Film Review – Titane
If I were tell you the entire plot of Titane (2021) beat by beat, you probably wouldn’t believe me. This is a one-of-a-kind experience that is equal parts brutal, shocking, horrific, hilarious, and compassionate. Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the French film explodes out of the gate, continuously surprising us at every turn. Not at a single point did I have a clue where this was going, and it felt riveting. It was though the film was improvising its story on the spot. This is clearly not for the faint of heart. If you do not like graphic body horror, nudity, and extreme violence, then this is not for you. But if you can look beyond the surface to see how those elements contribute to the overall themes, you will find one of the most inventive films of 2021.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau, who last helmed Raw (2016), continues her fascination with the bond characters have with their own bodies and the impulses that drive them to commit heinous acts. This time, her narrative strikes with the force of a sledgehammer. With Ruben Impens’ cinematography and Jean-Christophe Bouzy’s editing, Ducournau structures her narrative with dreamlike imagery. Scenes will cut in the middle of action or jump forward in time with little warning. The lighting and color will bathe the screen in hot pinks, bright reds, and blinding whites. Scenes of shirtless men dancing in slow motion have a hallucinatory effect. This all adds to a sense of spontaneity – never allowing us to grab our bearings or settle into comfort.
Standing center stage is Alexia, played by a ferocious Agathe Rousselle. As a child, Alexia was involved in a car accident that left a metal plate in her skull. Alexia wears the scars on her head like one of the many tattoos adorning her body. Rousselle presents the character as a feral, vicious personality. Alexia acts on impulse, exhibiting her sexual and physical compulsions without a second thought. When we first meet her, Alexia works as a dancer at a car show, but that does little to define her. She scoffs at any type of social activity and will easily kill anyone that crosses her path, even when they do nothing to provoke her. Ducournau provides little to explain Alexia’s psychology. Sure, her relationship with her parents is cold and distant, but that feels like a minor part of what makes Alexia who she is.
In a way, Ducournau is challenging us to connect with Alexia, especially in the first half. Some of the things she does is so extreme that I started to wonder why we should care about what happens to her. Ducournau answers this in the second act. After Alexia commits a series of crimes, she goes on the run from authorities. She ends up in the company of firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Disguising herself to impersonate Vincent’s lost son, Alexia falls under Vincent’s wing, living with him and training in his fire station. And this is where the heart of Titane truly lies – between a woman who must hide herself from the outside world and a man who wants to fill a void left by his missing child.
Rousselle and Lindon both deliver visceral, physically demanding performances. They reveal themselves in direct, bold ways. Both (especially Rousselle) are naked throughout much of the runtime, making the point explicitly clear. Lindon, sporting an aging muscular physic, wants to care for someone while needing to be cared for as well. When Alexia disguises herself as a boy – wrapping her breasts down to avoid being discovered – we see the pain and agony on her face as she suppresses her real self. The two find in one another compassion and empathy, however strange the circumstances. In a movie filled with blood and guts, a scene of kindness and acceptance between Vincent and Alexia turns out to be one of the best.
But what I just described merely scratches the surface. Ducournau paints the narrative with multiple different shades. We get everything from the horror, sci-fi and comedy genres, as well as a family drama with a touch of surrealism. There are sequences that are so outrageous that it’s a miracle Ducournau and her team were able to pull it off. Just as the main character in Raw was drawn to eating flesh, so too is Alexia drawn to automobiles. Somehow, the accident that left a metal plate in her head created a link between her and cars. When she walks out of the hospital after her recovery, she approaches the very same car she was in with warmth, maybe even love. I am purposefully leaving out all the juicy details regarding this, because it is better that you see the insanity for yourself. How Ducournau was able to tie this with ideas of parenthood proves the confidence of her vision.
I will admit, many will see the first section of Titane and be completely turned off. Ducournau pushes the limit maybe a little too far, as though she were testing us to see how much we are willing to take. But she does it with such style and originality that I felt compelled to keep going, if only to find out where things will end up. In a time where too many movies play it safe, opting for easy resolutions and happy endings, here is a film that attempts to break the mold and take a risk. The fact that it contains a beating heart makes it all the more remarkable.