Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
(The film was released theatrically on October 1st. It can now be seen on certain VOD platforms.)
[Note: This story contains plot spoilers.]
If you’re an actor and get called in to audition for a role where the character description reads something like: “Psychotic serial killer with daddy issues who sleeps with a Cadillac and carries said car-baby to term,” you might feel a certain sense of intrigue and excitement for said role.
In that regard, the lead in the Oscar-buzzy, Cannes-winning French film Titane is an actor’s dream, because wild fantasies get indulged, and “range” comes in all sorts of sadistic forms. We first meet Alexia as a young girl who suffers a head injury in a violent car accident — before her future as an adult with a titanium metal plate in her messed-up skull leads her down dark roads.
The adult version of this character is played surprisingly well by newbie Agathe Rousselle — and since this is a film from Julia Ducournau, who wrote/directed Raw (2016) about a woman with a taste for human flesh, you’re best served to expect a second tour of trauma-infused psychosis.
To that end, one dark road leads Alexia to exotic dancing on the hood of a Cadillac at a car show. Another to murdering an overzealous fan with a hairpin. And, finally, before we have time to properly digest her crazy, we witness one of the stranger sex scenes ever shot when she has sex in the backseat of the Cadillac — with the Cadillac. As you process the road hazard, you quickly realize her journey is going to be riddled with speed bumps you couldn’t previously conceive of.
But writer/director Ducournau has — and speaking of conception, Alexia’s interlude with the unprotected Cadillac leads her down an even darker road. One where pregnancy is a problem and abortion is apparently off the table. Now, Alexia’s on the run from the cops who are bearing down on this sexy yet slippery serial killer so she must figure out her next move — as one of her victims gets away. Naturally, Alexia does what anyone in her position would do: She becomes “Adrien” and pretends to be the long-missing son of a deeply sad French fire captain (played incredibly well by Vincent Lindon), forming a relatively f’d up father/son relationship. It would actually be sort of sweet — if it weren’t completely self-serving, wrong, and under the false premise of a reunion.
Throughout this tour-de-force, Rousselle’s ability to transform her face and body into one bearing a lifetime of pain is impressive. Her physical transformations — especially as she bandages her body tightly to resemble a man so she can continue her gender-bending ruse — require the skill of transformation in what is largely a non-speaking role. And even though the film is a bit uneven in places, it’s worth appreciating Rousselle’s first effort, as she’s on-screen for probably 75% of the film. It’s a role you won’t soon forget — even though some might try.
Unlike with 99.9% of acting jobs, Rousselle was reportedly discovered for the role on Instagram by the casting director for Titane, according to this piece on People.com.
In the interview, the 33-year-old French-born actress says she always had dreams of acting but had sort of lost hope because her connections were lacking and she had no real nepotistic chips to cash in. But she kept busy working all sorts of industry jobs, having “a dozen of different lives” on both sides of the camera. “I was a photographer, I produced stuff. I did casting, but I also was a model. And I tried pretty much everything that I could, and it got back to me. So that’s the beauty of it,” said Rousselle in the piece on how the universe brought her the opportunity.
Prior to Titane, Rousselle’s IMDb has only a short film credit or two. So, how did such a sizable and juicy role eventually go to an unknown? Credit Ducournau’s eye for talent — and the right androgynous look. In an interview with the LA Times, Ducournau says she wanted an unknown who could portray truth and had the ability to achieve the physicality that this role demanded.
Says French-filmmaker Ducournau of Rousselle. “We were taking a huge bet at one point when you choose someone among other nonprofessionals. Various factors come into consideration; it’s not just the acting. She had the perfect look. So, I wanted to film her. That she triggered this in me is already a very good thing, because instinct, that’s a very important thing.”
So, was it a slam dunk to cast Rousselle? Actually, no. The actual casting was a lengthy process that had Rousselle coming back 5-6 times before being offered the role. “Casting nonprofessionals is a very different exercise,” says Ducournau. Now, with Titane receiving the awards praise it has, it will be interesting to see what befalls Rousselle’s career next.
One thing is for sure: Might be time to drop the “non” from “professional” — given her role as a serial-killing dancer and mom of a Cadillac baby just made for one helluva feature-film debut.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.