(Warning: This article contains spoilers about the plot of “Titane.”)
The idea for “Titane” came to director Julia Ducournau in a nightmare. She dreamed that she was giving birth to engine pieces, which led to the central premise of her bold thrilling new film about a woman named Alexia (newcomer Agathe Rousselle), who is indeed impregnated by an automobile. Ducournau, in the follow-up to her cannibal parable “Raw,” uses this situation as a vehicle, so to speak, for exploring themes of body horror, self-destruction and destiny.
On its own, that aspect of “Titane,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in July, is a conversation starter. But Ducournau explained to TheWrap that her inspirations also ran deeper and wider. “The nightmare was one of the dots I connected between ideas, images, desires, scenes, themes,” she said. “The core of the film was always about characters finding each other through mutual lies. One character is impersonating someone else and another character is trying to make her fit his fantasy.”
Ducournau was referring to the shift that occurs about a third of the way into “Titane.” Alexia flees her current life, shaves her head, and assumes the identity of a teenage boy named Adrien Legrand, who went missing 10 years earlier. Adrien’s fireman father (Vincent Lindon, whose performance won a Los Angeles Film Critics award) accepts Alexia as his long-long son.
Because of this complexity in the performance, Ducournau auditioned both male and female actors for the lead role of Alexia. The casting process lasted six months.
“The gender was not relevant as long as I found what I needed to fit my film,” she said. “It had to be someone who had an androgynous look. So I saw a lot of people, because the casting was so open. What I was looking for is potential, a certain kind of energy, and someone I’d want to film from all angles.”
Examples are rare but do exist of this in casting. Ripley in “Alien” was written as a man until studio exec Alan Ladd Jr. asked director Ridley Scott why Ripley couldn’t be a woman, leading to Sigourney Weaver’s breakthrough role. In another movie starring Weaver, “The Year of Living Dangerously,” director Peter Weir was unhappy with the actors auditioning for the role of male photojournalist Billy Kwan. So he cast actress Linda Hunt, in what would be an Oscar-winning performance.
In Ducournau’s case, she hit the jackpot with Rousselle, a 33-year-old model and journalist, who a casting director recommended based on her Instagram page. “Agatha has a look that is absolutely transformative, depending on where you put the camera and the angles and the light,” Ducournau said. “Her face is fascinating. And we worked for a year together, hand in hand, in order to build the performance.”
The filmmaker was also excited by the prospect of non-professional actress Rousselle, in her first feature film role, sharing scenes with French movie icon Lindon.
I love the idea of mixing those two energies,” Ducournau said. “That can be incredibly complimentary, when you take that big star like Vincent into the realm of a film that he’s never played in before, along with Agathe’s raw energy and his acting skills – and having those two meet in this universe that neither of them fully understood. It was extremely interesting to shoot.”
The director took care to support Rousselle during preproduction and filming, especially due to the explicit nature of Alexia’s journey in the film. Ducournau remembers, “I told her it would be very difficult, long hours, fight and dance training, very straining makeup hours in the morning. I warned her about the nudity, which we talked about a lot.”
Ducournau also stressed to Rousselle that no matter what was unfolding in a scene, everything would be safe for her. “And if she ever felt uncomfortable about anything,” the director noted, “we would simply stop.”
“Titane” is available to rent on streaming platforms