I can’t tell if I’d want to spend more than two hours inside of Julia Ducournau’s brain. Her 2016 film Raw was a seismic shock within the industry, telling a fascinating fable surrounded by graphic bouts of cannibalism (a good friend of mine is still deeply traumatized by his viewing). And in her newest film, Titane, Ducournau has crafted a vision unlike anything I’ve ever seen – although I’m not sure I wanted to. For the Palme d’Or winner is audacious, horrific, touching, hilarious, and trippy, often at the same time.
Ed. Note: This is really a film that helps to go in knowing nothing. I’ll do my best to hide spoilers in this review, but if you want, go see the movie first and then come see if you agree
Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is not a normal woman. It’s doubtful she’s even a normal human being. After a car accident as a child leaves her with a titanium plate in her head, Alexia finds herself obsessed – actually, more like aroused – by two things: violence and metal. The fetish turns her into a car girl, where she dances at clubs and auto shows to the delight of her fans. But the dancing hides a deadly secret – actually, a few different secrets: Alexia is, in fact, a serial killer, brutally murdering her victims with her long metallic hairpin. However, when a murder goes awry, Alexia finds herself on the run; inevitably taking on the persona of a young boy who’d disappeared 20 years ago. Taken in by the boy’s overjoyed father, a fire captain named Vincent (Vincent Lindon), Alexia must maintain the ruse, for both her sake and the father’s sanity. But a dark, insane secret may threaten to reveal her secret: a secret involving the birds, the bees, and a Cadillac.
If there’s one thing no one can deny about Ducournau as a director, it’s that she goes for it. This is a film that can only be described as “gonzo filmmaking,” in every sense of the word. This obviously applies to the body horror aspect, of which Ducournau should forever be considered a part of the conversation as much as, say, Cronenberg or Barker or Raimi. The film opens with a graphic depiction of a titanium plate being placed inside a young girl’s head. From there, we get a cornucopia of bodily fluids and manglings: blood, metal, bone, puke, spinal fluid, and ripped, charred, bruised, and injected skin. Every choice is made specifically and intuitively to get under our skin (pardon the pun) and make us squirm; to fear for our mortal bodies and languish in its destruction. But this wholehearted intensity goes beyond just the graphicness. It extends to every aspect of the filmmaking. The first major sequence involves an impeccable tracking shot through a sexy car show, with women dancing on top of cars while sweaty men leer from below. I never thought of a body horror film to embrace its sex appeal, but here we are.
However, that ethereal sequence through the auto show is perhaps the last normal visual onscreen – at least for a while. From there, Ducournau continues to slowly raise the stakes, alienating the audience from this seemingly human woman until she is unrecognizable to us, outside of her human flesh. She hooks up with a young woman she meets not just as an opportunity to murder, but because the idea of her metallic nipple ring – which she nearly rips out mid-foreplay – is the most appealing thing about her. Her only connection – emotionally, spiritually, and yes, sexually – is her Cadillac, which, SPOILER ALERT, is not only, apparently, alive, but is capable of participating in sexual activities, complete with a motor oil ejaculation (side note: the only thing more shocking than this plot twist is that this is actually the second film I’ve seen this year involving sex with a machine that has an oil-based discharge).
And somehow that’s not the biggest shock in the film. Ducournau continues trucking along past this revelation and its aftermath – which, I cannot stress enough, comes only 20 minutes into the film – as if nothing had happened. Almost immediately afterward, the film becomes a bloody black comedy, giving us a near-perfect sequence where the homicidal Alexia keeps trying to murder a victim, only for a witness to walk in, resulting in a new victim she has to kill. And before you know it, she’s suddenly breaking her nose to disguise herself as a missing young man, changing the trajectory of the plot yet again. Ducournau keeps her foot on the gas throughout this prologue (I promise I’ll stop with the puns), giving us visceral sequence after visceral sequence until we emotionally don’t know how to respond.
However, what might be the strangest choice in the film is not the car sex, or the murder, or the missing child. It’s the fact that after 20 minutes of the most intense filmmaking you can possibly imagine, Titane suddenly becomes…remarkably normal? Or at least, as normal as a film like this can become. At its core, and despite all the flash and gore and shock value of the first act, Titane is s story about reclaiming that which makes us human. It’s about Alexia, who cannot relate to humans, and does not bother to try to, learning to produce empathy for the first time in her life. She is a machine learning to value the importance of human life. Through her connection with Vincent, and their reluctant relationship, Alexia begins to view humans as more than a gross collection of flesh and tissue and sexual needs. She sees the beauty and life within, and in this journey, turns everything on its head – love, hate, life, death, gender, sexuality, and beyond.
