How Exactly Did the Sex Scene in 'Titane' Between a Human Woman and a Car Get Made?
The Palme d'Or winning movie has one of the most memorable sex scenes of all time.
When I ask the filmmaker Julia Ducournau how she thought about bringing the car sex scene at the start of her Palme d'Or-winning movie Titane to life, she answers bluntly. "For me, it was very clear what I was going to do from the writing," she tells me matter-of-factly in a New York hotel room. "When I write, I have a strong visual take on my scenes and I write almost everything that I see. It was very clear where I would put the camera, what I would show, what I would not show."
Ducournau's films have a reputation for being wild. Her debut feature Raw was the story of a young woman who goes to vet school, betrays her vegetarian ideas, and discovers she has a taste for human flesh. Titane is the tale of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a serial killer with a sexual attraction to cars who disguises herself as a missing boy while on the run from the cops and is subsequently adopted by that child's bereft father. And that's only a brief overview of what happens, not even touching on how it evolves into an almost sweet metaphor about parenthood and the lengths we will go to for filial love. Read anything about Titane—even this very article—and it will play up the shock value. But talking to Ducournau, all of her choices seem rather rational.
Sitting down with Ducournau and her star Agathe Rousselle while they were in town for the New York Film Festival, I had them walk me through that crucial early moment where Alexia and a vehicle with flames on its side consummate their lust.
[The remainder of this story contains plot spoilers for Titane.]
Ducournau came up with the idea for Titane while in post-production on Raw and conceived it in a direct response to her earlier film. If Raw uses live animals and flesh as a metaphor for temptation and impulses, Titane wonders if we can find humanity in manmade materials. They are conceived as opposites, on purpose. "Metal is the antithesis to flesh," she says. "It's cold. It's dead. Flesh is warm and alive. Having this kind of collision in one person is, for me, talking about how our relationship to humanity, as far as it is capable of mutating or evolving—is it a doomed thing because of mortality, because of the death in us?"
Titane opens with Alexia—which is also, not coincidentally, the name of a character in Raw—riding in the back of her father's car as a girl. She makes engine noises and kicks his seat. He lashes out and they crash, causing her skull to fracture. She is given a titanium implant in her head that saves her life. "That's how it starts for her," Rousselle says. "And then she wants to fuck cars. There's nothing wrong about it." Years later, Alexia is working as a dancer at a car show, gyrating against a Cadillac emblazoned with flames.
Alexia is a monster not because of her urges toward cars, but because she's an unrepentant killer without remorse. Her weapon of choice is her hairpin, and she sticks it in the eyes and ears of harassers, lovers, and strangers. She doesn't care. But Ducournau wanted an almost uplifting ending for Titane, so she needed Alexia to start at the lowest possible point. "I have to start with real darkness, no humanity, no hope, no glory, in order to build itself up through pain, but also through the discovery of love and emotions," she says.
It's no accident that the car that seduces Alexia is painted in flames. Fire is a recurring motif throughout the film. Later, she goes to live at a fire station with her new quasi-father. "There is a huge metaphor between metal and fire in the film that are representing Gaia and Uranus, who are the two gods of Earth and Sky who gave birth to the Titans, which is what happens at the end," she says.
Alexia is showering at work after her first on-screen kill—a fan who follows her—when she hears the car. She enters the cavernous garage, naked and wet, and sees the vehicle she was dancing on top of with its headlights blaring. "It's just building up the desire of the car," Ducournau explains. "That's why you have very progressive movements. For me, the first one had to start small because we did not think that the car would be alive and deep down buried into her desire. That's actually the reason why the score at this moment, when the car moves for the first time, goes quiet so we can really hear the car going 'boom boom.'"
Ducournau knew from the building that the car would be a lowrider outfitted with hydraulics and that she would start with a wide shot before focusing mainly on Alexia and her reactions. "I definitely wanted it to feel like a real sex scene, but at the same time it was her narrative, so I didn't want to make it tacky or pornographic or anything," she says. As for Rousselle, who makes her acting debut in the film, she was "scared shitless," but decided to pretend she was doing a show. "It's a weird show," she says. "But it's OK." And, luckily, the experience was in fact rather funny and not unlike a carnival ride as her car bounced up and down. "I felt like it was a fun fair," she says. "I loved it."
For Alexia, the intercourse with the car is just the start of a journey that results in a physical and spiritual transformation. On the run, she breaks her nose and shaves the part of her head that isn't already visible from her scar, a swirling creation inspired by Hitchock's Vertigo. Her belly swells, and starts oozing a black, oily substance. But Ducournau wanted to make a movie that was ultimately optimistic, and it truly is. It's an optimistic movie with car sex and serial killing.