When either set of credits roll on Julia Ducournau’s Titane, the most likely feeling you’ll have is a kind of delicious whiplash, or disorientation. You may not know what you’re in for, or what you’ve just witnessed, but you’ll likely be certain that you’ve seen something special.
It feels unlikely that a film this unapologetically subversive, this opaque in it’s subtext, has gotten the critical acclaim it’s already garnered, including a landmark Palme D’Or win for Ducournau at Cannes – the first solo woman to win the award. Titane will draw immediate comparisons to David Cronenberg’s high-octane 1996 car fetishization thriller Crash (the only good movie sporting that title, for my money), but there’s so much more going on in Ducournau’s movie and in her head that those comparisons barely scratch the surface.
Agathe Rouselle debuts in one of the best performances of the year as Alexia, who sports a titanium implant in her head from a serious car accident when she was a child. Now grown, Alexia works as a car model where she dances atop exotic rides while men jeer at her and beg for autographs. But there’s something more between Alexia and cars, a sexual compulsion that violently pushes every other lusty encounter out of the way. After one of these encounters fundamentally changes Alexia and her body, recalling the skin-crawling and lingering body horror scenes in Ducournau’s 2016 debut Raw while simultaneously turning into something wholly new, she goes on a rampage. No one is safe – not lovers, family, even complete strangers. There’s a kind of breakneck senselessness to this spree that inspires both fear and exhilaration before Titane recedes a little, shifts gears, and becomes something else entirely.
Titane’s second half has Alexia being taken in by Vincent Legrand (Vincent Lindon in a performance that matches Rouselle’s at every turn), an ultra-masculine, steroid-pumping fire chief who commands a team of similarly masculine young firefighters with whom he lives. Legrand’s macho exterior conceals a desperation though, an inability to mourn a son, Adrien, that went missing years ago. In one of Ducournau’s many just-go-with-it developments in Titane, Legrand encounters Alexia and immediately ‘recognizes’ her as Adrien, and treats her as such even though she bears little resemblance to him and is, you know, a woman. But, desperate herself and on the run for her violent crimes, Alexia binds her breasts and her horrifically changing body and assumes the role.
The undeniably twisted relationship between Alexia/Adrien and Legrand begins to normalize a little, though, allowing room for a certain amount of reluctant tenderness and even sweetness from two people that lend themselves to neither. But change and transformation is inevitable, and the cold steel inside Alexia and the heteronormative masculinity outside her is unyielding. When that happens, whatever arrangement Legrand has made with his ‘son’ cannot possibly abide.
Titane never does what you might expect from it, and never settles into a lane when a swerve is possible. It brings in so many disparate ideas and punctuates them with imagery so disturbing that it has me thinking about it even days later. Titane demands a lot from it’s audience, not least a strong stomach for both body horror and a plot that doesn’t so much as follow a path as it careens wildly around the road. It’s reward is a spectacular exploration of gender, sexuality, and chosen/found family, and a handful of scenes – a dripping, naked woman walking lustfully towards a car or the film’s breathtaking final shot – that are some of the most memorable of the year. Songs like “She’s Not There” by The Zombies and even a fucked-up rendition of Los Del Mar’s “Macarena” get transformed as fundamentally as Alexia does, hammering home the idea that nothing is permanent. Ducournau accomplishes nothing so fundamentally subversive as this, once again emphasizing that conventionality, identity, and comfort is as easily contained as car exhaust. More than any other film this year, if you have the stomach for it, you’ll be doing yourself a service if you strap in, take your hands off the wheel, and let Ducournau and Titane take you where it wants you to go.