Alexia and Vincent form a relationship that teeters in the middle of a valley between creepy, strange, and beautiful, never pushing things too far (either brilliantly or infuriatingly, depending on what answers you seek), and ultimately giving each other something they desperately need: human connection for Alexia, and closure – and perhaps even forgiveness – for a grieving man who may or may not have made a tragic mistake for which he cannot forgive himself. How deft is Ducournau’s ability to portray this compassion and human connection? There is a powerful, life-affirming moment that is, I kid you not, set to the “Macarena.” It is truly astonishing.
It’s possible – and maybe even likely – that we give Ducournau so much leeway with her weird, disturbing projects because she is, quite frankly, such a visually striking and compelling director. Ducournau has this gift for capturing dark frames with flashes of color in clear, decisive ways – a gift that should be studied by several murky hacks currently working on Hollywood blockbusters. Take, for instance, her opening tracking shot, where Alexia walks into the underground auto scene. It’s an uninterrupted sequence of surrealism, filled with beautiful women, sweaty, muscular dudes, flashes of light and color, revving engines, and thumping music.
It’s a dazzling display of artistic intent, blending together the film’s themes – the human body in all its glory and horror, human sexuality, the fetishization of cars, and a distinct disconnect from human emotion. Ducournau and her team brilliantly and beautifully construct the film from the ground up; in its gorgeous cinematograph, in its unsparing editing, right down to its musical choices. Both versions of “Wayfaring Stranger” used in the film are inspired, and a sequence to “She’s Not There” is hilarious and emotional and tense, somehow all at the same time. And it is all perfectly balanced with the film’s ever-changing tone – lest you think the film is about to get, dare I say, boring once things simmer down, boom! Someone’s flesh rips open and motor oil leaks out the wound. This is the work of a confident, audacious director working at the top of her game.
The all-around admirable ensemble is headlined by two powerhouse performances by actors completely willing to go for it. As Alexia, Rousselle is playing an impossible character. This is a character who is emotionally cold, devoid of empathy and emotion, capable of killing and seducing and not much else. The role requires her body to be completely disguised, broken, and battered, for her to undergo a sexual tryst with a machine, and to ultimately disguise herself as a twenty-something boy for most of the plot, completely mute and portraying everything through the eyes. Rousselle manages to sell each and every aspect of this character, creating a terrifyingly great, oddly charming performance that should certainly be talked about for years to come.
Meanwhile, Vincent Lindon is tremendous as a ‘roided-out fireman trying desperately to cling to his youthful masculinity, and to overcome past traumas and mistakes. It’s an emotionally bare performance, one that requires all of his charisma and soul to pull off. Like Rousselle, Lindon is required to walk a thin line between charming and menacing, and he does so brilliantly. You never know where you stand with him until the film’s final moments, which register as some of the most emotional you’ll see all year. There are other interesting, smart performances that pop up during the film’s 100-minute runtime. Dominique Frot has an emotionally vulnerable scene as an old woman the firefighters encounter during their rotations. Myriem Akheddiou has a terrific sequence as Vincent’s ex-wife near the end of the film. And Raw star Garance Marillier has a brief, but memorable scene as a young woman who makes the mistake of getting mixed up with Alexia. But no matter who enters the film and when, this film firmly remains in the hands of its two stars.
I’m not going to recommend Titane to you. I’m not technically sure I could recommend Titane to you. This is a trippy, visceral film made by a director who specializes in trippy, visceral films. It is esoterically designed to alienate the average audience, and I don’t think there’s a world where I could feasibly recommend this to the uninitiated. But I can tell you this. This is a film that will burrow into your brain, and refuse to let go. I’m already a half-letter grade higher than I was when I first saw the film last week. It is entirely possible that this will continue to rise. So if you’re a casual moviegoer looking for a quiet night in, don’t see Titane. But if you appreciate art, want to be intellectually challenged, and have a strong stomach, then by all means, see Titane. It is a film perfectly designed for you by a modern-day master of her craft.
Titane is now playing exclusively in theaters