In an unforgettable return after the success of 2016’s Raw, Julia Ducournau continues to push the limits of body-horror with a grotesque narrative world that’s distinctly her own.
The descriptor of ‘techno-sexual’ is probably not something hot on the tongue of the typical cinema lover. Yet even at first glance it exactly encapsulates the feeling that Titane creates, the volatile meshing of gender, sexuality and motor technology forming an end product permanently etched onto the mind of the unsuspecting viewer. If 1996’s Crash, 2018’s Suspiria and Gone Girl all adjoined to make a cinematic baby, its framework may well take the shape of Titane. Ducournau undoubtedly exerts her reputation as an auteur, testing the mental and intestinal stamina of her audience through car sex, nipple piercings and death by stool.
After a fatal childhood car crash prompting a titanium plate in her head, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) shows an unusual affinity towards cars—and in turn, a penchant for ending the life of those she encounters. With bodies piling high and an unwanted car-related pregnancy, she assumes the missing figure of Adrien, the son of firefighter captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon). The blur of identity highlights a mid-point so stark, the two halves feel separate, while still leaking narrative fluid into the other.
Titane’s debut at Cannes prompted reports of walkouts, fainting and sickness, and it’s not difficult to see why. From its opening seconds, Ducournau throws you into the heavyweight ring of her fever dream with hook after hook of shock factors, indigestible violence and a hairpin that should be classed as an illegal weapon. Rousselle straddles the Alexia/Adrien merging without a shred of vanity—a performance that is likely to define her legacy. There’s no overt explanation for why inanimate cars become passionate lovers, nor for the disjointed family relations that plague the actions of what’s to come. Perhaps there doesn’t need to be. Assuming the fantastical horrors as gospel is part of the Ducournau thrill, the delirium and subversion detached from any traditional thought-provoking means.
What was not expected was its humour. Titane can’t sideline into the genre of black comedy, unless the black absorbs all life and light before it. Even so, gentile, joyous audience laughter peppers the course of the film’s narrative arc, providing much-needed light relief through the assault on our perceptions. Although Alexia seems devoid of both human emotion and a moral compass, carefully deployed humour allows for symbiotic empathy to try and flourish.
As Ducournau shifts away from murder, twerking and leaking oil, a vulnerable, moving flavour is left in its place. Morphing from Alexia to Adrien, the lightbulb moment for learning to love is abundantly clear, willing change forth before the ending that feels inevitable. The unhealthy relationship of father and should-be son is built on quicksand, crossing physical and mental boundaries that often stray too close to the line of love and lust. An intertwined strand of saliva in Titane’s closing moments confirm the imbalance of processed emotions, a threaded strand that’s never far from a Julia Ducournau narrative.
Amongst many other unidentifiable ideas, Titane could be best viewed by the lengths a woman or marginalised gender will go—or has to—in order to survive. The primal sense of urgency throughout points out that even in a world where a car can penetrate a human vagina, mechanics rank higher in the food chain of social power. Not all of Alexia’s actions can be justified by this reasoning. But too many can.
It might be wise to choose a viewing time carefully—preferably in the evening, long after your last meal. Its squeamish nature and idyllic soundtrack aside, Titane demands to be seen as a spectacle that shows no mercy, grace or falsehood. Like the French do best, it’s effortlessly sexy watching, even when it shouldn’t be.
Words by Jasmine Valentine
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