Julia Ducournau, director of the triumphant body horror flick Raw, is back with her sophomore effort, an even more bizarre film, part body horror, part family drama I guess, known as Titane.
Titane is the story of a woman with a metal plate in her head (hence the title), the result of a severe car accident she suffered as a child, who now works as an exotic dancer at a car show and has a strange fetishistic fixation on automobiles. Oh, and on top of that, she's a serial murderer.
I'm going to issue a spoiler warning here, as it's more or less impossible to talk about this film without giving away some things....
So the main character, Alexia, has a sexual encounter with one of the muscle cars from the show (the logistics of this are left ambiguous), and goes on a killing spree that includes a co-worker (played by Raw's Garance Marillier) and her three roommates, and ends with Alexia's own parents, before heading out on the lam. While at a train station she sees a missing persons billboard about a boy named Adrien who disappeared a decade ago, and decides to change her appearance to match his, cutting off her hair, taping up her breasts and breaking her nose on the bathroom sink (in one of the film's cringiest moments). She turns herself in as the missing boy, and Adrien's father Vincent picks her up at the police station, deluding himself that this person is in fact his missing child. Despite the obvious truth that Alexia couldn't ever be mistaken for Adrien, the two of them live together as father and son, and Vincent, a fire chief, takes "Adrien" under his wing as a firefighter/EMT trainee. Oh and one more thing, Alexia discovers she's pregnant with the....car's....baby? She begins to drip motor oil from various parts of her body and later the skin on her belly starts to tear, revealing a chrome plate matching the one attached to her skull.
Weirded out yet?
Titane feels very much like two separate films. The first half plays like a lurid, chaotically violent revenge fantasy of sorts, while the second slows way down and centers on the Vincent-Adrien relationship. I found this sharp turn pretty jarring and wondered how the hell the script would explain the pregnancy angle; was Alexia imagining the whole thing? Like Raw, this film is rife with subtext, dealing with themes like gender identity (no points for spotting the visual parallels with Boys Don't Cry), sexual orientation (Alexia isn't ever turned on by men or women, only by machines, and her secrecy about her true identity brings to mind an adult child not ready to come out to his or her parents), the disintegration of the human body (both Alexia's eroding belly tissue and Vincent's aging, which he tries to curb with daily steroid injections), and the non-traditional family unit (Alexia and Vincent eventually do develop a touching relationship despite both of them knowing she's not who she says she is). There's no shortage of compelling ideas on the table to dissect, and Ducournau doesn't shy away from anything, her camera once again creating a sense of uncomfortable intimacy (not to mention more gorgeous imagery courtesy of cinematographer Rubin Impens, who also shot Raw).
The two main performances are tremendous, one from a French acting veteran, the other from a model-turned-actress making her film debut. Vincent Lindon, his face taut and leathery, conveys a combination of a lonely father's overwhelming sadness, desperate to fill the void left by his son, and the buried anger of a macho type whose body has begun to fail him and whose sexuality is perhaps something he isn't ready to deal with. At the other end of the spectrum is the remarkable discovery of Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, feline and predatory as the sexed-up serial killer, mousy, mute and terrified as "Adrien." Rousselle gives two such divergent performances you often forget you're watching the same actor - if she doesn't earn a slew of award nominations this winter I'll be pissed. This is an extraordinary, gutsy performance from a first-timer.
Where Titane falls short of the very high bar set by Raw is in matching the latter's narrative cohesiveness. Raw also dealt with complex sexual themes but the story still had a strong forward momentum and built to a shocking, tragic conclusion. Titane begins as a whirlwind of violence and then radically shifts to a demented family melodrama, a story grounded in reality with the exception of the pregnancy, which is neither explained nor revealed as metaphorical. I found myself waiting for some kind of payoff that didn't really ever arrive. That particular story element requires a strenuous suspension of disbelief, and for me it was perhaps a little too big an ask without some sort of explanation at the end.
Still you have to admire Ducournau's abandon at presenting such an outlandish story and not giving a tupenny fuck whether or not you're up for it. She is a truly fearless young filmmaker with the confidence of a cinematic master, and Titane is a wildly original, difficult-to-categorize second feature that's likely to spark years of debate and interpretation from cinephiles like myself. Along with Robert Eggers, Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, Julia Ducournau is one of the most exciting young horror directors out there right now, and I'll be following her career with the keenest interest.
I give Titane ***1/2 out of ****.
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