It’s probably better for you as a moviegoer to just take my word for it and go see Titane as blind as possible. There are components in the film that I can certainly write about. I can talk about the staggering performances, the fluid tonal shifts, the killer soundtrack, and Julia Ducournau’s command of everything we see on screen. But what truly makes Titane great is I was aware from start to finish that I was seeing something completely new.
Titane is raw, unflinching filmmaking at its best. It’s what happens when producers and executives trust a filmmaker like Julia Ducournau and let her beautiful, deranged vision come alive on screen. Don’t think about why she wants to tell it. Think about what she wants us to feel. This was my reaction when I first saw Ducournau’s debut feature, the 2016 horror film Raw, which was a moving coming-of-age story about taking control over your own body, growing pains, discovering one’s sexual identity, and even sisterhood. It just also happened to be a queasy, stomach-churning flick about cannibalism.
But while Raw takes its time to get under your skin, Titane charges at you like a rip-roaring engine. The experience is a two-hour visceral rollercoaster that manages to be both loathsome and wholesome.
Ducournau’s story begins with a young child named Alexia surviving a horrible car crash, resulting in a surgery that involves inserting titanium plates into her skull (hence the title). This is only the beginning of an agonizing journey for Alexia, as she slowly experiences changes to her body, in a similar fashion as the body horror seen in Raw.
What Ducournau and lead actress Agathe Rousselle manage to do differently this time is that Alexia is a completely different animal. She works as a car show model, surrounded by neon light, hungry car engines, and thirsty men. And yet, very little of it all appeals to her. She’s a character built of metal rather than flesh, her lust never towards people but towards violence and machines, as shown in the highly-talked-about scene between Alexia and a special vehicle painted with flames. It’s an early climax (pardon the pun) that sets the rest of Titane in motion.
Ducournau combines sexuality and violence during this first act with some of the most exciting filmmaking you’ll see all year. It’s one thing to film your car show sequence all in one take. It’s a whole other achievement when the camera starts from behind Alexia and follows her, sees her put on her lipstick through a rearview mirror, times a car engine roar with revealing a tiger on Alexia’s jacket, to eventually setting the camera on a crane, as it pulls back into the air to see her dancing and writhing on her vehicle to the pleasure of the men around her.
The entirety of Titane plays like this, with insurmountable confidence in creating an exaggerated, allegorical form of realism. The tone and atmosphere is absolutely spot on. You will find yourself amazed over how much fun you are having, given the amount of fucked up imagery shown on screen, all shot from a camera that just refuses to look away. Perhaps that’s part of Ducournau’s magic: she doesn’t cut away. She will make you find entertainment, humor, and empathy in the sickest things.
The film only gets more and more brilliant as it goes along, when Alexia commits several acts of horrific violence and is then forced to disguise herself as Adrien, the missing son of an aged firefighter. This father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), takes her in immediately with no questions asked, not even a DNA test. It’s the first sign of how much of a broken man he has become, and Ducournau allows the audience to have just enough moments with him and him alone. This new father-son dynamic drives almost the rest of the film, as Ducournau explores gender fluidity, family relationships, and most of all, unconditional love.
Rousselle and Lindon give two of the best performances you will see all year, if not this new decade of cinema. With Ducournau’s guidance as director and Ruben Impens’ hand with the camera, Rousselle’s physicality on screen is never presented as titillating. She walks a fine line (if there even is one) between Alexia and Adrien all while baring her naked body on screen, in a way that is matter-of-fact and never objectified. But the real sensitivity to Rousselle’s Alexia/Adrien is when Lindon’s Vincent appears on screen and takes care of them without an ounce of judgment. You can see in his eyes that he may be the parent in this relationship, but he’s the more vulnerable one in need of love.
It is in the second and third acts where Ducournau reveals her true intentions with her characters. No matter how flawed or dangerous they are, she will find the weirdest way for you to empathize with them. You will laugh and scream and cry for them, with just enough humor to help keep you going. Amidst the intense musical score by Jim Williams (returning from Raw), the film will include a plethora of radio-friendly needle drops that offer a much-needed catharsis. Songs like “She’s Not There,” the “Macarena,” and even “Wayfaring Stranger” take on a whole new life because of how they are used in their respective scenes. Ducournau takes a tremendous amount of leaps throughout the film, but it is her steady hand in tone that allows us to completely trust her. Underneath all that metal and motor oil, Titane carries a surprisingly big heart.
And then it all builds to an incredible jaw-dropping climax, destined to be an all-time great. Every insane, horrific, funny, chaotic piece that came before is condensed into this one moment that defines Titane. And it all feels right. It feels like the trust we’ve put into Ducournau for the past two hours has been greatly rewarded.
Stylish, berserk, and deceptively wholesome, Titane is the beautiful product of a fearless filmmaker in complete command of her vision and craft. Cinema just took a huge dose of adrenaline and gasped for air, and it’s alive and well. Long live Julia Ducournau.
This review is from the New York Film Festival. NEON will release Titane on October 1.