Titane has earned itself something of a reputation since it debuted at Cannes in July.
It’s the film that saw director Julia Ducournau become only the second woman to win the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or. The one that got a five-minute standing ovation when it premiered in New York at the start of October. The one in which Agathe Rousselle, a model, photographer and artist, makes her astonishing acting debut.
And it’s the film that sees her character, psychopathic serial killer Alexia, have sex with a car.
But don’t get too hung up on that last bit. The catalyst for Titane’s plot might be next-level freaky – in all senses – but its overarching theme is one everyone can all relate to. Even if you don’t get aroused by automobiles.
See, not long after we meet Rousselle’s Alexia, witness an impromptu massacre and, yes, that scene, she becomes both pregnant and a wanted person. After disguising herself as a man to fit a missing persons report, she finds herself under the care of fire captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who blindly believes he’s the aforesaid missing person, his long-absent son.
To survive, she plays along, binding her baby bump tightly to pass as a male firefighter each day. To survive, she must succumb to vulnerability and experience unconditional love for the first time.
“It shows that no matter where you’re from, no matter your upbringing, how your dad didn’t love you, how your mum hated you, you can overcome it and you can you can learn how to love,” says Rouselle from her hotel room in London, home for the weekend as she makes a pitstop for Titane’s London Film Festival premiere.
Highlighted curls swooping down from her shaggy, cropped mullet, a single silver key dangling from her left ear, Rouselle is flashing the one expression we rarely see from her in the film: a smile. She’s spent over half her life wanting to be in films. Now, at 33, patience is proving to be the ultimate virtue.
“Emotionally, it’s like… the fuck?” she says, laughing. “All of a sudden, you have all of the attention and people praising you. It’s a lot, but I’m so grateful.”
Congratulations on your acting debut, Agathe. Did you ever imagine that Titane would get this kind of response while working on it?
When you’re in the action, you can’t think about whether it’s going to be a big thing or not. You’re just, like, focusing on your work and trying to be as present as possible. But my co-actor Vincent, who’s 62 years old and has been doing this job for 40 years, when I was getting super exhausted [during shooting], he was like: “You need to just breathe in, breathe out and focus, because what we’re doing right now is going to be huge.”
You’ve been interested in acting since your teenage years. What stopped you from pursuing it professionally until now?
I did drama classes from when I was in school until I was 22. I was studying literature at the same time and I went to a drama school from 20 to 22. In France, when you go to drama school, it’s mostly theatre acting. At the end of the school, I was like, all I want to do is movies, but I don’t know anyone in any industry, I’m no one’s daughter, I don’t even know how it works with casting.
But there was so much other stuff that I wanted to do. I had a dozen different lives in my 20s. Every time I had the chance to be in front of the camera, as an actress, a model, anything, I would do it. I’m really happy I got to have this rich life trying different things, having very shitty jobs and very awesome jobs.
Working as a waitress is never nice, but I really enjoyed being a photographer. I built an embroidery company. I worked as a coach, making people run. Everything was enriching when I look back. The thing I hated the most was working in an office at an advertising company. That was the worst thing ever.
You were scouted for Titane on Instagram. Did someone literally just slide into your DMs?
Yeah, it was the casting director’s assistant. They wrote to me: “Are you interested in auditioning for a movie?” I didn’t know what it was for, but I was like: “Whatever, yeah, cool.”
What was the rest of the casting process like?
I had the first round with the casting director and then three other rounds with the director. It got more intense as we were going through the process, which took about a month and a half. I was literally on my way to go to my dad’s wedding when I found out I’d got the part. I was about to get on the train and I got a call: “OK, so Alexia is you. You got the part, so you can’t go to your dad’s wedding. We’re going straight to production right now.” I was just so happy.
I received the script about a week after and I couldn’t stop reading it. I was obsessed. I was an hour late for a dinner party because I couldn’t stop reading it. I remember crying at the end, because I just thought it was so masterful. It had this mythical value to it and it was very tragic, but in an Ancient Greek tragedy kind of way.
Alexia is a very physical role and you had to basically go through a bootcamp to prepare, with dancing and stunt classes. What was that like?
I had very full weeks! I had this dance teacher, Doris Arnold, who’s the queen of pole dance in Paris. She taught me how to dance sexy, which I was not able to do at all. But now I can twerk! Then I had this coach to [help me] gain muscle and lose weight. And I also had stunt rehearsals – a lot of them.
Did you find any aspects of that particularly challenging? Or even fun?
I’ve always moved my body, because I was a very hyperactive child. I run all the time, I do yoga all the time and every time I get to play with anything, I’m so happy. The dance classes were so eye opening for me, because dancing this way was kind of reaching a part of my femininity that I was not really comfortable with. It was never my thing to sexy dance on people. I enjoy watching it, but I’ll just go in the mosh pit.
So it kind of opened me to a very different way of moving my body and seeing myself. I didn’t know I could be that sexy!
Alexia is a psychopath, which means that she can’t feel emotions but she can imitate them. How do you approach that as an actor?
I watched interviews of serial killers on YouTube, like Ed Kemper and Ted Bundy. A lot of them, you can tell, move their faces and have facial expressions, but their eyes remain blank. It’s crazy.
Then, to see how an actor can do it, I rewatched Monster, because Charlize Theron does it really well, and We Need To Talk About Kevin, where Ezra Miller does it perfectly. I also binged Killing Eve, not knowing it was about a psychopath killing people. It was just by chance, but what Jodie Comer does in the series inspired me a lot – a lot, a lot.
Are there any moments in the film when we see Alexia’s true emotions?
I feel like when she meets Vincent something happens, definitely, because she has a chance to kill him and she doesn’t. She knows he protects her. There’s intimacy going on, there’s desire, and those are all emotions she’s never really felt before. She tells him she loves him at the end and I’m sure she does. She loves him because he loves her.
At some point he tells her: “I don’t know if you’re my son, but I don’t care who you are. To me, you’re my son.” That’s unconditional love and that’s a very beautiful form of love, even though it’s a very fucked-up form of love.
She comes around to her own humanity after meeting this guy, who’s also not able to love anymore, who thinks he’s going to die alone.
Why do you think a film about a psychopathic serial killer is a good vehicle to tell a story about love?
It shows that even if you’re a psychopath, life can teach you stuff and push you into situations where something in your brain can just shift. Even when you’re not a psychopath, sometimes in life you go through shit and it makes you see the world very differently and challenges your relationships.
But the fact that she’s a psychopath probably brings it to a higher level.
You’ve previously said that if you can’t understand what a character is thinking, you have to find something to love about them. What do you love about Alexia?
I love that she shows every woman in the room that we can defend ourselves and that men should be scared before trying to rape us. That’s a thing that I wish the guys would take away from this movie. I love that she’s not a robot, she can be very vulnerable and just completely let go. She’s like, “I’m fucked”, so she just indulges in fate.
I love that she doesn’t give up. Even at the end when she’s super-pregnant, she’s always powering through and that’s something I can relate to. It’s probably the only thing about her that I can relate to.
Her character flips traditional expectations of women on their head, whether that’s through her acts of extreme violence or the fact that she doesn’t want a baby. How does her nonconformity reflect what’s happening in wider society?
I mean, there’s the earlier [point], that guys can go out of this movie and realise that, no, you can’t harass a woman, try to rape her and expect her not to respond and fucking kill you. I don’t feel like women becoming violent is a solution to anything, but just to show that it’s possible.
She’s also a woman that doesn’t feel anything, whereas in general, women are associated with emotion and taking care of people. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can just not care.
And then there’s the pregnancy situation, which is so crazy to me that [a woman not wanting children] is still so taboo. Even doctors will just assume that, because you’re a certain age or you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, you’ll want to have children. Like, what the fuck? It’s crazy to me that it’s not already integrated into people’s minds that we’re not just fucking cows, we can be things other than mums.
This movie is really good in that sense. It challenges the way we see what women can and cannot do.
Now that you’ve got your prize-winning first film under your belt, what’s next?
I would do anything, really. I would love a good comedy – a good romcom, a Richard Curtis-level romcom. Or another intense thriller, or a Marvel situation. I don’t know. I would just be so happy to go back on set with someone who has a vision, but the genre doesn’t really matter.
Working with David Fincher is my ultimate dream. Apart from Gone Girl, he doesn’t have a movie with main female characters. I’d also love to work with Phoebe Waller-Bridge – that would be so much fun – and Michaela Coel. I feel like those women are really strong and on it.
Titane screens tonight at LFF and is released on 31st December.