When Titane won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, there were murmurs in some circles that the result was akin to Crash’s controversial victory at the 2005 Oscars. This is to say that, as there were so many worthy contenders – Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Sean Baker’s Red Rocket – they canceled out each other’s chances, allowing a film which would usually sit just outside of contention to win. Critically, it was divisive. Titane fared better with judges, but not by much, as it may well have been the lowest ranked winner of the award in over 20 years.
This is an unfair characterisation of Julia Ducournau’s historic triumph. For one, TItane is a much, much better film than Crash. Secondly, it would be ludicrous to argue that anyone here is playing to the gallery (at least, no gallery on this earth). It is, at the very least, the best film yet made about a female serial killer who mates with a car before bonding with a paternal figure while masquerading as that figure’s son. That plot description is enough to make half the people reading this review to make up their minds already, but they would be fools to do so. Titane is the kind of film that may one day go down as a generational event; a fearless, uncompromising exploration of violence, sexuality, the socialisation of gender and everything in between.
In what is somehow her debut film role, an incendiary Agathe Rousselle plays the troubled, unpredictable Alexia. We first meet Alexia as a child, when she’s seriously injured in a vehicle crash she inadvertently caused by distracting her father. During the ensuing surgery, a titanium plate is placed inside her head. Years later, we are introduced to the adult version, now played by Rouselle with a gnarly scar and working as a showgirl at motor shows. It’s not long before an uncomfortably sycophantic male fan is murdered with a hairpin in the front seat. It’s only a little bit longer before she copulates with a concupiscent car. At this stage, the fact that she’s now also pregnant via that vehicular intercourse is only mildly surprising.
Our first look at the adult Alexia is during a sultry performance on the bonnet of a Cadillac. This sequence – fittingly soundtrack by The Kills’ ominous, propulsive ‘Doing It To Death’ – is so sexually charged it somehow brought out the repressed catholic guilt in this agnostic writer. Ducournau’s gruellingly slow pan doesn’t so much capture the proceedings as it does conspicuously gape at Alexia’s body. The director is already playing with established, cinematic language. This is the male gaze as poison chalice, as if the camera is being forcefully smushed into the face of the slobbering, teenage boy.
It should be noted, we’ve only covered about 10 percent of Titane’s runtime thus far. Ducournau plays with expectations continuously and refuses to relent in that regard. Alexia’s characterisation is intriguingly bare, with her lines of dialogue at a premium. Ducournau doesn’t seek to explain the root cause of murderous rampages, but they appear to be triggered by feelings of either sexual inadequacy or unwelcomed advances. One aforementioned death comes when Alexis feels objectified by a man who claims to love her. A brutal mass-killing at a apartment follows on from an uncomfortable and rejected attempt at rough sex with a woman. That scene, in particular, is a bleakly humorous look at how the sexualised women can be afforded the assumption that violence is not in their repertoire.
The real upending, however, occurs in Titane’s surprisingly sentimental second half. When the police begin searching for Alexia, she shaves her head, breaks her nose, and poses as a missing boy. After convincing Vincent, the chief at a fire station (Vincent Lindon), she is the son he has not seen in years, she begins a new life there as Adrien. Anyone who has seen Bart Layton’s excellent and similarly plotted docu-drama The Imposter should know Vincent’s acceptance of the impossible is, in and of itself, a plausibility. It’s also a testament to Ducournau’s delicate handling of the narrative that this development feels like a natural progression to the story after the homicidal first half.
As the very contemporary adage goes, there is a lot to unpack here. Vincent and Adrien’s relationship, which in an upset ends up as one of the most touching in all of 2021 cinema, would provide enough material for academic tomes written by Freudian psychiatrists. There will be those who read this as a story of trans liberation, and that is doubtlessly a legitimate interpretation. Ducournau is certainly taking an incisive look at how gender is constructed, behaved, treated and weaponized in the 21st century. A particularly excruciating dance atop a fire truck is a counterpoint to the hyper-sexualized Cadillac sequence, with burly men now recoiling at the seductive moves by a male-presenting figure.
All of this sociological probing still doesn’t detract from the emotion. Whatever your take on the bizarrely moving developments of Titane‘s latter sections, an inarguably, maybe controversially hopeful message is suggested: Even those who have committed the most heinous actions can provide comfort to another given the right conditions.
It’s difficult to think of enough superlatives for Agatha Rousselle. In what is surely one of the great introductory performances, Rouselle must commit to a physically demanding, mostly-mute role and believably present as two sexes in the process. As the snarling, aggro Alexia and as the less assured, timid Adrien, she is nothing short of perfect. Vincent Lindon is equally sensational as a man whose loss of fatherhood equates to a loss in manhood.
For most directors, a second feature like this would mark a major announcement of a new talent but this filmmaker already burst out of the gates with her 2016 debut Raw, a film which treated a woman’s growing pains as a cannibalistic rite of passage. Titane is yet another work which takes a batshit, macabre setup and tries its damnedest to find humanity there. It all concludes with a final image that is both entirely, grimly forecasted and unexpectedly poignant. Trust Julia Ducournau to turn blood-curdling body horror into a heartwarming act of compassion.