Julia Ducournau’s bold body horror Titane crosses the finish line with the strength of its performances

October 21, 2021

Agathe Rousselle in Titane. Photo by Carole Bethuel, via Neon.

Content warning: gore, body horror

There are two sides to Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning body horror film. One is a family drama about assimilation, about the struggles to fit into new spaces, the difficulty in pretending that everything is normal when the world is crumbling around you. The other one is about a woman having enthusiastic sex with a car and getting pregnant with the car’s baby. The balance of family drama and gory fun is expressed through a final product which can feel like two different movies. Titane’s ambition feels undeniably messy at times, but while it may struggle to fit all of its ideas under the hood, it knows exactly how to handle the gears.

With Titane, French director Julia Ducournau follows up on her debut, Raw, with a film that feels much more ambitious in scope: a wider variety of themes to explore in a relatively slow-paced 108 minutes. Titane eschews the tightly wound precision of Raw’s coming-of-age cannibalistic journey in favor of a more languid, relaxed narrative, as her protagonist experiences a gradual transformation of her body that dovetails with the transformation of her surroundings and feelings. The most joyful moments of Raw come from the matter-of-fact treatment of its protagonist’s new desire for flesh, and while Titane contains a few provocative moments meant to deliberately shock (and elicit laughter), it still often asks you to tolerate extreme violence as if it’s just another day. The presentation of bodily injuries, many of which are too gruesomely fun to spoil, may repel some viewers, but the film’s extremity is softened by its deliberateness and the way it telegraphs its most gruesome moments. You typically know what is going to come before it happens, giving you a chance to avert your eyes: this anticipation of violence sometimes builds tension before resolving it with a jolt of humor and a splash of blood.

The film starts with a young girl named Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who accidentally—or purposefully?—causes a car crash that results in a titanium plate embedded in her head. When she walks out of the hospital with her parents, fresh from the surgery ward, she makes a beeline for the half-destroyed car, which she promptly begins to hug and kiss. Roll opening credits, and Alexia has aged into a young woman, who performs erotic displays at car shows to attract men into purchasing the latest vehicles. When some of the men become a little too interested in the models after the show, Alexia shows that she can defend herself, with the help of the giant, extremely sharp hairpin she carries with her at all times. After a night of pleasure and pain that climaxes with the unforgettable sight of a car bouncing up and down in ecstasy, Alexia goes on the run, leaving her old life behind and the viewer both enthralled and repulsed.

Eventually, a firefighter named Vincent (Vincent Lindon) gets involved, and where most directors would slam on the gas pedal, his back-and-forth battle of wits with Alexia gives Ducournau the opportunity to depress the brakes. Vincent is defined by the tragedy he went through, and as much as Alexia resists, she can’t help but involuntarily help him. Despite its gleefully nihilistic first act, Titane has a beating heart, and Ducournau is able to extract its pieces and put them together beautifully through the slow-burn second half. As the first half’s rambunctious energy begins to disperse, Ducournau lets the pace slacken but not the intensity, as Alexia’s actions finally start to feel like they have consequences.

Ducournau has talked about the film as an attempt to inspire empathy for a character who is “unrelatable”, and she somewhat succeeds along that front. Audience dislike towards Alexia does not necessarily come from her brutal violence, but from her sheer blankness while she is doing so: it is often difficult to guess what she is feeling, and she has very little dialogue, relying on the score to do the emotional heavy lifting. She reacts with the same insouciance to her sexual partner Justine (Garance Marilier) as she does to her father (Bertrand Bonello), who clearly dislikes her and her indifference towards life. Rousselle’s performance in the first half is fascinating as pure, unfeeling id, and as she has to assimilate into something that closely resembles real life, she finally experiences suffering and has goals to overcome.

Titane’s central themes build slowly over the course of its narrative, and it becomes clearer and clearer that the film is about the lies we tell ourselves to keep going. Although significant subplots about gender fluidity and repression of trauma fall under this banner, neither are fully articulated to conclusion. As Alexia distends her physical appearance, shoving and shaping it to hide her true self, she becomes more mentally free from her old life. 

The movie sings most in individual sequences. Beyond the infamous car climax, there are several exciting dance sequences (one set to The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” is particularly good) and body horror sequences as the pregnancy grows, that successfully leave the audience gasping for breath. Alexia and Vincent’s character arcs are outlined in wispy sketches, depending on both actors’ impressive physicality to paint pictures; while both of the pair remain a bit vague, it’s undeniably thrilling to watch Lindon and Rousselle literally and figuratively contort themselves into pretending everything is okay.

Titane ends on a narratively satisfying but thematically unsatisfying note; it is clear that Ducournau has decided to explore far more than she can resolve, and while Alexia and Vincent’s journeys are complete, the audience still might be wanting more. It takes distance from the film to fully appreciate Ducournau’s rapidly alternating bombastic and contemplative styles, but the film is undeniably watchable all the way through, largely due to Lindon and Rousselle’s magnetism. Ultimately, the film feels a bit like a highly skilled yet still developing filmmaker, throwing her hands up in the air and asking “Isn’t all this interesting?” Luckily for her, and for the audience, it is. You will never look at motor oil the same way again.

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