Some movies should be gone into with the viewer knowing as little about them as possible. Most movies give us variations on things we have seen thousands of times before. The ones that don’t should be given the opportunity to surprise us as they go, without expectations or preconceived notions getting in the way of how we receive them.
I went into the French drama Titane (103 minutes, without the end credits) knowing only four things: 1) It was described as body horror 2) It won the Palme d’Or (the best picture equivalent) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival 3) It was written/directed by Julia Ducournau, whose previous film, 2016’s cannibalism thriller Raw, I am a big fan of 4) It had been referred to as both “shocking” and “outrageous.” Otherwise, I went in completely blind. I definitely recommend that approach. So all I will say here is that it is intense, bizarre, consistently compelling and unquestionably not for the easily offended or the squeamish (it features full frontal nudity and graphic violence). If that sentence makes it sound intriguing to you, stop reading this review now and come back to it after you have experienced Titane.
Okay, I will assume everyone still reading has seen it, insists on learning more despite my recommendation or has no interest in watching it at all, yet is curious as to exactly what it is. I will still tread relatively lightly, but I’ll tell you a decent amount more than what I knew going in.
As a child, Alexia was in a car accident that left her with a metal plate in her skull and a much stronger attachment to cars than to people. As an adult, her attraction to cars has turned sexual, while her dislike of people has become murderous. Her job involves dancing very suggestively on a car and her main hobby involves stabbing people with a large metal hairpin. After one of her murders results in a witness, she goes on the run disguised as a teenage boy and then things get really weird.
The way Alexia’s fascination with titanium (titane is French for titanium) manifests itself and what her relationship with her car does to her body understandably got a lot of press following its premiere at Cannes. Rightfully so. However, I’m loathe to spoil any more than I already have, so I won’t touch on that. Instead, I want to focus on the writing and the performances.
Ducournau’s vision is very bold. She presents visuals that could easily offend or easily be mocked (I’m guessing both have already taken place in audiences). She never wavers or hedges her bets. Nothing is softened, she doesn’t try to make her characters likable. She has something she wants to say and doesn’t care if her story seems ridiculous on the surface. It is ridiculous, though that didn’t bother me, maybe because I felt like I understood her provocations and I wanted to see where she was going to take things next.
In the opening half-hour, Ducournau creates a disturbing, and disturbed, protagonist. I was horrified by Alexia. Yet, by the end, I kind of understood her and even cared about her. A lot of the credit for that goes to Agathe Rousselle, making her big-screen debut. This can’t have been an easy role for anybody, let alone someone who had never done this before. Alexia has little dialogue, meaning no big emotional moments and no speeches explaining her motivations or decisions. Nearly everything we learn about Alexia is gleaned from watching her. Rousselle is absolutely fantastic at remaining a blank slate to the other characters while suggesting to the audience her physical and emotional turmoil. It is a wonderful performance that was a great help in allowing me to ignore the absurdity and accept the strange and alarming things on-screen for exactly what they are in the context of this story.
This has been nothing but praise so far, so I better explain why my rating is lower than the preceding paragraphs would lead you to expect. The first reason is there are a few scenes that felt like Ducournau was being shocking just for the sake of it. Does every graphic image on display fulfill its purpose? It didn’t really feel like it on my initial viewing. Perhaps, now that I have the entire picture in my mind, seeing it again will clarify several of the moments that bothered me.
My second issue, which could also be cleaned up upon seeing it again, is that the movie sets up possibilities for the final act and then zags in a way that was less satisfying than where I thought it would go. I’m not talking about the ending, which I liked, but the few scenes leading up to it. They are less dramatic than what I thought could happen, leaving me mildly underwhelmed. Though I am willing to admit that lower key may have been the right call for a movie that will certainly leave some people staring at the screen once it’s over, saying “what the hell?”
I guess I am saying that I really liked it, but didn’t quite love it. However, this goes on a short list of movies from 2021 that I can’t stop thinking about and want to see again (it is probably only behind Annette on that list). I also want Julia Ducournau to make a third movie. Raw and Titane are both kind of great in their own ways; I can’t wait to find out what other ideas she has in her head.
4 out of 5
Agathe Rousselle as Alexia
Vincent Lindon as Vincent
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau