In an introduction to Frankenstein, written for a new edition of the work in 1831, Mary Shelley recounted a question she had been asked frequently in the thirteen years since the novel’s publication: how had she, ‘then a young girl, come to think and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?’ A prying concern permeates the query, as if the monstrosity of the work’s content must indicate perverse conditions of production, some titillating mistreatment inflicted on the nineteen-year-old Shelley that could justify the creation of a new category of monster. For Julia Ducournau, director of the Palme D’Or-winning Titane (2021), the fallacy of the question would be obvious. No backstory is necessary: to be a young girl is monstrous inspiration enough.
Ducournau’s triumph at Cannes last year surprised Anglophone soothsayers of French film awards; her use of the cinematic grammar of body horror seemed to demarcate her as a director in the derided tradition of cinéma de genre, and, with only one other feature under her belt, more established auteurs such as Ryu Hamaguchi and Asghar Farhadi were touted as likely victors. Effusive critical responses to her first full-length film, Grave (Raw, 2016) were eclipsed by breathless tales of viewers collapsing at an early screening; news reports, untroubled by the distinction between correlation and causation, explained the syncopal episodes as a result of watching ‘the scariest, most disgusting film ever made.’ When confronted with this characterisation of her work, Ducournau replied, incredulously: ‘Seriously? Have you ever seen Cannibal Holocaust?’
Born in Paris in 1983, to a dermatologist father and gynaecologist mother, Ducournau graduated from both the prestigious Lycée Henri IV and the Sorbonne, before studying filmmaking at La Fémis. Biographical instruments often make crude tools for criticism, yet Ducournau’s family trades shed light on her thematic passions. Her female protagonists experience abdominal discomfort as an early sign of uncanny afflictions. As a result, they are examined by doctors (who are sometimes also their fathers) who heavily imply that menstruation, or its absence, is the cause. The insufficiency of this diagnosis is immediately evident to the viewer, who understands that something far more troubling is at work. Ducournau repeatedly highlights the dismissive reaction to extremity by figures of authority – the parent, the teacher, the doctor – who then rely on ambiguous categorizations to explain events beyond their comprehension. A similar attitude has typified the reception of her films which, like her characters, exist in an experiential gulf between definition and event yet are quickly filed under a single polymorphous label. Inexplicable abdominal pain that develops into infernal itching and the gestation of a hybrid car-baby? Call it hormones. An insatiable desire for human flesh, activated by the consumption of pickled gizzards and that seems to run matrilineally through a vegetarian family? Call it a feminist vampire flick.
That Ducournau offers her viewers tableaux of visceral, churning, bone-crunching pain is undeniable. But her work cannot be reduced to such sequences. Across her oeuvre so far there is an abiding concern with the process of physical transformation, particularly as undergone by girls on the cusp of pubescence, and young women propelled suddenly into maternity. In the short film Junior (2011), the eponymous protagonist (played by Garance Marillier) is a tomboy adolescent, revelling in her own androgynous presentation, unconcerned by hair grease, zits, or the merciless rivalry of schoolgirl cliques. A supposed bout of gastric flu, welcomed by her family doctor for its ability to ‘clear her out’, is quickly revealed to be a misdiagnosis as she begins to shed her entire epidermis, picking at sheets and flakes of skin, poking her fingers under the peeling ridge of her own spine (the French idiom être bien dans sa peau, to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, inverted and literalised as metaphor for the grisly metamorphoses of puberty). Fully exfoliated, she recovers and returns to school, glossy and bright, only to find herself the subject of her male friends’ sexual attention. The film ends with Ducournau’s refusal of the received idea in horror that the expression of female sexuality is coeval with initiation into victimhood: Junior (who continues to refuse her birth name Justine) kicks her new tormenters in the groin and skips home to begin a new flirtatious relationship with her best friend.
