NEW YORK – Julia Ducournau was in town this week for the New York Film Festival premiere of her second feature, “Titane” a movie has already developed the reputation of being the year's wildest, most explosive movies.
“Titane” has prompted walkouts and passionately divisive responses, while also sparking some of the loudest raves of the year. In June, “Titane” won the Palme d'Or, making the French filmmaker only the second woman to ever win the Cannes Film Festival's top honor.
In New York the day before meeting a reporter in midtown, though, Ducournau had found excitement at an unexpected place: a softball game in Central Park.
“It was so thrilling,” Ducournau said, smiling. “I loved it because I finally understood the rules.”
As a filmmaker, though, Ducournau is breaking the boundaries of sexuality, taste and expectation. Her first film, “Raw,” combined a coming-of-age tale with cannibalism. “Titane,” which Neon releases in theaters Friday, is about Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who as a girl was in car accident — partly prompted by her father's disinterest in her — leaving her with a metal plate in her head.
She is now a stripper who dances atop muscle cars and casually commits murder with a lethal pick in her hair. In the film's most talked-about scene, she's impregnated by a Cadillac. Her belly grows and her body begins to ooze motor oil. Fleeing the police after a particularly gruesome encounter, Alexia disguises herself as a long-ago lost child and is adopted by a gruff, grieving fire chief (Vincent Lindon). The headlong odyssey — “a one-way ticket,” says Ducournau — ultimately leads to a deeply tender finale. It's undoubtedly the sweetest movie you'll ever see featuring automotive intercourse.
And, as Ducournau — an intense, erudite filmmaker who makes movies about profound transformation — recently discussed, “Titane” is really a very optimistic film. It's about love.
AP: Did “Titane” start with any idea or image?
DUCOURNAU: The first thing I was sure of is that I wanted to focus on love. One of the hardest things for me to talk about is love. I can’t imagine tackling that feeling in a way that’s not absolute and unconditional. I see love as a becoming, not as a state. I’m not saying it’s possible for us in our lifetime to reach this level of shedding layers and seeing right into the essence of a person — beyond any determinism, beyond any social determinism, gender being one. But I see it as something that could be, to which we could aspire.
AP: How would you describe what bodies are for you as a filmmaker?
DUCOURNAU: For me, bodies are like the book of humanity. You can tell a lot about someone’s history and vulnerabilities. Everything that makes us common but that we don’t want to talk about are actually in the open on our bodies, but we tend to hide them. I find that very endearing. At the end of the day, we all take off our clothes and look at our bodies. But the way we look at our own bodies, from our own POV, it’s really close. You’re going to look at the cellulite on your thighs. You’re going to see your belly protruding. You’re going to see your boobs sagging. You’re going to see your scars. You’re going to see the stretch marks. The way you apprehend your own body is already monstrous. I think this is the reason no one is satisfied by their own body. But this is something that I find incredibly moving.
AP: Early in “Titane,” while Alexia is stripping, a body guard reprimands her fans by saying: “Touch with your eyes.” Does that line represent something to you?
DUCOURNAU: It does. How terrible it is to say something like that, like it’s OK to touch with your eyes. It’s like you have one level of touching that is not permitted but you can allow yourself to do something like touching with your eyes, which is absolutely invasive.
AP: There are also broader implications for looking in “Titane.”
DUCOURNAU: The whole film is a lot about deconstructing the look, the gaze you can have of someone, and trying to shed the layers of social construct to finally see a person for real. Not only who that person is but who that person might become somehow. You have to get rid of all the preconceived ideas you can have about what you want that person to be, what you expect that person to be, what you were taught that person would be. It’s a lot about looks. The biological father never looks at Alexia. And Vincent’s look at the beginning is just a fantasy, so that creates a big lie and doesn’t allow her to exist, in a way.
AP: You began “Raw” with a car crash and automobiles are obviously central in “Titane.” What's your own relationship with cars? Why are you draw to them as symbols?
DUCOURNAU: In my personal life, not at all. I don’t think about cars. I don’t even have a driver’s license. However, I do use car crashes as the initial trauma. For me, the initial trauma being birth. You enter the world in clatter, cries and meeting strangers.
AP: What was your own upbringing like? Was your father anything like either of those we see in “Titane”?
DUCOURNAU: All I can tell you is nice try. I’m never going to tell you anything about my family.
AP: What did winning the Palme d'Or mean to you?
DUCOURNAU: I’m not sure I’ve quite processed it yet and I’m pretty sure I never will. Somehow, I hope I never will. You just have to keep working. It’s kind of changed my sense of temporality. I’m 37 and this is not a prize — if you ever dream of receiving it — that you imagine receiving at 37. On the spot, it was an eruption of so many feelings that I never had in my life. When I was on stage, it was like my body was open to a form of time and history, and I really felt there was something happening through me and through my film. But also beyond me and beyond my film that put me in touch with progress and the future. That felt incredibly good. It wasn’t just me on the stage with my actors. It was the third one, the fourth one, the fifth one after that. How maybe we were entering an era where things would be more equal in acknowledging of the work of people beyond their gender.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP