Thomas Page, CNN
Julia Ducournau lights a cigarette, as if to punctuate her point. The French writer-director dreamed of love in her film “Titanium”, a backline buried under much hysteria since winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Love, she insisted, is the foundation of the whole movie, even if it is unsolvable.
“It’s pretty hard to talk about it,” Ducournau said via video call. “It’s something that a lot of people seem to handle so well in movies, in series, in art in general. For me, I felt a bit paralyzed by the subject.
This is a surprising admission by a filmmaker whose every movement on the screen is delivered with total conviction. In her first film “Raw”, Justine, a booming cannibal, tears her sister’s severed finger like a chicken wing. In her follow-up, “Titanium,” protagonist Alexia is ecstatic courtesy of a loving muscle car (giving the term “autoerotic” new meaning in the process). The thought of Ducournau in some deadlock would be funny if it weren’t so sincere.
“Titane” centers on Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), the survivor of a childhood car accident who has since become a dancer in auto shows. Objective, sexualized and sporting a scar from inserting a metal plate into her skull, Alexia has a thing for cars themselves. One night, she does the deed with a Cadillac, only to get pregnant. She’s also a serial killer, and when an episode of bloody chaos goes awry, Alexia is forced into hiding, posing as Adrien, the firefighter’s long-lost son and steroid addict Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Despite attempts to hide his body from Vincent, his baby bump continues to grow at an alarming rate. She can only keep the truth inside for so long.
Ducournau takes up genre tropes, plays with them, subverts them and then throws them away before they go beyond their welcome. In its most skeletal form, the plot reads like a provocation, even if the film’s flesh is quite different. Didn’t the sensationalism of “Titane” help? Unhelpful? I don’t know, she wondered before pausing, “I think it’s inevitable.
“I can’t dictate what people are going to think of my film or what scenes they are going to remember,” she added. “At one point, I show you my film and you make it your own. Your reaction says more about you than the movie.
Letting go must be difficult. “It’s an effort, for sure,” said Ducournau. “We’re doing an interview right now. But the truth is, I said it all in my movie. I can’t say it better than I did in my movie.
“Titanium“she said was an exploration of why she felt so immobilized by love. To do this, it reaches the absolute, the unconditional; the kind of love you need to see born because how else could you believe it exists? The means by which it gets to the heart of its story have sparked controversy for some. But if you only read the crudest headlines on “Titanium,” you might have missed the tender heart that beats under blood, oil and chrome.
Ducournau says she was inspired by the ancient Greek myth of the creation of Uranus (the sky) and Gaea (the Earth), whose union produced a pantheon of 12 gods, known as the Titans and Titanides, and a “pretty monstrous new humanity.” (“Titane” is French for titanium and the female form of Titan.) In myths, family dynamics are complex, rife with violence and rebellion, and are played out in muscular and elemental terms, much like Ducournau’s own film.
The director talks about “trying to build an umbilical cord between you and the character… for me, the bodies are essential for that”. Alexia stabs, scratches, and struggles through life, hurting herself as much as anyone else. But where she truly asserts her autonomy, more than murder, is through music and dance. She’s almost mute, but we understand Alexia because we feel everything, including her emotional arousal.
“I knew this was not the place for words. I was afraid the words would demean him; that he was somehow going to try to hold him back, ”the director explained.
Uranus, who was both Gaea’s son and husband, is not the only product of the Immaculate Conception cited by the director. The Bible occupies an important place in Ducournau’s film, and it is served with a dose of genre fluidity. We see a young Alexia, post-operative, wearing a metal halo (or a crown of thorns, the director explained), palms in the air as if to show her father the stigmata. Vincent, a self-proclaimed god among firefighters, introduces Alexia (then Adrien) to his team as Jesus. Then there is the pregnancy.
“Throughout the film, what I have built is (Alexia) to move from Jesus to Mary to Jesus to Mary and to Jesus again,” Ducournau explained. “In the end, for me, it becomes both. It is almost as if Jesus-Mary gave birth to Jesus-Mary. (Although the child, she said, is a woman.)
“I do not perceive (the biblical references) as being religious,” she insisted. “I like to run after the sacred… but this sacred is the sacred of humanity. Rather, it is about all the possibilities of humanity, in terms of transformation.
Did Vincent ever really believe that Alexia was his long lost son? This may be the wrong way to look at it. Taking care of her is an act of faith and submission, her unconditional love finding a new host. It’s an arc that sees Alexia, a murderous psychopath that Ducournau “can’t relate to”, become Adrien, broken and scared but able to feel.
“Love is capable of making you see someone for who they are, no matter what social constructs you might have imposed on them, no matter what portrayal or expectations you had for them,” the director said.
By the denouement, the two characters professed their love for each other. “You know, the ‘I love you’ at the end,” she said, “I wrote it, then I rewrote it and I rewrote it, rewrote it. I was like, ‘That line fucking king really bothers me! ‘ We understand that they love each other, do I need the word? Then I saw the word as a big stepping stone. It’s really something that we need to cross the last threshold, in a way, towards humanity.
In the end, words didn’t downplay the act, after all.
In July, the French director became only the second woman to receive the Palme d’Or, the first prize at the Cannes Film Festival (Jane Campion was the first, for “Le Piano” in 1993). It was a shocking victory, and not just because Spike Lee announced the victory. by accident at the start of the ceremony. For every critic calling him “oddly beautiful“there was another who decried his”imposing uselessness. “
Polarized reactions during festival screenings have since given way to a more thoughtful debate over the film’s general release. Even so, France’s decision to submit “Titanium” as an official Oscar entry was something of a surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” Ducournau said. “Despite the Palme d’Or, I thought maybe my film was too controversial… it doesn’t represent traditional French submissions.
What does he say about the state of the country’s film industry? “I think that says a lot about how the genre is going to be viewed in France, maybe, from now on,” Ducournau said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a black and white thing, but I think it means that France is actually starting to recognize that genre filmmakers are serious writers too – and you know how the concept of author is important is in France.
Is this very useful for the future? Where else would she like to explore?
“I know what I’m going to explore next, but I can’t talk about it,” she teased, laughing. “But love, love, love, again. Always love.”
Top image: Julia Ducournau stages Agathe Rouselle in a scene from “Titane”.
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