Mange (Eat), a telefilm co-directed with Virgile Branly in 2012, continues Junior’s preoccupation with the cruelty enacted within the transitional, unsupervised spaces of school: the canteen, the corridor, the yard. Laura, an overweight teenager, is made the subject of an obscene classroom chant by her peers, her name daubed on the walls, her telephone number distributed on flyers advertising parts of her as ‘for sale’. Fifteen years later, Laura has developed and recovered from bulimia, lost weight, grown up, and become a successful lawyer with a handsome police officer for a boyfriend. The arrival of the architect of her high school misery, now a highly-strung stay-at-home mother, at her support group provokes a demonic apparition of Laura’s teenage self to appear, encouraging her to seek revenge. This Laura duly does, setting out to ruin her nemesis’s life with cocaine, binge eating and extra-marital affairs. Laura, of course, falls into her own traps, losing her job, relationship and role as cool stepmother (to a daughter played by Marillier) along the way. No anagnorisis follows the successful completion of her mission, however, and the ruined Laura ends the film smirking to herself in an insalubrious hotel room in the company of her own shrieking eidolon, the viewer left uncertain whether their shared lust for vengeance has been satisfied or merely awakened.
Grave, Ducournau’s first feature film, shares certain thematic concerns – the inevitable passage through trauma into adulthood, the twinned grotesque and hedonistic pleasures of hunger and sexuality – with her earlier works, yet is a substantial development in cinematographic style. Marillier is cast once again as a character named Justine, this time a first-year veterinarian at a desolate northern French campus university, attended in the past by her parents and, in the year above, her elder sister. All the members of the family are vets, all are also vegetarians, or so Justine thinks until her sister forces her to swallow a preserved rabbit kidney as part of a vicious week of hazing for the new students (the title of the film recalls the everyday phrase ‘c’est pas grave’, or ‘no big deal’ – the attitude of Justine’s sister who swallows the specimen with a shrug). The taste of flesh prompts Justine to develop an insatiable hunger for meat and, after accidentally amputating her sister’s thumb in a waxing accident, she succumbs to her new cannibal appetite and gnaws on the digit. Marillier’s transformation from petulant girlhood to vampiric huntress in a lab coat is achieved via a series of mood swings in her character – confidence and shame, desire and repugnance, intimacy and betrayal – the unsettled motion between them encapsulating the dizzying experience of the first flushes of adult agency, the result of asking and then confronting the answer to the terrible question, ‘what do I want?’
Grave heralded not only Ducournau’s arrival as a significant new director, but also the reconciliation of the categories of genre and auteur filmmaking held, by some, as oppositional tendencies within French cinema. In collaboration with her director of photography, Ruben Impens, Ducournau has developed a cinematic language in which bodily mutation translates into visual elegance. Multiple sources of artificial light direct attention to the prickled and bitten surface of skin, wide-angle shots of the desolate dawn greys of the northern French countryside render the aftermath of a deadly collision picturesque, a single shallow-focus shot immerses the viewer in the bodily abandon of dancing – such elements of Grave comprise the vocabulary of Ducournau’s style, and the fundamentals of her second feature.
Where Grave is a declaration of the potential for emancipation through monstrosity, Titane is a film about the humanisation of a monster. It is also a film about a young woman’s sexual attraction to cars, and the terrible consequences of consummating that desire (the two central horrors of Ducournau’s features could be summarised with some accuracy as pregnancy, and the experience of being a vegetarian in France). As a young girl Alexia, played in adulthood by Agathe Rousselle, causes a car accident which leaves her with a titanium implant in her skull, and a desire for physical proximity to petrol engines and Autoglass. Two decades hence, she works as a dancer at a heavy metal car show where she is pursued by a simpering fan across the car park. In a scene characteristic of Ducournau’s ability to conjure the threat of violence from mundane objects, the fan’s neck lingers over the blade of the electric window as he begs for her number, then chances a kiss. Having teased a decapitation Ducournau instead gives us a honey trap: Alexia returns the kiss passionately, while loosening her metallic hair pin, arranging her victim’s ear just so, plunging the weapon in. A rendezvous with the backseat of a flaming Cadillac follows – a sex scene which echoes without imitating Cronenberg’s Crash – impregnating Alexia with a cyborg foetus who grows with preternatural speed. The inhumanity of her actions has deadly repercussions, triggering a fatal case of mechanical reproduction in Alexia as well as her swift transition from murderer to serial killer.
The rampage that ensues, however, is brief. Alexia misjudges the number of residents in a house share and, visibly exhausted, botches the job. Ducournau has described the scene as a comedic ‘pressure valve’ allowing for a release of tension, but it also injects a highly referential style: Caterina Caselli’s 1966 hit ‘Nessuno mi può giudicare’ (Nobody can judge me) soundtracks the massacre, evoking Tarantino’s use of music at his most adrenalized moments of gore, while Alexia’s stalking of a naked female victim through the house recalls the chase scenes of numerous mid-90s teen slashers. The fun is manic, unsustainable, a hyperactive moment shortly before which Alexia realises the fact of her hybrid pregnancy, panics and attempts to employ her hairpin in lieu of an abortifacient. Returning blood-smeared and nauseous to her parents’ home, she locks them inside and without hesitation sets fire to the building and goes on the run.
The remainder of the film takes place after Alexia, in an attempt to evade capture, deforms herself so as to resemble nineteen-year-old Adrien, the son, missing for a decade, of Parisian fireman Vincent, played with virtuosic sinuosity by Vincent Lindon. The shared effort by the two characters to avoid the evident deception at the heart of their relationship, at turns comic and pitiable, becomes a non-verbal expression of their deep need for one another. Both are committed to bodily fictions, Vincent in his refusal to accept his own physical decline and reliance on gurn-inducing steroids, Alexia in her attempts to bind away her breasts and growing belly, to not merely disguise herself as, but to become, Adrien. In Titane, the burdens of gender are not worn lightly but nor are they more consequential than logistical frustrations. Alexia-Adrien shows no attachment to either sexed self, only to survival which is dependent on the love of Vincent and on the ability to do what his son did not: to stay.
Alexia’s fugitive journey takes her from south to north, the cool marine blues of her past life washed over with a neon fuschia in Vincent’s world, an electric imitation of fire’s warmth, used to particularly memorable effect in a party scene at the brigade’s headquarters. The song ‘Light House’ by the band Future Islands mixes in and out of aural focus, as Vincent, surrounded by his recruits, unclenches and sways. It is a moment with a cinematic parallel in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), which concludes with an astonishing acrobatic dance by Denis Lavant, whose character’s demise lends urgency as well as pathos to his movements. Where Denis keeps Lavant in the centre of the frame, his whole self in view, alone but for his reflection in mirrored walls, Ducournau shows us only the bust of Lindon’s loosening body, the camera kept at shoulder height, the viewer brought into the dance, inebriated by the slowed and fluid motion, the institutional rigour of the Sapeurs Pompiers dissolving frame by frame. Ducournau has made her name through the unflinching depictions of bodily pain, but both Titane and Grave pay equal attention to such horror’s antithesis, the pleasure and self-surrender of dance.
What is at stake in a cinema that invites you to look away? Only watching. Ducournau’s films demand second and third viewings – braced this time for the crunch, the snap, the bite, the challenge is to keep one’s eyes open. In doing so, the reward is often comic delight, a conjoined anticipation of and release from the worst possible thing approaching, happening, then being over. And if it is over, if we are still here, could it really have been that bad? Where Ducournau’s films declare a statement, it is this: once lived through, horror loosens its grip; our compulsion to repeat a trauma is akin to picking a scab, we don’t do it just to hurt ourselves, we do it because it feels good. In her acceptance speech at Cannes, Ducournau thanked the jury for ‘letting the monsters in’, they might well have answered her, ‘c’est pas grave.’
Read on: Hal Foster, ‘On the First Pop Age’, NLR 19.