The most shocking thing about Titane isn’t the murder, nudity, pitch-black comedy, outlandish body horror, or car sex (that’s sex with a car), but the fact a film hyped as the year’s most extreme should be, at its core, sentimental, tender, and perhaps even conventional. Underneath its transgressive wrapping, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning follow-up to Raw (2016) is ultimately a story about identity, loneliness, and parental love.
The plot reads like a surreal stand-up comedy routine; a scattershot stream of consciousness filled with mad ideas and bizarre twists. Young Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) suffers a severe head injury in a car accident and, as a result, has a titanium plate grafted to her skull leaving a distinctive scar on the side of her head. It affects Alexia’s behaviour, making her murderously aggressive whenever threatened and sexually attracted to motor vehicles—of one sort or another. It’s as if she’s part-human, part-metal, and as strong and unyielding as the titular chunk of titanium (“titane” in French) that sits in her head.
The first time we see adult Alexia, she’s performing a sexually provocative dance all over a vintage Cadillac at a motor show (a bit like that infamous Cameron Diaz scene in Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor, only less ridiculous), but things move very swiftly on—to the aforementioned automotive amour, a pregnancy, several murders and, as the police close in on our heavy-metal serial killer, a startling and painful transformation to pass as Adrien, the long-lost son of firefighter Vincent (veteran French actor Vincent Lindon).
Frequently preposterous, Titane wouldn’t work at all if it took itself too seriously and Ducournau has a healthy sense of her film’s absurdity. Mordant black humour is the order of the day here, as Alexia’s murders are played for laughs as often as not, and the symptoms of her pregnancy is jaw-dropping. In fact, the only bit of Titane that’s genuinely difficult to watch is the moment Alexia has to break her own nose in a bid to look more masculine to “become” Adrien. There’s a nice line in satire here, too, as Ducournau digs a metaphorical elbow in the ribs of petrolheads and their fetishisation of cars—one wonders if they’re getting off on Alexia’s alluring dance or on the motor itself, a gleaming, flame-hued Cadillac brought to life by cinematographer Ruben Impens.
When the film needs to make a serious point, though, it does so impressively. Even at the motor show—Alexia’s domain where she should feel safest—she’s preyed upon by a male “fan” whose attentions quickly go from pushy to decidedly rapey. The idea there are no genuinely safe spaces for women (even a tough-cookie like Alexia) brings a genuine chill to proceedings, and her response to the attempted assault is brutal to say the least. (The metal hairpin she uses to dispatch victims being very much an extension of her body). Titane isn’t a story of vengeance, like Revenge (2017) or Violation (2020), but it shares the same impulses about the best way to deal with male-on-female violence.
Titane is something of a chimera of different influences, some of which Ducournau isn’t too worried about wearing on her sleeve. David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) loom large, and there are certainly nods to pregnancy horrors like Demon Seed (1977), Inseminoid (1981), and even The Imposter (2012)—Bart Layton’s documentary about a French confidence trickster claiming to be an American family’s missing 16-year-old son. But the film is enough its own thing to transcend the cinematic touchstones which may have inspired it.
Rousselle, a journalist and model making her feature acting debut, is a revelation here. We’re used to actors losing/gaining weight or making extensive use of prosthetics to play a challenging role, but what Ducournau asks of her lead is something quite different: to make herself ugly, bloated, almost monstrous, with black oil leaks from her breasts, wounds appearing on her body, a broken nose, an ineptly shaved head. It’s an astonishingly unflattering physical performance, Alexia’s external hideousness complementing the broiling rage that sits deep inside of her.
After the intoxicating transgression of its first half, one expects Titane to continue to up the diesel-fuelled, car-bonking ante, but Ducournau instead changes tack with the introduction of Vincent (who has his own ideas about body modification, abusing steroids in a losing battle against encroaching old age). The loss of his son has left him broken, his ersatz family of laddish young men at the fire station a poor substitute for the real thing. But in Alexia/Adrien, he finds a kindred spirit—someone who’s as alienated and lonely as he is. The fact that Lindon’s Vincent works as a fireman is symbolically powerful—heat melts metal, his paternal affection melts her heart. Vincent’s impact on Alexia’s life is seismic, especially when her relationship with her own father was so strained (he drove the car that resulted in Alexia’s accident as a young girl).
“I don’t care who you are. You’ll always be my son,” Vincent tells Alexia/Adrien in the film’s pivotal line, a heart-rending moment that shares more of its DNA with a classic Hollywood weepy than, say, the relentless derangement of Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo or extreme Euro arthouse. Indeed, despite the outlandish circumstances of their relationship, there is familiarity and conventionality about it—how many times have we seen a movie character find a substitute family to love after they either lose theirs or become estranged from it? It’s a plot point front and centre in blockbuster franchises from The Fast & The Furious to Harry Potter.
Ducournau’s two previous films have been about transformation, specifically that of young women. Her short film Junior (2011) chronicled a pubescent girl’s amusingly icky journey into adulthood, while Raw used a vegetarian student’s cannibalistic urges as a metaphor for her sexual awakening. Both were coming-of-age tales about the physical and emotional changes girls go through as they become adults. Titane covers some similar ground but is more an exploration of Alexia’s shifting sense of identity, especially in terms of her gender (a smart call-back to the motor show scene sees Adrien dance lasciviously atop a fire truck) and basic sense of “humanness”. Has Alexia been robbed of her humanity by the accident and her feminine identity by the need to become Adrien? Or has she been liberated by them? Is she now some sort of post-human with little need of labels or limits? I don’t know whether Ducournau answers these questions but it’s a lot of fun watching her explore such notions.
In a film where the laws of nature are upended, raising an obvious plot hole seems absurd and yet… Vincent’s actual son Adrien has been missing for years and, like many such kids, his disappearance has had a deep impact on the public consciousness, to the point where updates on the case still regularly pop up on nationwide news reports. Alexia’s idea to pretend to be Adrien would therefore unravel in minutes because the press would be all over the story—and her—like a rash. Still, in a world where you cannot only have sex with a souped-up Caddy but get pregnant by one, I guess anything goes. And, you have to admit, it would certainly make the next series of Top Gear more interesting.
FRANCE • BELGIUM | 2021 | 108 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Julia Ducournau.
starring: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier & Laïs Salameh.