Titane, 2021, directed by Julia Ducournau — 4/5 stars
It was an era-defining surprise when Titane, a terse, bizarre movie from a sophomore horror director, won the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Director Julia Ducournau is only the second female director to receive the festival’s highest honor, and the film itself is uniquely disturbing and abstract, pushing the limits and scope of what critics recognize on an international level. Nauseatingly mesmerizing and surprisingly emotional, Titanetakes an artistic leap from Ducournau’s last film Raw into a new territory that teeters somewhere between David Cronenberg’s Crash and an entirely new genre and tone; a certain blend of unconditional love and unfounded, unknowable fear. Spoilers follow.
The film stars Agathe Rousselle as the androgynous and homicidal Alexia, a woman who, upon enduring a car crash as a child, has a titanium plate fitted into her skull. She’s later seen as an adult, working as a showgirl at a car show. When a male fan follows her back to her car from the show, she brutally murders him with the metal hairpin that holds up her bleach-blonde hair. This is the first of many shocking and disturbing moments in the film, all of which feel erratic and explosive, but never cheap or meaningless. The next step in the story is the catalyst for the entire plot, and is perhaps the most bizarre scene in the entire film. Alexia returns to the show floor and, after some prompting, has sex with a car. It’s a stunningly unexpected moment, and is absolutely ridiculous in concept, but Ducournau keeps the scene grounded. The lighting and framing of the scene is clinical and visceral, and music is minimal, taking a back seat to the unnerving foley work that completes the sequence.
It gets even weirder when Alexia realizes that she’s pregnant with some sort of car-human hybrid. Seeking to escape the legal consequences of her multiple murders, she dramatically alters her appearance and poses as a missing boy from a decade earlier. The boy’s father, a disturbed, aging firefighter played by Vincent Lindon, accepts Alexia as his missing son and takes her home, all while she attempts to hide the mechanical monster growing inside her.
Narratively, Ducournau is painting with broad strokes; most of the ideas aren’t actively examined by the characters on screen, largely because they speak so little. Thematically, though, the questions the story poses feel challenging and pointed in a way that hyper-violent thrillers like Titane rarely incorporate. Though it’s only just over 90 minutes, the story feels patient and meditative at times, limiting the stomach-churning body horror to tight, condensed snapshots separated by slow-motion dance sequences set to minimalist garage rock like “Doing it to Death” by The Kills. Provocative questions about identity are conjured from the imagery alone; Alexia’s appearance changes so dramatically throughout that it may disorient the audience, leaving the character’s gender identity up to interpretation. Even the premise alone, one of mating with several thousand pounds of glass and steel, is enough to make our skin crawl and make us consider the very meaning of our physical form.
It helps, too, that the film is beautifully shot, with solid neon colors illuminating extended, fascinatingly composed environments. The editing lets this footage stand for itself, only ever cutting to transition between scenes or to dramatically reposition the viewer’s perspective. Both Rouselle and Lindon are excellent as well, the former as a stone-cold killer trying to hold onto the last pieces of her humanity and the latter as a flawed, broken man desperate for human connection.
Titane isn’t for the squeamish. It’s truly horrifying at times, sometimes repulsively so, but it has a genre-less emotional element that can’t be overlooked. Despite the cold, mechanical narrative at its core, Titane is oddly human.