EXCLUSIVE: Julia Ducournau, Agathe Rousselle, and Vincent Lindon were met with a five-minute standing ovation after the premiere of Ducournau’s second feature film Titane at the 57th annual York Film Festival. I could see emotion wash over the trio from where I was sitting, as they became overwhelmed by the moment.
The next day, I walked into the Le Meridien hotel to talk to Ducournau and Rousselle. I was eager to hear what was going through their minds watching the crowd go crazy during the screening. The statuesque Ducournau and a wide-eyed Rouselle are both decked out, wearing black from head to toe. Seeing previous pictures of the two together at Cannes, black seems to be their favorite color.
“New York is my favorite city in the world!” said Rouselle.
Doucounau adds, “I felt such love from last night in New York. For me, it was like being at Cannes all over again.”
Cannes 2016, is where it all began for Docournau. Raw, a film about college and cannibalism, was her feature film debut at international critics week, winning the FIPRESCI Prize. An impressive accomplishment for a newcomer. Her second film, Titane, went straight into the main competition and claimed Cannes’ highest honor: the Palme d’Or. What makes this film so deserving of the win is its intriguing premise, where Ducournau explores the uncircumstantial nature of violent women.
When asked about the intersection of women and their violent nature, her smile deflates and gets serious.
“I think my reasoning for continuing to write and explore women in this way is a very grounded reaction. Unfortunately grounded in a reality that men and women do not have the same apprehension of the public space.”
I had to think about what she said, and I understood. Ducournau isn’t talking about which gender commits a more violent crime, but why aren’t women ever considered culprits in heinous scenarios? This separation of the genders and the perception of social violence and who can inflict makes Ducournau angry, which is why Titane exists.
The film follows Alexia, an absolute menace to society. As a child with a strange affinity for cars, a car accident caused a titanium plate to be placed inside her skull. The film purposely makes the source of her madness ambiguous, but the result is the woman is a psychopathic serial killer. After going on a murder spree, one of her victims get away and reports Alexia to the police, and the main character has to go on the run.
Since Cannes, people have been buzzing about Titane’s Oscar chances. Rarely does the ceremony embrace a concept as bizarre as this. Either way, Doucournau tells me she would rather talk about her film. She put her anger, heart, and soul into this film, and I don’t blame her for focusing on her work rather than discussing anything awards-related.
I sat down with Ducournau and Rouselle to talk about Titane, violent women, and how the film garners empathy from its audience.
Julia, what was the first film that you remember that empowered you in a way where a female character was bold, daring, and violent?
It’s in Cria Cuervos, by Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura. It tells the story of eight year old Ana, who has lots of trouble grieving her mother’s death. I saw it for the first time when I was eight years old (the same age as the character.) In order to cope with the grief, she starts having violent thoughts about the adults around her, including her father’s new mistress and her aunts.
What I love about that film is that it does not portray childhood as bliss or the best time of your life, or something innocent. Ana is far from innocent. She’s well aware of all the adult innuendos, and what’s being hidden from her. The way she’s treated like she can’t understand things makes her even angrier. It’s not graphic in the way of gore, but there is a poetic, melancholic feel to and definitely the first one I remember where I felt this identification was a film character.
I notice your first film Junior starts with an adolescent high school student, and then the second film Raw is about a young adult in college. And then, Titane explores the life of someone in their early 30s. Is there a pattern where you’re exploring topics across age groups?
It’s true that I like to install a form of affiliation between my films, to make them somehow a continuous gesture. It makes sense to me to have this evolution between characters because they bear the similar names somehow mutating from one film to the next. I definitely think of them as different forms of the same character.
Your movies manage to give violent characters an empathetic edge. How did you conceptualize that for Alexia in Titane?
Writing to Alexia was not easy for me because theoretically she says something about my own anger, but factually speaking, I can’t relate to her because she’s a psychopath, and it’s hard to relate to someone who doesn’t show any emotions. It made me ask myself, if there is only one way to relate to a main character that is obviously not likable as she is, how can I achieve the opposite? So I thought if I can’t empathize with her mind, then I’m going to try to create some form of physical empathy for her body, meaning that the audience is going to feel what she feels.
When talking about the character, Agathe, how did you get yourself into a violent headspace for this?
I watched everything online to learn more about psychopaths. Like archive interviews with Ted Bundy, Ed Kemper, and other serial killers and TED Talks about psychopathy. Movies like Monster, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Crash, to understand what it looks like and feels like. I looked for anything I could find to understand how they function of the mind that I can’t relate to.
Did you learn anything that surprised you?
Psychopaths are incapable of feeling, but are clever enough to imitate what they think they are supposed to feel. They can change their expression, but the eyes are always completely empty. If you watch interviews with Ed Kemper, he’s probably the best at that because he’s a very charming character. But then, if you look into his eyes, it’s completely the lights are off. There’s nothing here. No light. Nothing.
Julia, earlier we talked about empathy but how do you also manage to make your characters redeemable?
The film remains at a very physical POV level of her pain. I think this is what guides us somehow to the broadening of her spectrum. Leading us right to the moment the audience sees the first signs of emotion. That is something we can relate to. And by that, I don’t even mean when Vincent arrives, I think her emotional moment comes earlier than that and I think it’s during the home killing spree. We feel empathy for her for the first time through her physical tiredness and through her fatigue, and the fact that she doesn’t have control anymore.
Since the physical component was so important to Alexia’s character development, especially in the scene Julia just described, as an actress how did you rise to the occasion and physically prepare for the role?
It’s pretty simple really as I had pretty classic training with a coach to gain muscle and lose weight. I had to train with a dancer, who is actually a pole dancer, and practice the stunts. That was for the physical aspect.
This is a really broad question. But what do you think about the state of violence and women in cinema?
I think it’s remained something that is quite hard to accept. I think that it feels way more unnatural and that it goes against nature to those who watch it. Often the need for violence often comes from male characters. For me, this is a form of denial because violence isn’t the monopoly of men.
It is a questioning of sexual constructs, but showing the duality that men and women can exist in that space broadens the spectrum of what humanity really is. When I say humanity, I mean gender and gender constraints specifically. The very idea of social constructions are irrelevant, wrong, and limits our understanding of potential interaction or relationship we can have with others and the relationships we can have with things like violence. So you see how detrimental that is.
Agathe, what does that mean for you?
I think we lack female characters who can be violent, and strong, and can kill men, without them suffering from a prior affliction. I want to see movies where women are independent, not giving a fuck, being able to reciprocate violence with violence. My go-to for this is David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Amy Dunne is an attractive woman with a seemingly normal life but we discover she is not to be fucked with. Amy’s calm, clever, and resilient demeanor is what makes her so scary and unpredictable. I think we need more women who are capable of such atrocities and be unafraid to let them lead films. Let women be dangerous.
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