Writer-director Julia Ducournau has a penchant for human flesh.
Well, maybe not in the same way as, say, Justine, the central character of her 2016 film Raw. Justine was a young veterinary student who found she’d rather start chomping down on people than stick to her vegetarian diet. No, Ducournau is fascinated by the impermanence of our meaty, mortal coils, and the characters in her movies often push those limits to their extremes. In Raw, Justine’s self-discovery as a college student forced her to reckon with her own destructive impulses, except instead of doing keg stands she was eating a slab of someone’s thigh meat.
Titane, Ducournau’s stunning sophomore effort, doesn’t contain as clear-cut an allegory: It’s thornier, weirder, funnier and, if you can believe it, even more stomach-churning. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), the deeply troubled antihero, isn’t on a journey of self-discovery per se but one of complete transformation. What transpires with her character raises questions about the nature of morality, the fluidity of gender and the limitations of what the human body can endure.
As someone who watches a lot of movies each year, I found Titane — for all its grotesque body horror and brutal violence — wholly refreshing. It’s increasingly rare to see a new movie where, even by 30 minutes in, you have no idea where it’s headed. Needless to say, Titane is best experienced knowing as little as possible beforehand, so I’ll restrict most plot details to simply the opening few minutes.
The movie opens with a young Alexia in the back of her father’s sports car as they speed down a highway. Uncomfortably close shots of engines whirring and viscous fluids leaking auto parts intersperse their drive until a crash ends with Alexia’s head smashed against a passenger window. A life-saving operation places a metal plate in Alexia’s head, and as she walks out of the hospital with her parents, she rushes to her father’s car and gives it a quick hug and kiss. This troubling emotional bond Alexia has with cars grows far more literal as the movie progresses.
Where Titane’s story goes from there is unquestionably batshit, filled with some of the most disquieting body horror since James Woods pulled a gun from the vaginal flesh sack of his stomach in Videodrome. But the comparisons to David Cronenberg’s work aren’t just due to this movie’s fascination with the melding of flesh and machine. No, like Cronenberg’s best stuff, Titane is filled with transgressive imagery that not only disgusts but is bound to provoke discussion over some of society’s largest issues.
Alexia eventually crosses paths with an aging firefighter named Vincent (played by Vincent Lindon, giving the film’s best performance), who’s been grieving a missing son for the past decade or so. When Alexia enters his world, the way her psychopathic nature is challenged by his desperate grief inject this story with a core that’s frankly, well … wholesome.
Ducournau is without question a supremely gifted filmmaker and she films all manner of atrocities with perverse imagination. Blood-splattered murder, sex with automobiles (and I really mean with automobiles, not in) and self-mutilation are all rendered in ways that you haven’t quite seen before. The morbid world of Titane thankfully bears little resemblance to our own. But all the gruesome violence and bizarre sexuality is in service of characters whose struggles are achingly familiar: a woman who’s never felt an ounce of love from a fellow human and a father broken by the lack of someone to love. Plenty of films are made with enough skill to repulse their audience. Fewer of them are able to genuinely move you, however. Thus, it’s worth taking note of a work like Titane, which belongs to the rare group that can do both.