Directed by Julia Ducournau.
Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garace Marillier, Lais Salamah, Myriem Akheddiou and Bertrand Bonello.
After a car accident, young Alexia has a titanium plate fitted into her head. Several years later, while working as a showgirl at a motor show, Alexia embarks upon a surreal adventure of murder and sex that brings her into the life of ageing fireman Vincent.
Horror films tend to not get much recognition when awards are handed out. Sure we have the odd Oscar nomination every few decades, but rarely does a horror film take home the top prize. So imagine my surprise and joy to hear that, in 2021, a horror film took home one of the most prestigious film awards in the world, the Palm d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival. That film is Julia Ducorunau’s stylish, strange, gruesome, but surprisingly emotional French body horror Titane.
Agathe Rousselle takes on the role of our protagonist Alexia, a strange woman with even stranger habits. In her feature film debut, Rousselle, while only having sparse amounts of dialogue (to the point of being nearly silent for long periods), cuts a captivating, enigmatic figure. The most striking component of Rousselle’s performance are her eyes, her seemingly unblinking gaze possessing the power to instil anxiety as to what madness is lurking behind them.
Yet, although she is somewhat unnerving, Rousselle still manages to project a vulnerability, such as when she writhes in pain due to contractions from her unusual pregnancy (more on that later). Rousselle also deserves props for her dedication to the role, particular in her participation in perhaps the most original and unusual sex scenes I’ve seen in quite some time (A lot is coming later).
While Rousselle is exemplary, I admit I was taken more with her on-screen “father”, Vincent Lindon. As the ageing fireman, who also happens to be named Vincent, Lindon is a tragic figure struggling to come to terms with his age and the sudden reappearance of his missing “son” (actually Alexia in disguise). It’s honestly moving to watch Vincent try to re-connect with who he thinks is his child (although there are hints of wilful ignorance), with Lindon’s eyes often soaked with tears, yet playing the sadness with an understated quality that avoids veering into overdramatic territory.
When it won the Palme d’Or, much of the discourse surrounding Titane revolved around how “messed up” it was, with there being scores of articles and YouTube videos calling it the most “WTF” film of 2021 (it physically hurt to write “WTF”). So, was the hype worth it? Yes and no. While it does its share of strange and disturbing sequences that are a rarity in such a mainstream, award-winning film, I’ve seen far weirder and more disturbing stuff. I survived the last 20 minutes of Society, for Christ’s sake.
Of course, much of the outrage surrounded one instantly infamous moment I alluded to earlier; a scene in which Alexia has sex with a car. And it’s not a metaphor or a dream sequence. Alexia and a car get together and make passionate love in a sequence that seems like something JG Ballard decided to cut from Crash for being too weird for a novel about people with a car crash fetish. It’s a memorable scene for sure, but I’ve seen weirder.
What I haven’t seen though the end result of unprotected car sex. A nightmarish unnatural pregnancy in which Alexia’s body slowly starts to change in gruesome mechanical ways as her skin peels away to reveal a metal sheen underneath as motor-oil starts to leak from various places. I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, but nipples leaking oil is definitely new. It’s weird, gross, and the type of creative body horror that would make David Cronenberg proud and make him wish he had come up with it for the film version of Crash. I’m making a lot of references to Crash, aren’t I?
Although, in my view, the most disturbing moments were the least graphic, such as a sequence of Alexia attempting to perform an amateur abortion on her impending Lightning McQueen, the very act of her moving a sharp object towards her genitals making me wince more than an earlier scene of a hairpin to the face. It’s either that or her successful attempt at breaking her nose by smashing her face into a sink that had me looking away wincing.
While a gruesome body horror littered with grotesque moments, what surprised me most about Titane were its varied and often emotional themes. Examining themes about ageing and family, the film tackles them with a delicate hand, far more than one would expect, given the strangeness and gruesomeness of everything else. The moments of Vincent attempting to fight off the ageing process by abusing steroids are heartbreaking, his often pained flexing showing a man fighting a losing battle against time and slowly killing himself to stay in the fight.
There are also surprising moments of vulnerability in the film that caught me off guard. I couldn’t help but crack a smile as Alexia helps a sad Vincent cheer up at a party, the two dancing to the tune of “Light House” by Future Islands as the purple lighting and slow motion give the sequence a tenderness that you don’t often find in a horror film.
Although critically acclaimed, award-winning, and destined for a cult following, Titane is not a film everyone is going to get behind. Its strangeness may have been somewhat overhyped, but there is still enough here to put off more squeamish viewers, and its relatively restrained approach to horror (arguably, the film is more akin to a drama) might alienate more casual horror fans hoping for a wild gore soaked flick.
However, with the terrific performances, gruesome approach to body horror that will change how you look at cars, and a surprisingly tender emotional core, Titane emerges as a pleasantly bizarre ride that’s well worth a look. Here’s hoping its Palme d’Or win is the first of many for the horror genre.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★