Titane - New Release Review
Director: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier
Written by: Julia Ducournau
Produced by: Jean-Christophe Reymond, Amaury Ovise
Cinematography by: Ruben Impens
Original Score by: Jim Williams
After a series of unprovoked crimes, Alexia embarks on a dangerous and emotional journey
It's been a very long time since a film has slapped me across the face so hard that my head nearly fell off. With it's twisted mix of emotional waterboarding and sudden and provocative violence, Julia Ducournau's second feature film 'Titane' is one film that you won't forget for a long time. To say that 'Titane' is intense would be a seismic understatement. It has brief moments that made me feel genuinely unwell but my brain was constantly reassuring my body to work through it and you'll be greatly appreciative if you can too.
As a young girl, Alexia is involved in a horrible car accident (which was essentially her fault) and has a titanium plate fitted into her skull. From this short scene we’re already being told a little bit about Alexia’s character. She’s somewhat of a problem child. When we see her years later she's now making her living dancing at car shows for petrolhead fans. One obsessive fan in particular gets a bit too close and loses his life for it. As sudden as this act of violence is, it’s hardly something we haven't seen before and the slow set-up did almost make me feel that something shocking was about to unfold. What happens next kicks the film into another gear. Alexia has passionate sex with her favourite car.
Yes, you did read that correctly.
We don't see anything in detail but she enjoys it and we're left questioning what the hell is really going on here. Other than the physical scar from her head trauma and the hints that she was a bit of a brat as a young girl, there's little that we know about Alexia. She is clearly a very sexual woman but someone who may have issues with physicality and even intimacy. It becomes evident that her relationship with her father is tumultuous. She's a free spirit but she's also a cold blooded murderer and there’s little to nothing to like about her, especially when she begins to add more names onto her killing spree list. Her sexual encounter with another female dancer friend ends far more shockingly than her first kill (at least we think its her first kill?) with the obsessive fan towards the beginning of the film.
After this sequence of events the film forks off the road in another direction and the tone and atmosphere shifts, but it still firmly remains an intense experience going forward. It really is a film of two halves and while some might consider the first 20-30 minutes all for shock value the remainder of 'Titane' turns into…almost a family melodrama about unconditional love, loneliness and the inherent need to be accepted. Ducournau opens up a discussion about gender identification here too. It really is an amazing piece of work that questions the audience to dig deeper under the bonnet rather than be transfixed by the shiny body we see first.
In 2021 Julia Ducournau became just the second female filmmaker ever to have her film win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes and who could argue against that decision. Her beautiful yet deeply unsettling approach to storytelling is therapeutic and lingers in ways that are difficult to describe. Obvious comparisons to David Cronenberg’s work have been cited and the body horror elements certainly make that an easy connection to make. 'Crash' and 'Videodrome' in particular come to mind and there are scenes that echo both of those films.
Despite using her body to great effect to make money there’s a real sense that Alexia might not be too comfortable in her own skin, or at least has very little affinity towards it. Is she harbouring deep, dark thoughts from her childhood? It’s evident that she has a fascination with cars or engines (or just metal in general) as the opening scene alluded to, but did this fascination happen before or after the accident? You could argue that having metal in her skull is manipulating her brain and personality; however it does feel like young Alexia wanted the accident to happen because she wanted to feel more connected to the machine. Does she even want to be human? Her reaction when she was released from the hospital is perplexing. She embraces the car afterwards. And there seems to be a connection with physical pain during intimacy as she showed with her early interactions with Justine (Garance Marillier). Physical pain is kind of what drives Alexia forward. She almost rips Justine’s nipple piercing out with her tongue and her weapon of choice is a large steel hairpin which she brandishes as well as any horror film serial killer.
Steel and flesh go hand in hand here. When Alexia discovers she is pregnant she tries to perform a DIY abortion on herself and begins to leak oil from her vagina. Ducournau uses the mechanisms of automobiles as allegory for the sexually heightened human body. A car requires oil to function. An engine needs to be turned on before it can do its job. The bodywork of the car is really just a tough exterior to what’s actually allowing the machine to work. Some people might even see some symbolic connection between the purring of a well looked after car engine and a climactic orgasm. It’s what’s inside that counts though. The female body is not simply a vessel to reproduce but somehow Alexia falling pregnant guides her in a direction that will finally allow her to be happy in her skin and ultimately feel love…feel something…anything.
Older Alexia has a chip on her shoulder but once the second half of the film kicks in and she disfigures her own face so she can pose as missing boy Adrien, we begin to see just how broken and desperate Alexia really is. She is taken in by Adrien’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon) who promises to look after “him”. It’s a paternal act but also dangerously intrusive behaviour from Vincent as he locks doors and forces Adrien to undress. It doesn’t feel like the behaviour of a loving father, but deep down Vincent knows this isn’t Adrien. Vincent is just as desperate as Alexia and after some relentlessly intense encounters between the two, they eventually begin to form some sort of relationship. It’s a very slow process that is genuinely nail biting, especially during some scenes at the fire station where Vincent is “God”. Vincent is the very epitome of masculinity. Perhaps a former athlete or “gym rat” Vincent’s body is failing him and he regularly injects steroids into his buttocks. Alexia’s body is also failing her. As her belly grows she is running out of time and concealing her identity is becoming increasingly difficult on a daily basis. There are some uncomfortable moments between the two that hint that Vincent might have other plans but we eventually discover that he is on the cusp of ending his own life and the only thing that is stopping it is the potential bond with Adrien/Alexia.
The end of the film pulls no punches either as Alexia must give birth to her hybrid child and in that moment Ducournau somehow manages to deliver an explosively emotional finale that could very easily have been turned into laughable nonsense had another, less committed filmmaker been behind the camera. Rousselle and Lindon are extraordinary and the shot towards the end where flesh and steel have finally fused together is very powerful.
Newcomer Agathe Rousselle is outstanding as Alexia, especially considering she has so much to convey without any dialogue. Her screen presence is incredible which is clearly a huge testament to Ducournau and her ability to translate what she wants in her performers.
'Titane' will probably (and lazily) be heralded as “shock cinema” but Ducournau’s exquisite use of aggressive, chaotic camerawork and the glaringly unbreakable trust between her and the actors will undoubtedly push her to the top of the list of the most original and exciting filmmakers working today.
- Gavin Logan