How do you solve a problem like talking about Titane? Julia Ducournau’s film is best seen blind. Really, if you haven’t watched it, you should probably close the tab and leave now. But if you’re willing to forge on, just know that Titane is wild. It’s relentless in its pursuit of messing you up. An unholy, gnarly bloodbath slathered in motor oil for good measure.
It’s been five years since Ducournau arrived with her cannibalistic coming-of-age horror Raw, an audacious and statement-making debut so disturbing that it made this writer quietly sob in the bathroom afterwards. It’s a lot to live up to, but with Titane, she follows it up with another unsettling dive into humanity’s seediest proclivities. There was no time to cry in privacy with this one – just let it all out on the spot. With its unbelievable body horror, Ducournau continues to use the most taboo of carnal desires as an allegory for issues of sexuality, gender, and what a nightmare navigating these natural milestones can be. But Titane goes beyond the straightforward metaphor, engaging in subtler messaging and expanding her scope to explore what it means to be a family.
The “titane” in question is explained early, as a young Alexia gets a titanium plate implanted in her head following a sudden car accident. Despite almost losing her life to an automobile, she rushes out of the hospital to give the vehicle a soft caress. “Watch out for any neurological signs,” the doctor tells her parents, and well, we know what that’s going to lead to. As an adult, Alexia (an astonishing Agathe Rousselle) is a dancer with a rough blonde mane who gyrates on decked out race cars for sleazy men hiding behind their phone cameras.
Suffice to say, the metal in her head did not completely repair her. What follows are several violent sequences with a slap-stick quality that are too good to spoil, but elicited both gasps and riotous laughter from the theater, usually in rapid succession. (One scene involves the welcome return of Raw star Garance Marillier.) Ducournau has evidently already become a master in discovering the absurdity in the morbid.
Alexia soon ends up on the run and worms her way into the home of firefighter captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon) by masquerading as his long lost son, Adrien. A peculiar kind of family dynamic between the two unfolds: Alexia hides herself (or him, gender fluidity is at the core of this character) while Vincent tries to coax her out, best exemplified in a delightfully awkward dance sequence set to The Zombies’ “She’s Not There.” Vincent is clearly so desperate to reunite with Adrien that he’s willing to ignore the signs that he and Alexia are not bound by blood. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t care – only wishing to have a complete family again. As Raw so devastatingly illustrated in its closing seconds, some people are willing to go to any bitter, destructive lengths for the sake of family.
If Vincent and Alexia/Adrien’s relationship is Titane at its most sentimental, the rest is a Cronenbergian monster. Ducournau’s distinct brand of unthinkable body horror returns nastier than ever, the kind that makes you feel queasy in your own skin. (She continues to make scratching an unquenchable itch look like the most rancid thing you’ve ever seen.) It culminates in a jaw-dropping, transgressive finale that had this writer’s stomach feel a little uneasy. The director is now two for two in filtering our very real inner anxieties through the corporeal. What more is there to say? Titane absolutely rules.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Neon will release Titane later this year.