Titane is One of the Year's Best and Strangest Films
If you’ve seen Julia Ducournau’s gleefully perverse coming-of-age cannibal picture Raw, you likely have a high-level sense of what awaits you with Titane: namely, a genre-bending exercise in body horror and identity exploration. But if you’ve seen Raw — a less-polished film than her latest, Palme d’Or-winning effort — you’re also probably aware that you have no idea where Ducournau is going to take you. With clear fondness for her filmmaking forebears, but a commitment to giving the audience something they’ve never seen, the French writer-director delights in the unexpected and the provocative — it all adds up to a confident and electrifying style that results in perhaps the strangest film of the year (give or take Annette), but also one of the best.
I’ll warn you now that it’s difficult to talk in any level of detail about the film’s many strengths without setting up a baseline understanding of the gloriously bonkers narrative Ducournau has crafted. If you’re the type to avoid plot details at all costs, I encourage you to not to read any further until you’ve had the chance to experience the film — and even if you’re not, it’s a stance worth rethinking for Titane, which surely benefits from going in as blind as possible (though your experience might not be tainted that much, as the brief description below will certainly not do the film justice).
We first meet Alexia as a young child who quickly becomes the victim of a terrible car accident, one that leaves her with a metal plate in her skull and a counterintuitive love of powerful motor vehicles. Flash forward a decade plus and Alexie (now played by an incredible Agathe Rousselle) works nights as an erotic dancer at car shows, gyrating on hoods to the delight of her many fans. However, Alexie also moonlights as a serial killer (potential motivations are hinted at, but mostly left up to the audience to draw connections as they see fit), and after one too many murders ends up on the run, eventually finding refuge with the chief of a fire house (Vincent Lindon) by pretending to be his long-lost son returned from a lifetime of trauma. Oh, and one other thing: she’s pregnant, impossibly but almost certainly as a result of an enthusiastic sexual encounter with a car. You know, just your typical night at the cineplex.
It’s a testament to Ducournau as both a writer and a director that the narrative feels cohesive, despite what might seem like a hodgepodge of thriller elements. To a certain extent, the first third of the film serves as misdirection if you expect it to preview story and tone rather than character: shockingly, bone-crunchingly violent, and shot through with a darkly comic streak, Ducournau throws us into the bloody deep end right away. But behind the gore is a portrait of a young woman struggling with identity and alienation — sure, the violence is real, but the film so clearly (and cleverly) operates under its own brand of dream logic that it would be a mistake to read anything too literally.
The body horror elements persist past the first act (and even escalate, though in a different and more unique fashion), but the overall tone of the film shifts to something much gentler and emotional, impressively without losing any of the strangeness that makes Titane so wonderful. It’s at this point that the leads truly get to shine as the film navigates one of the oddest pseudo-families in recent memory. Rousselle’s film debut is nothing short of spectacular: in a physically and emotionally demanding role, she alternates between dangerous inscrutability and childlike expressiveness at a moment’s notice. As her counterpart, the legendary Lindon brings magnificent presence to a character representing both subversive hypermasculinity and parental tenderness, often simultaneously.
Now, for what it’s worth, I can understand a viewer sitting in the theater and feeling as though there are simply too many ideas here, overwhelming in its emotional and audio-visual maximalism. But if you can let yourself slip into this world where every aspect feels like a technical and thematic high-wire act, it’s hard to imagine you’ll find many more thrilling or ultimately cathartic experiences in the cinema this year.