Credit: Titane 2021
October has arrived, and horror season has kicked off with a movie that is as thought-provoking as it is mind-bendingly demented. French writer-director Julia Ducournau, who rose to the spotlight with her debut film, Raw, has developed a powerful and disturbing filmmaking voice that has won over the international film scene and the Cannes Film Festival jury but is not for the faint of heart. If you bring friends with you to a showing, prepare for them to hold it against you for the rest of your life, and if you bring family, prepare for the most uncomfortable car ride home of your life.
Ducournau has expressed her love of the genre by crafting a film that is designed for the theatre-going experience. I can’t remember the last time a movie had so many moments that elicited gasps, laughs, disgust, and cheers — all at the same time. And as a horror fan, I’ve never wanted to shout at the screen or cover my eyes during a movie more than when I was watching Titane, purely because I was so shocked by what was happening. If a movie like this interests you (and if you think you can stomach it), don’t look up anything about Titane and watch it on the big screen with as many people as possible.
While I don’t want to give away the movie, I briefly want to talk about the first few minutes. Titane opens up with Alexia (played by Agathe Rousselle), a dancer who had a titanium plate placed in her head following a near-fatal car accident. In one breathtaking tracking shot, Ducournau takes us into Alexia’s work and establishes the world of underground car shows. The camera glides around both dancers and cars so that we view them as sleek, shimmering objects, as the men who frequent the shows view them. Later that night, when Alexia is followed and sexually assaulted by a male fan, she kills him with a metal hairpin. The film seems like it’s building towards a certain vision: a bloodthirsty female slasher-fantasy set in the backdrop of French nightlife. It becomes easy to picture all of the Titane-themed costumes film students will wear this Halloween, and the confused but supportive comments they’ll get from their families when they post the pictures on Facebook the day after.
But just a few minutes later, Titane takes a left turn so unexpected and memorable that it makes you wonder how a movie with this story could ever be made, let alone win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. We’re introduced to an entirely new world that is tonally and aesthetically different from anything we’ve seen, and it’s here where the dark humor, intimate drama, and body horror of Titane really take off. The most notable addition following this turn is a deeply felt performance by Vincent Lindon as Vincent, whose soft eyes and imposing physique capture male insecurity and tenderness better than any actor this year. By pairing Alexia and Vincent together, Ducournau can direct her actors to play off of the multiple ironies embedded in their relationship, some comedic and some tragic, and gradually reveal the hidden nature of their characters.
When Titane reached its harrowing climax, I could hear applause, gagging, chuckles of disbelief, and confusion in the theater. Looking back on the film, I can’t emphasize enough just how weird it gets. Maybe another reason I recommend this movie is because of how much fun you’ll have imagining a film student in a Titane-inspired Halloween outfit awkwardly explain the plot to their parents, especially when they get to how Alexia’s nature — and her love of cars — comes into play.
In the realm of body horror, Ducournau makes a clear leap from her debut by engaging with entirely new ideas. There’s no doubt that much will be written about how Ducournau melds the organic world and the inorganic world, as evidenced by the title (which is the French word for titanium), and how she builds on influences like David Cronenberg to explore gender and the female body through her own point of view. The biggest credit to making this all work goes to Agathe Rousselle, who gives each gut-wrenching body horror sequence a humanity that extends into her troubled character. In addition to the horror material, it’s also worth noting how Titane explores the human body in a positive light through dance. In the world of Titane, dancing is the purest expression of the human body and helps the characters accept themselves in their own skin. The film compares Alexia, who is free and self-assured in her role as a dancer, with Vincent, who in one scene slaps and punches his dancing partner as if they’re playing some kind of rough game. He’s so trapped in his perception of being a man that he can’t ease up and embrace the moment, and in turn embrace his own vulnerability.
If there’s anything that holds Titane back from greatness, it’s how Ducournau's self-conscious style gets in the way of the drama. Ducournau seems to get a kick out of playing with audience expectations, but this becomes way too noticeable when it gets to intimate scenes that require us to focus on the human conflict rather than the filmmaking. At times it seems like there are so many metaphors and images being packed in a frame at once it becomes difficult to keep track of them. The best surrealist films such as Eraserhead (1977) cast a spell on you so strong that you can even forget you’re watching a movie, but while watching Titane there were many moments where I snapped out of its spell. The consistent storytelling is something that I think her debut, Raw, did a better job with because it stuck to a simpler story and didn’t call attention to its body horror sequences the way that Titane does.
Titane is definitely not for everyone, but those who do watch it will witness a filmmaker taking movies in a bold new direction. “Love is a Dog from Hell,” reads a tattoo on Alexia’s torso. How fitting that the theme of the movie is written across a character’s body, and how perfectly does it describe this French love story from Hell.