With her sophomore feature, French writer, director, and provocateur Julia Ducournau has secured her place in film history and proven herself a serious talent. Titane ––a grisly, feverish film about a pregnant serial killer turned missing child impersonator who navigates a bewildering relationship with a lonely fire captain––blew the top off the Cannes Film Festival in July. After premiering to rapturous acclaim, it took home its most coveted prize in the Palme d’Or, an award typically hauled off by a veteran, and Ducournau became the second woman director to be honored with the prize.
It didn’t matter that Spike Lee, President of the 2021 jury, accidentally revealed Titane to be the winner at the beginning of the ceremony. Why? Because Ducournau finds beauty in imperfection. Where many might’ve experienced the flub as a distraction from their moment in the spotlight, Ducournau embraced the broken nature of it all with tears in her eyes, reminding us that, in only two features, she’s made a career out of excavating human flaw in the pursuit of existential beauty. We got time with her at NYFF to talk about the ways she brought out those themes in Titane as the film arrives in U.S. theaters.
The Film Stage: You don’t just tell visceral stories––you tell stories with a strong humanist underbelly. What draws you to the intersection between the carnal and the human? Why do you spotlight human beauty through something like violence?
Julia Ducournau: It’s a hard question, because for me these things don’t go without each other. Only with somehow. And, you see, what I like to explore in my films is obviously our humanity, but also like its spectrum, what we would consider that is not human, and how it says a lot more about us than the monstrosity we’re looking at and all that. So, for me, as far as my characters are concerned––it was the same for Raw, actually––as far as the journey toward humanity is concerned, for me, it’s not taken for granted. Humanity is a constant effort. It’s a constant becoming every day. It’s never a state, and it’s never for granted. That’s why, actually, you have such a transformative arc in my films every time.
So, you see, when you’re kind of trying to define the humanity of your character, this is never something that should go easy. I don’t think that it’s easy. I do think it’s a process that’s quite painful. I think it implies getting rid of a lot of representations, getting rid of a lot of lies, getting rid of a lot of constructs, and also trying to understand what it is to have impulses and how to channel those impulses. All of these are questions that, for me, are not easy, and I think that can only happen in the form of violence. If you think about the idea of shedding a skin to get closer to your essence––which is really exactly how I build my films and how I build my characters––shedding a skin is something that is painful. It’s something organic, something that [mimes peeling skin off her shoulder] goes down, and it has to be painful. It has to be painful in order to be meaningful, as well.
So for me, you see, all this goes together. I would never use violence gratuitously for nothing, just because I decided to do so. And I do believe that talking about the birth of a new humanity––of a humanity––that is stronger because it’s monstrous, but also because it’s looked at with love and not like it’s an abnormality or something––is something that is the end of a journey that is long, so it’s not something I can start with. Hence, this descending tragedy that starts with something very violent indeed.
Do you think comedy is an essential part of that, too?
Yeah, for sure. Playing on comedy, on many levels, is very instinctive with me. Because I always like to characterize heavy scenes with dark humor. For me, it’s natural to do that. I do that in real life. It comes fairly easy. However, it’s also a writing strategy in order to build up the empathy I want the audience to have for my character. Well, it’s the case for Alexia’s character, who is, I know, unrelatable for the first thirty minutes of the film. So when you realize that when you’re writing, you’re like, okay, so how do you make the audience stay with her and not flee the theater because they don’t understand her or they don’t feel any connection?
So, for me, obviously, the first connection would be her body. It would be her pain and what she feels inside, and I’m trying to, with my mise-en-scene, to make you feel the same, to make you have this kind of body empathy for her. But humor, in that specific scene of the killing spree in the house, is also something that comes at a very specific moment that is crucial and dark for the character knowing that she just learned that she was pregnant, which implies in her a big derailing. She had control over everything, and all of a sudden her body just reacts out of control. She can’t control that anymore. So this derailing actually has some very gruesome consequences, obviously. But this is something that I know is to be a pivot moment for us to feel empathy for her. Because it is crucial that we understand that, that all of a sudden she loses control.
And so I decided to do this scene that is fairly comedic, even very comedic, when the loss of control is portrayed by all these people coming in, one after the other, that she had to get rid. I put you into her fatigue, her fed-up, her “I’m never going to do it, I’m never going to manage.” And that’s the first time that you can actually relate to her. Because being overwhelmed is something we know too well as humans, you know? And that’s why it’s so important here to have some humor, to have an entry point to that form of empathy.
I’ve seen you use the words “sacred” and “liturgical” to describe where the film goes, and I wondered if you could expand on what sense the film explores the “sacred” or “liturgical.”
The sacred was always where I wanted to go to. For me, I started with having the last scene in my head before I walked my way back to the beginning, and the last scene I knew had something to do with the birth of a new world, of a new humanity. Hence, it has something sacred, deeply sacred. But, for me, sacred here, I don’t use it in a religious way. I use it in the love that my characters share that goes beyond representation and beyond any form of determinism or social construct. This is what’s sacred to me. I think the sacred is in humanity. So that was always the case.
Obviously, I put the Bach piece at the end, in order to really pull up this very, let’s say archetypical, sacredness but on a scene that was utterly profane. So this thing of using sacred as part of humanity more than something that just falls on us comes also from this mix, you know, of this particular piece by Bach and the fact that what’s happening is very profane. And, for me, it was always the end here to the point that I told my composer, Jim Williams, in the ascending transformative arc of the music, of the film, of the score, I told him we had to start with something that was very impulsive, very animalistic, with a lot of dry drums and the bells, things that are atonal, in order to progressively use the choir in a more tonal way and have something more and more melodic. Adding the organs, as well. The organs are very important to what I do. I had a lot of them in Raw, as well. Again, to have this feeling of somehow a sacredness arising. And, you know, all this was continually in order for us to get to the Bach piece. So, I think I would say sacred more than liturgical––I’m not sure about that because again, for me, it’s not in a religious way.
Who are the three writing consultants co-credited for the screenplay? What did you consult them on and what role did they play?
There were actually two for real. One of them being my editor [Jean-Christophe Bouzy]. My editor is like my right-hand man, and we’ve been working together for so long. He knows me very well. And you know, when you’re in the editing room, it’s also a form of writing somehow. There is something that has a lot to do with writing in editing. And we work so well together in editing, it was logical for me to bring him in at the level of the writing at the start. He did not write anything. We just talked about the story and the structure. I mean, it was very much for the structure. In order to end up on the idea that there would not be a three-act structure at all [laughs], which was really fit for the film. But that’s why I brought him in, because for me writing is very related with editing. And the second one is actually Jacques Akchoti, who used to be a former teacher of mine in film school and who is someone I very often work with as a consultant, because he’s extremely uncompromising with me.
Titane is now in theaters.