About 30 minutes into the run of Titane, director Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to her 2016 not-quite-cannibal-coming-of-age film Raw, I had a very specific idea of how the film would end. “Man, this is going places… If this ends with such and such happening, that would be… sort of perfect.” Lo and behold, Titane nails its story of violence and identity with an incredible punctuation mark. And through all of the bodily fluids, sexual provocation, and brutal violence, Titane is, wait for it, a sweet film.
It has much to do with machines; automobiles and their cold, metal allure, as well as the rending of flesh and bonding of woman and machine. It’s about losing sync not only with those around you but also the potential to lose yourself, a stranger in your own skin, and yet be found by someone who can help you push through that wandering and soul-searching. It’s a horror film, maybe, but Titane defies genre. Allegorical and a modern fairytale, maybe, but also very real and painfully relatable for many, no doubt. I ultimately don’t know that I loved Titane, but I do know that, like its characters, it absolutely deserves love.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Release Date: October 1, 2021
At a young age, Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) suffered a serious head injury in a car accident, and now some-20 years later bears a prominent, spiraling scar above her right ear. Matured into a beautiful, alluring dancer whose gig involves scant clothes and muscled cars, the sexualized world of exhibition she works attracts all sorts of groping hands and touchy men. Not ten minutes into Titane, Alexia counters a would-be rapist with a fatal blow. Alexia, we realize, has a taste for blood. A psychopathic serial killer, we find, Alexia not only likes the taste of blood but, under the sheets, has a strong, passionate attraction… to cars. Meaning, literally, she becomes intimate with a car.
Such is the source of many of the reactionary “most shocking film” takes in response to Ducournau’s audacious premise, but really it’s no stranger than a frog becoming a prince or a Nordic god fighting off aliens alongside a sentient tree. Just roll with it. Alexia’s life is complicated when one of her murderous impulses sends her on the lam, winding up in a masquerade as a missing child who’s been found, in the care of intense-but-loving emergency fire/medical responder Vincent (Vincent Lindon).
Titane barrels forward with its plot at a breakneck pace at times, yet never feels like it’s rushing the time to spend with its characters. Alexia’s bloodlust is never quite understood and certainly not condoned, but as she reemerges from her time on the run under the guise of Vincent’s lost son--Adrien, a bond between the father and “son” takes form. “I don’t care who you are. You’re my son,” Vincent says. The irony, of course, is that Alexia is not his son, her body-binding and self-mutilation (at one point Titane inflicts a moment of Alexia breaking her own nose to change her appearance, earning its squeamish “horror” monikor) enough of a charade to fool Vincent.
The beauty of his words is that, no matter how traumatized or eccentric “Adrien” appears to be, for however long father and son have been separated, Vincent still loves Adrien, unconditionally. Titane is a film about battling one’s inner being and the image one projects of oneself for the world to see, and accepting that sometimes those two things are different as night and day.
Titane goes beyond the idea of gender identity, with Alexia’s automotive kinks and lost boy masquerade equally accounted for. Ducournau visually represents the pain and torture one feels when playing a part that they don’t fit into, Alexia pretending not only to be someone she isn’t. Not only pretending to be a gender she isn’t. But also trying to cover the fact that she is, in fact, pregnant. With a car’s baby.
Those who would guffaw at Ducournau’s imagination can hopefully understand the deep meaning of Titane‘s seemingly-strange plot devices, and at the very least should be kept in the loop by the director’s command of the cut. Titane‘s pacing, narratively, can be a roller coaster, but also exudes a genuine sense of excitement and even humor in its scenes. Ducournau is particularly a whiz using her soundtrack, creating setpieces set to varied and infectious music. When you can edit a murder-spree with some abrupt pop tunes and elicit a nervous laugh from your audience, you’re on to something big.
Which is to say that, technically, Titane is solid. I don’t know if perhaps I’m desensitized to the odd violence on display, but while I never quite felt the intense pressure of the body horror at hand, I was certainly never in the mood to joke about it. Outlandish, Titane is not. This is no farce, the “sex-with-a-car” bit is to be taken literally and understood to be abnormal, yes, but in doing so Ducournau is asking her audience to accept that Alexia is different. Much in the way Vincent accepts, without question, the quiet and apparently-abused son who has reappeared in his life.
Much will be made of Titane‘s ostentatious bits. Having scooped the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film has gone on to subsequent festivals to dazzle the world of high-cinema with its sound and fury, racking up accolades like mileage on a car. Though some would hail Ducournau’s critical darling as “shocking” or “perverse,” the message it hammers condoning all the blood and bizarreness, to emphasize how Titane is “different” would seem counter to the message of the film entirely. Once the dust settles and the engine cools on this year’s slate of high-profile films, we should hope that any of the knee-jerk reactions towards Titane‘s storytelling tools wash away. The film is, to my read, literally about how much one needs to disregard superficial perceptions like what someone looks like or who (or what) they’re getting intimate with. A good person comes in every shape, and an old beat up Chevy can have a great engine under its hood. And Titane is running with some serious horsepower.