Directed by Julia Ducournau.
Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Laïs Salameh, Myriem Akheddiou, Bertrand Bonello and Garance Marillier.
A woman with a metal plate in her head following a childhood car accident ends up on the run after a killing spree.
Julia Ducournau announced herself as a new voice in horror cinema in brutal fashion with her 2016 directorial debut Raw. It arrived on the back of one of those notorious festival runs in which audience members were walking out and fainting, while those who stuck it out showered the cannibal coming-of-age tale with rave reviews. The movie was a thoughtful, grotesque take on burgeoning female desire – a subject matter to which Ducournau returns with her Palme d’Or winning follow-up Titane.
Not content with the boundary-pushing extremity of Raw, this is Ducournau on even more transgressive form, constructing a narrative which emerges as a Frankenstein-like hybrid of David Cronenberg, Rosemary’s Baby, documentary The Imposter and The Fast and the Furious. Certainly, punky protagonist Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) might be the only person who’s been more intimate with a flame-decorated muscle car than Vin Diesel.
Her connection with vehicles goes all the way back to childhood and the crash which left her with a life-saving titanium plate implanted in her head. Leaving hospital, she lovingly caresses the vehicle and – after a flash-forward – the adult Alexia is writhing, semi-nude on a glistening bonnet as part of a bizarre, sexually-charged dance show. A celebrity in this niche community, she moonlights as a serial killer. Her victims are a mix, from the creepy fan who forces a kiss on her after a show to a new lover (played by Raw lead Garance Marillier), whom Alexia meets when her hair becomes tangled around the girl’s nipple piercing in the shower. Titane loves playing with unusual unions of the organic and the metallic.
This opening act is propulsive, lurid and darkly hilarious, setting the table for a pretty conventional slice of horror cinema. But this is where Ducournau’s mercurial script zags wildly. Suddenly, Alexia is on the run from the law and seemingly heavily pregnant after a night of passion with a sentient automobile. Spotting an opportunity, she undergoes a dramatic and brutal transformation to pose as the missing teenage son of roid-dependent fireman Vincent (Vincent Lindon). It’s enough to give any audience whiplash, but never has that tonal neck-snap felt more pleasurable.
That’s the genius of Ducournau’s achievement here. This is a movie packed with button-pushing extreme cinema elements, both thematically and in terms of the blood and motor oil sloshing about everywhere, but it’s also an absolute joy to watch. The violence is wince-inducing, but also often comes with a cathartic blast of gallows humour. There’s a playful malevolence to Ducournau’s storytelling, which allows the audience to come along for the ride, even if they’re watching some of it through their fingers.
Rousselle is magnetic in the lead role, making her feature debut with a performance that has as many shades as Joseph’s famous dreamcoat. The personality and thrust of her portrayal shifts entirely, in tune with the character’s physical metamorphosis. Once Alexia becomes Adrien, she sheds her brash charisma along with her punky style, becoming a withdrawn, taciturn bundle of nerves. It’s easy for Alexia to portray a traumatised young person struggling to reintegrate with life – because that’s what she is. Rousselle is able to tell the story of her unconventional relationship with Vincent – portrayed with sorrowful, wounded machismo by Lindon – with little more than facial expressions and shifting body language.
In a film that will likely be sold on the basis of its lurid first half and headline-friendly extremity, it’s the complex emotional landscape of the final act that takes it to the next level. While Alexia grapples with gender performance and the entity growing inside her – soon, she’s even lactating viscous, vehicular oil – Vincent is also confronting the fading power of his own masculinity, surrounded by the muscular, energetic young firefighters at his station. Ducournau elegantly weaves their respective struggles together, constructing a union of unspoken affection between two people who know they aren’t what the other is looking for, but are just happy to have somebody upon whom to rely.
Titane is a movie of shifting meanings and, as the credits roll, the central thesis of Ducournau’s story remains ambiguous. But this is a film absolutely packed with ideas, incident and energy, weaving a complex narrative which balances the gory thrills of the midnight movie circuit with the sort of nuanced gender discussion the filmmaker delivered in her first movie. Anyone who sees Titane will find it living in their head rent-free for weeks after they leave the cinema. Like the metal plate which may or may not be the source of the protagonist’s darkness, it’s going absolutely nowhere.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.