It’s when Alexia’s breasts start leaking motor oil that there’s no mistaking the father of her baby was the tricked-out Cadillac she had rough sex with after the erotic car show, the night she killed a guy by stabbing him in the ear.
That’s before she goes on a killing spree, breaks her nose and disguises herself as the missing son of a fire chief on steroids who agrees: she is his child.
That is just a glimpse of the harrowing happenings in “Titane,” Julia Ducournau’s audacious splatter-drama that opened Friday. The film is winning prizes and critical acclaim for its comic carnage and upending of gender — and for a raw performance by the newcomer Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, who’s carnally attracted to cars.
“Titane” is also generating dropped jaws and screams from filmgoers scandalized by its gory, outré approach to the story of a woman who, as Ducournau put it, “is driven by her impulses and desires for the dead material that is metal” but who “starts getting in touch with her humanity step by step.” One reviewer called it “the most shocking film of 2021.”
Sitting at a French-enough bistro the day before “Titane” had its first screening at the New York Film Festival, the word Ducournau used most often wasn’t “berserk” or any other scary-sounding adjective reviewers have used. The word was “love.”
“The whole point with my film is to make you feel what the characters feel, but it’s hard to make you feel love, to physically feel it” cinematically, she said. “So I decided to do it as a challenge and ask: can you do that with love?”
Rousselle, too, used the word to describe the movie in a separate interview: “You have this beautiful love story between my character, who has never been in love before, and a father who doesn’t think he can ever love again and they find out what loving means and what love means,” she said. “Love is the movie.”
At 37, after just two feature films, Ducournau, a Paris native, has already become a genre film sensation. In the view of Alexandra West, the author of “Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity,” Ducournau’s work is “extreme and absurd but also human” and “part of the driving force behind what’s to come for cinema.”
“She’s challenging audiences and getting audiences to react to cinema and to talk to each other,” West said. “That’s exciting.”
The director M. Night Shyamalan took notice: Ducournau directed two episodes of the macabre AppleTV+ series “Servant,” for which he’s an executive producer. “Julia Ducournau killed it. Brooding, shocking & cinematic,” he tweeted.
Reviews of “Titane” have been mostly celebratory (Entertainment Weekly called it “outrageously good”) while still mindful of its grisly bravado (“the work of a demented visionary.” IndieWire wrote). Others wondered: to what end? In his review for The Times, A.O. Scott wrote: “For all its reckless style and velocity, ‘Titane’ doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go.”
In July, “Titane” was the surprise winner of the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first time a woman had won the award since Jane Campion in 1993 for “The Piano.” Ducournau said she was in disbelief until she hugged Sharon Stone and wouldn’t let go. Then the actress asked how she was feeling.
“I said, I’m not sure yet, but it feels like history?” Ducournau said. “She started laughing, only the way Sharon Stone can laugh, with no stress and no tension and super radiant, and she said, honey, it is history.”
Ducournau was caught off guard at the beginning of the ceremony when Spike Lee, president of the jury, was asked to name the first prizewinner but instead accidentally revealed “Titane” was the first-prize winner. He later said he “messed up,” and apologized to festival organizers.
“At the moment it was hard to find the humor in it,” Ducournau said. “But in retrospect, I find it very much.”
Ducournau said she knew she wanted a nonprofessional to play Alexia. After her casting director found Rousselle on Instagram, Ducournau said, she made Rousselle return several times over six months before giving her the job, and they worked together for a year before shooting.
To prepare for a physically demanding role involving extreme transformations, Rousselle studied dance and boxing, and learned wrenching monologues from other films and shows, like the “Twin Peaks” graveyard speech delivered by Laura Palmer’s best friend.
Rousselle also spent up to eight hours a day getting in and out of makeup and prosthetics that gave her larger breasts, expanded belly shapes and three different noses (for a look-if-you-dare nose-breaking scene). It helped that she had worked as a model favored for her androgyny.
“Gender was never relevant to me,” said Rousselle. “When I worked in fashion I would take off my clothes for a fitting and they would say, you have boobs? I would say yes, deal with it.”
Beneath the gore is a film that’s affectionate in its scrutiny of love and family, made by a director who cares deeply about family, identity and, most tenderly, the lives of women.
Women in transformation, actually. That’s what Ducournau explored in her short film “Junior” (2011), about a teenager whose body seeps goo as she evolves from tomboy to girly-girl. She explored transformations again in her debut feature, “Raw” (2017), a blood-soaked coming-of-age story about a young woman who gruesomely converts from vegetarian to carnivore to cannibal.
She does it again in “Titane” with Alexia, a woman whose pregnancy (thanks to that Cadillac) and whose propensity to kill at random are connected to the titanium plate doctors put in her head after a car crash she survived as a girl. (“Titane” is French for “titanium.”)
“Titane” opened in France in July, and Rousselle said she had been heartened by the response from “the nerdy crowd of high school kids who play video games and have blue hair.” Some have seen the film multiple times, she said.
Rousselle thought the movie could be important to teenagers “because it goes through the questions of how you want to be and who you can be and how you can escape where you’re from and how much control you can have in your life,” she said. “It’s freeing for them.”
Ducournau said that as she mulls her next project, she found inspiration in the work of the photographer Nan Goldin and the directors Stanley Kubrick, Pier Paolo Pasolini and especially David Cronenberg. In his movies — like “Crash,” about people turned on by car accidents — she said that “everything that people find repulsive could be shown as human.”
“A vision that transcends expectations inspires me very much,” she said.
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