Few people knew her name until just a few weeks ago. But with her first film role as a psychopathic gender fluid killer in Julia Ducournau’s Titane, she instantly rose to the top. By imposing her magnetic presence and unusual identity in a film that won the Palme d’Or, could Agathe Rousselle be the face of a new era in French cinema?
Actors often break through at a young, even very young age – appearing like blank pages whose history is yet to be written. Sometimes they break through later on, but in these cases, they are naturals, unique cases that cinema and TV will employ, but who won’t circulate so easily. At 33 years old, Agathe Rousselle has suddenly emerged from relative anonymity into the heart of international cinema by playing the lead role in Julia Ducournau’s Titane, the 2021 Palme d’Or winner. A rare case, she is both at the same time: still in her prime, with a vast horizon of possibility ahead of her, she has also already had nine lives: in fashion (she walked the runway for Vetements, Koché, Wanda Nylon, and Neith Nyer), in media (she launched the zine Peach and was the editor-in-chief of General Pop), entrepreneurship (she founded the embroidery brand Cheeky Boom), photography – which she has been practicing since she was a teenager – and even sports coaching. Her abundantly tattooed body is not a blank page and yet, the hybrid, transgender part it offers the film, as well as its obvious ability to get into character, give the impression that it is completely shapeshifting, and that it has a thousand more stories to tell. This strong and strange revelation is especially promising for cinema: she is an incredibly unstable and fluctuating being, who abolishes all categories of gender, age, and body, imposes a very powerful presence, and never apologizes for it.
ANTIDOTE: How are you feeling, two weeks after Titane won the Palme d’Or?
AGATHE ROUSSELLE: I feel great, I am very happy. Of course, I was shocked at first, because it’s one thing to be able to realize a dream, but this is something else entirely. Especially because I didn’t really have the luxury of being hopeful during the process; I really took it one step at a time. And there were no small steps: I had to go through several auditions, then get the role, undergo intense physical preparation for the film, and then wait several months to shoot because of Covid-related postponements… After seeing the film and learning that it had been selected at Cannes, I did start to think that it would get some kind of award. Honestly, I thought what we’d done was pretty wild. But I didn’t imagine that it would win the Palme d’Or.
Agathe Rousselle: Dress and earrings, Louis Vuitton.
How do you make sense of this award?
For me, it carries a strong message, because a female director received it [Julia Ducournau, editor’s note] and it is only the second time that that has happened. But it’s also a strong message as far as cinema is concerned, because it’s not a feature film that fits into the traditional canon of French cinema. It’s a silent, character part; it’s not the way we do things in France, where we’re often selecting actors because of who they are in the world, rather than for the characters they could embody.
You’ve had several previous lives: before Titane you were in fashion, photography, and journalism. Is this the beginning of a new life for you? Is it the one you’ve been waiting for all along?
Yes, I really hope this one will last a long time. In my twenties, I always wanted to be an actress. I was a model, probably because it was the closest thing to it. I’ve actually had a lot of different jobs, often several at the same time, but I was always missing something. On set, I remember thinking to myself for the first time: this is it, this is all I need!
How do you feel about suddenly finding yourself in the cinematic spotlight at a relatively late age?
I’m very happy that all of this is happening to me at 33, and not 23. I would have literally exploded if it had happened to me back then. At that age, you don’t know who your friends are, you’re overexcited all the time, you don’t know who you are, you haven’t found your own support system. Today I know who I am, I know what I am capable of. I’m not fooled by what’s going on.
Moving forward, do you think you will work exclusively as an actress, or will you continue to be a jack-of-all-trades?
I will never stop taking pictures. I’ve known that since I was 18. I continue to do it, just as I used to, as I always have, with a small Olympus camera I keep on me at all times. I also have a lifelong dream of making music… We’ll see if that materializes. And as always, I write a bit here and there. I have a little inner world, so to speak.
“I watched all the videos I could on psychopathy to understand what this neurosis, this pathology, consists of. It was a really clinical process. Alexia is a girl with a death wish.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal gave you some advice during the closing party of the Cannes Film Festival. I read in the media that it made an impression on you. Can you tell us about it?
