Under Her Skin
New York magazine|October 11 - 24, 2021
Julia Ducournau funneled years of fury, angst, and comedy into her Palme d’Or– winning, genre-smashing film Titane.
Rachel Handler

JULIA DUCOURNAU is telling me a horror story. A true one. The two of us are walking through MoMA on a Friday afternoon, in part because it’s one of the Parisian writer-director’s favorite spots to visit in the city and in part because the museum happens to be putting on an exhibit called “Automania,” which could be an alternate title for her Cannes Palme d’Or–winning, paradigm-smashing, car-fucking second feature, Titane. Despite having woken at 4:30 a.m. for her flight to New York, Ducournau, 37, looks soignée: black pleated Prada skirt, black leather Chanel jacket, and iridescent-purple Issey Miyake tote bag, matched with scuffed white Adidas sneakers and the remnants of a late-summer tan. She’s five-foot-nine but gives off the distinct impression that she is six-nine. She warns me that she can’t stay inside the museum chatting for too long without a break. “It’s not because I like fresh air or anything. I don’t give a shit about that,” she says. “But I like smoking.”

Back to the scary story, which is not about an adolescent whose skin starts shedding like a snake’s (that would be the plot of her 2011 debut short, Junior); a young, bloodthirsty cannibal making her way in veterinary school (her 2016 movie, Raw); or a female serial killer with a metal plate in her head who has sex with cars (that’s Titane). Unlike her horrifying, cathartic, and wickedly hilarious films— watching them is like plunging your brain into an ice bath, then strapping it into a race car and driving it off a cliff—this particular story is about Ducournau herself. After the surprising success of Raw, a coming-of-age film that made some people faint when it screened in Toronto, she was determined to write an even better feature, smarter and weirder than the first. But the ideas wouldn’t come, she says.

“When I say a year, it’s not like a year and I’m going on holidays,” she says. “It’s a year every morning, you wake up, you take a shower, you dress, and you sit in front of your computer all day and nothing comes.” On the rare occasion that she did write a sentence, she immediately deleted it, disgusted. The specter of expectations haunted her. Ducournau tells me several times that she hates when people reduce her films, which she sees as complex, genre-hopping creatures, to mere body horror. “People wanted Raw 2—like Raw but more gory,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I knew I was not going to yield to them, and at the same time, you can’t help being afraid that if you don’t give the people what they want, then they’re not going to like it.” When I ask why she didn’t take a break, she looks at me like I have seven heads, something she does often as we stroll through the museum. “There is no way I can actually enjoy my life if I think I’ll never be able to do something ever again,” she says. “The only way was to try.”

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