In 2016’s Raw, her feature directorial debut, French filmmaker Julia Ducournau created an intense thriller in every sense of the word—intense visuals accompanied an intensely emotional story about a new veterinary school student who finds herself caught up in ever more disturbing hazing rituals. The film announced Ducournau as a filmmaker willing to take risks, to say the least; it also established her as an artist with a particular interest in putting women at the center of complicated, scary and often confusing circumstances where they’re forced to come into their own (in often grotesque, terrifying ways). That’s not a place many filmmakers are willing to send their heroines, nor where many audiences expect to see them. Now, in her Cannes Palme d’Or-winning follow up film, Titane, Ducournau tops even herself with a brutal, explicit and powerful film about misogyny, motherhood and female agency.
Everything about Titane is ratcheted up to maximum intensity, from the richly saturated colors to the driving soundtrack to Agathe Rouselle’s unforgettable performance as a woman with a titanium plate in her skull since a childhood car accident left her severely injured. Upon hearing the news that she’s now got this piece of metal in her head, young Alexia (Adèle Guigue) copes by forming a sort of emotional bond with the element, and in particular the cars that are made of this indestructible material. Fast forward to present day and Alexia is working as a car show girl, writhing and fawning all over a gorgeous model car in an effort to attract more of the show’s male attendees its way. What happens to Alexia later that night, and what she does in response, form the basis for the rest of the wild ride Titane sends us on, and to give too much away would ruin the experience Ducournau, who also wrote the script, has in mind for us.
What can be revealed is that Alexia’s connection to cars gets very…biblical. The Cadillac she was “riding” at the car show all but summons her out to the garage later that night, and, sopping wet and naked from the shower she was just in, Alexia gets inside the metal beast, the two of them…well, there’s no easy way to say this: they fuck. The car fucks her, and good. And in some ways, this may be the least weird thing that happens in this thoroughly crazy film (which is absolutely not a criticism). Finding herself pregnant (yep, pregnant) by the car, Alexia—who functions fairly mechanically herself, without any evidence of a conscience, remorse or empathy—has to find a quick way out of town as some of her other disturbing actions (again, trying not to give away too much here) have her wanted by the authorities. Thinking on her feet, Alexia assumes the identity of a missing teenager, a boy whose aged-up photo is plastered all over the city; in a bus station restroom, she chops off her hair, wraps her breasts and quickly growing belly (car babies gestate quickly!) and tells the first officer she sees that she’s the boy they’re looking for.
That boy’s father is Vincent (a startlingly buff Vincent Lindon), who is so desperate for his son’s return that he immediately confirms Alexia is Adrien; it’s all working perfectly for Alexia, who clearly isn’t thinking longterm here. She just needs to get out of the spotlight long enough to get those looking for her off her back; she never once considered what emotional impact her posing as Adrien would have on Vincent, the chief of a local fire department where he tries to get Adrien/Alexia to train to become part of the force. This middle section of Titane drags ever so slightly compared to the film’s gripping first act and highly anticipated conclusion, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating interlude as Alexia has to navigate whatever the hell is going on in her body on top of the new, strange position she’s found herself in as a young woman passing as a young man (a young man with plenty of his own drama between his father and his estranged mother, at that). Somehow in the midst of all of this, Ducournau creates a compelling, intriguing parent/child dynamic between Vincent and Alexia, their bond strengthening in both odd and unexpected ways.
Of course, the majority of this twisting, turning narrative is all leading up to the film’s final moments, as through it all Alexia’s belly is growing and the audience is quite literally on the edge of their seats waiting to see where it will all lead. A few paragraphs can’t do justice to all that Ducournau is doing with Titane, from the emotionless agency Alexia claims in her life (even at the cost of others’), to the conversation around gender fluidity and passing, to the implications of impending motherhood and the ways women’s bodies adapt and respond to growing new life inside them (albeit automotive life in this instance). Titane is very, very much not for the faint hearted. To paraphrase a popular meme, Ducournau has essentially told herself to hold her own beer, one-upping Raw in ways only a mind as daring, creative and incendiary as hers could. If you’re brave enough, giving over entirely to Titane will be one of the most unforgettable moviegoing experiences you may ever have.
Titane is now playing theatrically, including at Music Box Theatre.
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