She took me aside for a long time during the party following the Palme d’Or award ceremony and told me that while I probably wanted to get back on set – which is true – I had to wait, perhaps even for a long time, for a year, maybe more. To make sure I chose the right project. I’ve been repeating this advice to myself, and sharing it publicly so I can hold myself to it; I lack patience, so it will work better if I say it in front of everyone. She also told me that she could understand why I wouldn’t want to settle for anything less intense than this. I’ll never get that intensity back, anyway, but I might be able to discover another kind of intensity. Something like Desplechin’s Kings and Queens, for example. It’s French, it’s talkative, but it’s powerful, and very intense.
What would be the right project for you?
Maybe a film with David Fincher? In any case, a feature film in which I have lines, for starters… I’d like another character part. But something completely different, obviously.
Your role in Titane is both very strong and extremely unique. Are you afraid that it may be too unique to convince another filmmaker to offer you a role? It’s not exactly a demo tape…
Actually it is, in a way. Obviously, it’s not so ordinary, but it has a bit of everything in it. It includes comedic scenes, even though I don’t speak, or hardly speak at all. Let’s just say that I’m bound to meet imaginative people…
Agathe Rousselle: Jacket, shirt, pants, earrings and bag, Louis Vuitton.
Let’s talk about the character, Alexia. She remains very opaque for the spectator. We don’t necessarily understand what motivates her, what torments her. Is she a mystery to you too?
Not really, no. She is a psychopath – in the strict sense of the word. I watched all the videos I could on psychopathy to understand what this neurosis, this pathology, consists of. It was a really clinical process. Alexia is a girl with a death wish. Sometimes it’s to defend herself, and sometimes it’s just impulsive.
How was this character described in the casting call? What made you feel like you were the right fit for the role?
I was actually contacted directly by the casting director on Instagram. At the audition, they had me act out two scenes that didn’t end up appearing in later versions of the script. Afterwards, we did the following exercises to “test” how expressive I was without speaking: they hid half of my face, and made me respond with my eyes. They had told me that I had to be able to act as both a girl and a boy, but I didn’t know much more than that…
Did you contribute to the character’s development? Did you make adjustments?
Yes, because you have to imagine that because of the pandemic, a long time passed before we were able to shoot. I knew I had gotten the role on August 1, 2019. We shot in September 2020. I had to undergo intense physical preparation, including dancing, stunts. And Julia made me work on monologues from other movies and television series: Network, Twin Peaks, some scenes from Killing Eve… This series really helped me to develop the character.
What is the main challenge with a script for a psychopath?
Reaching a particular state, which is apparent in any interview with a psychopath – and I’ve watched a lot of them – whether they’re real, like the serial killer Ed Kemper, or reenacted in fiction. I re-watched Mindhunter, Monster, We Need to Talk About Kevin… Their look is empty. I had to achieve that, though with Alexia, I also had to move away from it in order to reenter the world of humans once she meets Vincent. So, we glimpse little flashes of humanity, moments when she is afraid, when she is tender toward her baby…
Agathe Rousselle: Cardigan, skirt, top, earring and bag, Louis Vuitton.
A while ago, you explained that Alexia only disguises herself as a boy out of convenience, and that she would have dressed up as a tree if she could have. Is that really true?
Yes, it’s completely functional, it’s not part of her gender identity. But any girl who has ever put on a big hoodie and a pair of shabby old jeans to go for a walk knows: when you dress as a boy, people leave you alone. Once, I shaved my head, and people really left me alone… The film probably refers to this a little, though, in her case, it’s mostly to avoid the police.
Alexia can perform extreme femininity, but there is also something harsh about her, a kind of wildness or coldness at the heart of her character. In fact, one has the feeling that she is moved neither by the feminine, nor the masculine, nor any sexuality whatsoever, but that her survival instinct transcends everything.
