If you saw Titane with no idea who had made it, you might picture a mad scientist, her hair mussed and her eyes wild as she brews her latest gender-bending body horror creation.
But when you log on to Zoom to talk with director Julia Ducournau about her Palme d’Or winning-film, she’s all smiles, wearing a fuzzy sweater and a delicate gold necklace. If you saw her out to eat at a restaurant, you wouldn’t think to yourself, “I bet that woman makes movies about cannibalism and serial killers who have sex with cars.” But that’s what’s so engaging about Ducournau: Like all visionary directors, her mind works in exciting and unexpected ways.
The A.V. Club talked with Ducournau about the recurring characters in her films, her choice of pop music to soundtrack Titane’s outrageous scenes of violence, and the moment of shock and disbelief when she realized that she was the second woman ever to take the top prize at Cannes. Note that some light spoilers for Titane, and a big one for Ducournau’s 2016 debut Raw, lie ahead.
The A.V. Club: Garance Marillier, who played Justine in Raw, also plays a character named Justine in this film. Are you creating your own cinematic universe?
Julia Ducournau: Garance has been playing Justine from my first short, Junior. Actually, in Junior, Raw, and Titane, you can find Justine, Alexia, and Adrien. And it’s not because I don’t have any imagination, as far as that’s concerned… I like to consider my films as being part of a continuity, or the same gesture. It doesn’t mean that they are prequels or sequels or whatever; it’s nothing like that. But it’s true. In all my films, I want to dig deeper and deeper into my obsessions and my desires, into my apprehension of humanity. So for me, it’s logical to call my characters the same [names], because I see them—especially Justine, because she’s been there for so long—as a mutation of the same character. There is a backbone.
For example, when I [cast] her in Junior, the character was 11, and so was Garance. In Raw, she was 17—the character, and Garance. And in Titane, she’s 22. So there is a chronological evolution there. They’re not exactly the same, because they don’t obey exactly the same arc of character. But they are different takes, different facets of the same character.
And the same goes with [the character of] Alexia. She’s Justine’s older sister in Raw, which has a very dark ending where she ends up in a cell. And I decided to see what it would give [story-wise] if I took her out of her cell and put her into another world. I wanted to see if I could find her humanity. Because that’s the whole issue with Raw, is that this character lets herself be completely controlled by her own impulses and her own animality and loses touch with her humanity. And I tried to see if I could find it again in Titane.
AVC: So do you see this arc as something that you’ll continue in future films, in terms of going deeper?
JD: I think there will always be that common background. I can’t say for sure that it will, considering my next film, but I will definitely try to keep this affiliation between my films going, yeah.
AVC: Speaking of Justine, I’d like to discuss a Titane scene that features her. You have this scene at the vacation house that’s this little slasher-movie interlude in the middle of the film. Was that inspired by anything in particular?
JD: Not really. [Laughs.] But that’s a nice way to put it, a slasher interlude. I like that. I never really considered it as a slasher, because in a slasher movie the killer is always someone who comes from the outside. It’s not the main character who comes in and disrupts a certain organization and their routine. Obviously, this is my main character who’s at the center of this, so I don’t consider it a slasher, necessarily.
However, this scene was definitely made to be comedy. I’ve always thought about it as something that is very absurd, in the sense that [Alexia] doesn’t control anything anymore and is completely overwhelmed for the first time in the film—which was, incidentally, a great way to to to feel some empathy for her for the first time. But you can really feel the fact that she can’t take it anymore. [Laughs.]
AVC: Titane has quite a few needle drops. What do you like about using those, and how do the songs in the film tie in to the tone or the story for you?
JD: All of the songs that are in the film were already there in the script. I chose them all very carefully, they all have a point. Obviously, it’s also about the melody and all that, but it’s more about the point that it can give to a scene. For example, I think that the Caterina Caselli, the Italian song [that plays over] the killing spree, was a perfect counterpoint to what was happening, and enhanced the comedic aspect of it.
But the main thing that made me choose these songs are their lyrics. Each one of them, in each scene that I put them in, says something. It adds other information that the characters cannot say, or think but will not say. At the start, we have “Wayfaring Stranger,” the only song we find in two different variations [in the film].
And the lyrics of “Wayfaring Stranger” are, for me, a way to point to the loneliness Alexia feels, and how she feels disconnected from humanity and just wanders through the world, a bit like a soulless figure. And the way I varied it at the end of the film—I’m using it in a very different way. We used a variation that is way more bluesy, even though we kept a little bit of banjo.
And for me, at this level, I’m trying to pinpoint the fact that [Alexia] is complete at that moment. She’s a wayfaring stranger, but in the sense that she’s actually unique. And she’s full in herself at this moment, no matter her gender and no matter if she’s in the humanity of her body or not. She’s in a moment of grace. She’s really, truly the character she’s supposed to be at that moment. So that’s why it was important to have an echo between the two songs, because there is an evolution.
This works as well, for example, with, for example, the Caterina Caselli, because the title of the song is, “Nessuno Mi Può Guidicare,” which means, “No one can judge me, even you.” For me, Alexia is saying this to the audience. It’s a way for her to say, “No matter what happens here, you can’t judge me. If I lose control, you can’t judge me. If I kill people, you can’t judge me.” It’s a way to have a direct dialogue with the audience at this level. So all this was thought of well ahead.
AVC: You said it was in the script?
JD: It was, which made it incredibly stressful for my music supervisor to deal with the rights. I was like, “Man, I really need those songs, they really mean something.” He was like, “Okay, the entire song?” “Yeah, the entire song.” “Oh, god damn it.” [Laughs] We had a few cold sweats, but he did a great job.
AVC: Did you listen to these songs while you were writing as well?
JD: There are songs that I would listen to over and over and over again until I finished [the script]. And that can last quite a long time! So now I can’t listen to them anymore, unfortunately.
AVC: What it was like being at that Palme d’Or ceremony, when Spike Lee announced your award early. What were you thinking?
JD: That was one hell of a rollercoaster. The first thing is that I heard Spike Lee [say my name] at the start, and I could not unhear it. I heard it. But some people around me had not. So it made me doubt my own senses.
And at one point, I was hit by disbelief. Everything was so weird in that ceremony, it was not like abiding by the normal chronological order. So I was a bit lost, and I was in utter disbelief, like, “I probably misheard that. There was a problem with the cards. They called my name by mistake.” I went through all this until the very end.
AVC: And then they handed you your award and you said, “Oh, I guess I did win?”
JD: There was a little bit of disbelief left, to be perfectly honest. But that was under the shock of emotion. It was actually very overwhelming, not only because of the prize, but because I had a very big sense when I was on that stage of how something beyond me—and beyond my film—was happening, and [that I was] connected with the future. That was very comforting.
It felt very nice to think that, being the second [woman to win the Palme], I was not an exception, like Jane Campion has been for 28 years. There would be more behind me. So that felt very good, and very exhilarating.
AVC: Yeah, I thought the same. I thought, “Oh, the future is coming. It’s now.”
Titane is playing in select theaters now.