[slight plot spoilers ahead]
Titane is a depraved journey, no doubt. Julia Ducournau is quickly cementing herself as a genre filmmaker with the guts to shock and stimulate viewers no matter how deviant the premise. Ducournau shifts from coming-of-age cannibalism in her debut with Raw, to serial killings and a woman on the run with a car fetish. It’s brutal, stirring and otherworldly. Riding the high of a Palme d’Or win from Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Ducournau brings her pulsating sophomore effort to more theaters, and with it, a strange finding that it actually works.
Titane begins abruptly and with purpose. Young Alexia (Adèle Guigue) imitates the sound of a car motor while riding backseat behind her dad, unbuckled and determined to stir a little mischief. She causes an accident, sending her to the hospital and leaving with a titanium plate fixed into the side of her skull. What’s confounding is seeing the first thing Alexia does when she steps out of the hospital is give the car a sweet little smooch and a hug. Grown up Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) struts and dances around and atop a flame detailed vintage Cadillac as onlookers gawk at her. She’s good at what she does at car shows, performing in what depicts an easy relation between the obsessive male culture on cars and women. Ducournau takes the salacious male gaze here and stabs it with a hair stick, quite literally.
One night doesn’t go quite as planned and Alexia goes on the run, leaving her home in fiery abandon. Alexia shows no emotion, and the film rides that wave with vicious disposition for as long as it can hold out. While trying to evade authorities, she finds herself in the home and care of Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a muscled fire chief still grieving the loss of his son. How Alexia ends up here is all due to her cunning survival, a transformation that eventually shows the film’s soul. She’s taken up bloody peril all on her own but stumbles on something that makes her propensities pause.
Among all the mangled aspects, Titane is most riveting to witness when it is human. Ducournau assigns us the duty of studying Alexia, an empty-eyed woman with unease. She’s allowed the grounds to be violent with no pre-afflictions. It’s unknown whether anyone’s ever caused her trauma and nothing obscenely brutal ever happens to her onscreen to provoke a spin in character or a need to seek revenge. Ducournau’s illustration of a woman being naturally off the rails deranged is an artillery against all the polished ways in which women are expected to act, react, experiment and feel in cinema. Sometimes we just need stories about mad, lost women. It’s a commentary on so much and welcomes an abundance of interpretations, one being the examination of gender identity as a means of survival. Another being the critique and presumption of the feminine form as it is presented for male gaze and in fertility.
Ducournau does a fine job early on at making her protagonist unlikeable with psychopathic tendencies. Although this is true, there’s a sliver of vulnerability that starts to peek through as Alexia begins to have an affinity for Vincent. It’s standoffish, familial and intimate altogether. Enough can’t be said on Rousselle’s performance, a commanding, eerie presence even when mute. Thanks to Rousselle and Lindon’s peculiar chemistry, Alexia and Vincent find that they’re two halves of a whole; a soothing balm for one another. The dichotomy of their dialogue is fascinating, albeit odd. And there are a ton of oddities here. Vincent is still mourning the loss of his Adrien all those years ago, now shooting up roids into his right glute to suppress the grief and sensitive instability. He’s tough, yet the masculine facade is removed when Ducournau uncovers his sorrow. Doused in the testosterone of his world and its inhabitants, it’s Vincent’s idiosyncratic relationship with Alexia that takes the viewer on a fucked up, sweet joyride of co-dependence and longing. Through all the motor oil, disfigurement and euphoria, their chemistry anchors the madness.
Titane crystalizes into a quite touching and bittersweet crescendo. If a viewer suspends their belief a bit and simply goes along for the ride, there’s quite a lot of subdued heart to the film. It’s accompanied by the unforgettable score by Jim Williams (Possessor) and Ruben Impens’ glowing, intimate and viscous cinematography. Ducournau successfully imbues wretched angst and warmth to her narrative again. Although more unruly and wayward than her debut film, this is heavy on the body horror and the limits of oneself, emotionally and physically. Channelling gender fluidity, found family attachment and violence, the film offers more on these than what you’ll expect going in; and that’s a testament to Ducournau’s uncanny, unrelenting precision.
Titane proves to be another tantalising, gnarly work from Ducournau, a piece of modern cinema so daring, it must be experienced. Some violent scenes will stay with you and you might not ever look at hair accessories the same again. What Ducournau has crafted is an experience so deliciously twisted, you’ll never forget it.