She is nevertheless transported by one thing: dancing on cars. She has a thing for cars, she alone feels that. Her hypersexualization at the beginning of the film, that’s her job. She does it because she can do it and because she can do anything. She can twerk, she can kill.
As a performer, what scared you most: twerking or killing?
I wasn’t really afraid because I was very prepared. The hypersexualized scenes, the fight scenes or stunts… I had been working on them for months. On the other hand, what was really tough and challenging were moments of extreme suffering: Alexia deforms herself, she refuses her pregnancy, bandages her belly… That’s very heavy. Obviously, in reality, I wasn’t suffering. But it did move me, in a way.
Do you think that this film, which has to do with female suffering, can move men and women in the same way?
There are guys who had a very bad experience with the attempted self-abortion scene. Even though they have never used a tampon…
Agathe Rousselle: Dress, bag and shoes, Louis Vuitton.
Does the fantasy element in the film – the fetus being born from a machine, and the half organic half mechanical pregnancy – make this feature film about the fear of pregnancy? Does it exacerbate the very real fears that a pregnant woman might have?
I don’t know if I would go that far, but I think it’s good to show women who are not very happy about being pregnant. Alexia goes through a lot of stages, she tries to kill the baby, she hits her belly, and then in the shower, suddenly, there is a little hand that appears, and she reproaches herself, she asks the baby for forgiveness. It’s all very extreme in the film, but I think that any woman who has been pregnant can relate to these scenes, whether directly or indirectly, even if it’s not the case for me. But my friends who have been pregnant have always told me about how violent it was.
Did you have the feeling, on set, that you were making a word about gender, which would be heavily reviewed in those terms, and which was inventing something new? Or are these things simply a matter of interpretation? Do they fade away at the moment of production?
I didn’t think about it for a second. I knew I was going to have to work on my posture and the way I moved to be able to play a guy. But for me, it’s first and foremost a film about love and filiation. The question of gender is rather secondary in my eyes. I don’t subscribe at all to the idea that this is a queer film.
It’s true that given the nature of the character, the film is strangely positioned to embody the reconfiguration of gender in cinema…
Many people have spoken to me about its “queer” dimension, but Alexia does not have conscious gender trouble, she is not in search of her own identity. She’s a psychopath trying to survive, trying to escape the police, and she gets pregnant. That being said, there are things that are not the subject of the film but that are there, and in a way it’s cool that they’re not there to be noticed, that they’re just normal, like the character’s romantic versatility, sleeping with men and women, without it really being designated as a subject.
She also has an erotic attraction to cars. Why do you think that is?
I see it as Stockholm syndrome. She is living with her trauma, her car accident as a child, in the opening scene. It’s also about myth.
Agathe Rousselle: Jackets et earrings, Louis Vuitton.
How did you feel about the press coverage of Titane? There were some very critical reviews, that accused the film of being opportunistic as far as the question of gender is concerned, or of the Cannes jury having rewarded it for more political than artistic reasons.
I heard these things. Honestly, I thought it would be much more divisive than that. I haven’t read anything too atrocious either. Very selfishly, I was relieved not to read anything too awful about myself either. I’m glad it’s a movie that is getting people talking.
What other movie have you enjoyed recently?
Annette, which I saw just before I got to Cannes. I loved it. There are so many ideas, so many graceful, pictorial shots. Marion Cotillard is sublime. Adam Driver is a force of precision, I thought he would get the prize. The last scene broke my heart, with this incredible kid, this child’s role that sets everything straight.
What do you think about the notion of karma?
I do a lot of yoga, a discipline that readily incorporates this kind of philosophy. Karma, I would say, pushes me to apply myself; it doesn’t necessarily make me do good, but at least it encourages me not to do bad. When someone does something bad to me, I say to myself: it’s okay, karma will do the same to them. I don’t think you can destroy without suffering the consequences.
Is the relatively late acclaim that you are experiencing right now karmic in your eyes?
Yes, of course it is. I’m a big believer in hard work. I’ve never stopped working since I was 18. And I worked hard for Titane, as did the whole team. So, in a way, to be really honest… I think it’s well deserved.
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