Absolutely. For me, the gaze has a connotation of social construct, especially when you’re talking about the male gaze, but the female gaze as well. This gaze is biased in some way that has been socially constructed. Desire is something that escapes that. For me, desire is freedom. I think that is very much what I have portrayed in both my features. Alexia’s case, of course, has to do very much with a death drive. It’s the opposite of how it is constructed in the case of Justine in Raw. In Raw, it’s a two-way street. She has someone with whom shares an unconditional love and desire beyond any gender or any form of sexuality, because they need each other. This is very foundational when they have sex in Raw, and very positive for me. In the end, she doesn’t bite him, she bites herself. And somehow he doesn’t get scared by that.

In Titane, it’s a one-way street. In the end, even though she has this special bond with her car, it remains a car. It remains a way for her to be not in touch with her own humanity. However, the desire that she starts feeling for Vincent after she has decided to become Adrien is a trigger for her to start feeling human for the first time in her life. It is incredibly freeing. It all comes together at the level of desire in the slow-motion scene with Future Islands’ “Lighthouse” playing in the background when all the firemen are dancing together. For me, this scene is sensual and graceful. Grace is really what happens in this moment for Alexia. She starts feeling something that is beyond her, which is her desire for Vincent.

You’ve said that you find inspiration in nightmares. What’s a story that you’re most afraid to tell, or that you don’t feel quite ready to tell yet?

Is there a story that I’m afraid to tell? [Laughter] Bah! If there is such a story—maybe there is, maybe they are already in all my films—I would make a film about it.

The names Alexia, Justine, and Adrien recur in both Raw and Titane. Is there any specific intent behind this repetition? Are you gesturing toward archetypes? 

I think this… is the foundation of everything. I started with Justine in Junior. She is portrayed by Garance Marillier [who also plays a character named Justine in Titane], who’s like my little sister and my muse, someone I adore. Originally, Justine —and it’s probably a bit less so the case in Titane, but still maybe in a very ironic way—was named after the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu. It tells the story of a young girl who learns about her desires in very, let’s say, twisted ways, to say the least. For me, the irony of this novel is incredibly funny and still so modern today.

Alexia, to be honest—I was just looking for a name with an “x” in it. I needed an “x” for many symbolic reasons, but also because it feels profane and modern. I needed this in order to mark her as someone who has a decadent journey through Raw, and who is actually going downward as the film progresses. There is something transgressive about that “x”.

What about Adrien? In both Raw and Titane, he is essentially annihilated. In Titane, Alexia overtakes and inhabits Adrien.

Adrien is like a forgotten hero, a shadow hero. That’s the case in Raw, where he’s the sunlight of the film. He’s the strong one: honest, straightforward, loving. His character is maybe the one I enjoyed writing the most. Titane, in some ways, plays like a melancholy homage to him. In Titane, Adrien is someone who has died but is reborn through Vincent and Alexia’s relationship. I like the idea of having Adrien from Raw being reborn in Titane. You see, my characters bear the same names because I consider them to be mutations of the same person.

Of these characters, who do you identify with the most?

I think I am very much the Justine of Junior, my short film. I find myself in Adrien in Raw, as well. The rest… I’m pretty much everywhere, in all my characters, because they make me laugh, all of them. Junior is a teen comedy, and Adrien has great punchlines in Raw. He’s funny and on the light side, and I can relate to people who make me laugh. That’s my sense of humor!

Speaking of humor, there’s noticeably more moments of levity in Titane than in Raw. I’m curious about the role of comedy in your films, especially when juxtaposed with violence and gore. 

The tools that I use are those of the body horror, comedy, thriller, and drama genres. These are the areas I feel comfortable working within, and they all go well together. Humor helps with catharsis when things are too dark, and provides distance: being able to laugh helps put things in perspective and is actually very healthy. That’s how I use humor, to let things breathe a little bit.

It’s also a great way to create empathy for your character. This was especially important with Alexia, a character who is impossible to relate to at the start of the film, because she doesn’t show any emotion whatsoever. The killing spree in the house, which is clearly a comedy scene, comes after this dark scene where we see the cause of her derangement. Her body is telling her “you’re pregnant,” and the fact that she can’t control it derails her. Something in her body has changed, and she just can’t take it anymore. It makes her react like a human being for the first time in the film. You can empathize with her mind, but through her body, which is now pregnant and tired and doesn’t have the strength to kill everyone, because there are just too many people in the house. So you see how the comedy of the body can get to the mind.

What inspires you these days? Do you follow a lot of recent cinema?

While I’m making a film, I don’t watch movies. I don’t want to derail my own thoughts and I don’t want to be disturbed by something I could have said or something I wish I had done. But recently I got my revenge by watching a lot of movies that I’d missed in theaters. For example, I watched Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg, a director [whose films] I am always looking forward to seeing. He’s good at portraying the grey zones in relationships, which is also something I’m trying to do. He manages to make you, as an audience member, go beyond the preconceived ideas you have about a character at the start of the film. It’s something that for me, as a director, is very hard to do—keeping the audience with the character without them really knowing how to pinpoint that character. I think it’s really brave and smart, the way he does it. I was not disappointed with Another Round because the last scene, of the dance, got me crying like crazy. It’s so graceful and beautiful, and Mads Mikkelsen is so on top of things because he was a dancer before. I really, really love this film.

Jean Cocteau said filmmakers make the same films over and over again, and we’re just reshuffling the deck of our artistic obsessions. What do you think is the one idea or image you keep coming back to in your work, reinterpreting it in a different way with each new film?

One way or another, I’m still going to keep opening the skin. I believe you have to be many to be one. I have a very existentialist way of taking on life. I think that life is only shedding skins, trying to get closer to yourself. It can be through wounds, or other things.

Isabel Sandoval has directed three narrative features, including Lingua Franca, which premiered at the 2019 Venice FilmFestival and was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2021 Independent Spirit Awards. She is currently working on her fourth feature, Tropical Gothic, which won a development prize at the 2021 Berlinale Co-Production Market.