In the opening minutes of Titane, we witness a small-scaled but brutal car accident, where seven-year-old Alexia (Adèle Guigue) has her head cracked like a nutshell. She emerges from such a traumatic event with a permanent grudge against her father (Bertrand Bonello) and a large titanium plate surgically embedded in her skull. That plate is temporarily held in place by a metal brace that frames Alexia’s head like a halo, or perhaps a crown of thorns; either way, the religious imagery is surely no accident. In the hands of writer-director Julia Ducournau, this defiant horror odyssey is both nativity story and passion play. And the biblical allusions don’t end there. An oil-filled, gender-and-fender-bending movie, Titane also sometimes suggests a cheerfully deranged riff on the parable of the prodigal son. It follows the adult Alexia (a mesmeric Agathe Rousselle) as she goes on a wild tear, ditching one father only to be pulled into another’s embrace. If that sounds schmaltzy, fear not: The gospel according to Ducournau doesn’t let anyone off the hook so easily, the audience included. The movie’s first half-hour is a chain-reaction pileup of sadistic violence, nearly all of it handed out by Alexia, a serial killer who likes to stab her victims through the ear with her hair stick.
Alexia’s habit of penetrating human heads with metal — she isn’t picky about the heads, whether they belong to a female lover (Garance Marillier) or a male harasser — suggests a sexually charged need to reenact her own vehicular trauma. And that’s not the only example; Alexia says almost nothing throughout the movie, but her demons are as apparent as the spirally surgical scars above her ear. By night she dons fishnet tights and dances as a car model, twerking atop a handsome vintage Cadillac for the googly delight of men. That public come-on is a mere warm-up for what happens in private: Cue Titane‘s most bold scene, in which Alexia proceeds to have sex with the aforementioned Cadillac. The movie leaves the details of the rendezvous rather vague, but, it should be noted, that the Cadillac does not honk if it’s horny. It simply turns on the headlights, emits a few come-hither rumbles and waits as Alexia straps herself into the backseat and things begin. Soon, though, it becomes clear that Alexia is pregnant from this mechanized fling, a development that calls forth some of Ducournau’s most memorably appalling images, from the rapid prosthetic swell of Alexia’s belly to the steady black drip of motor oil from the various human orifices.
Whether or not that counts as a spoiler is up to personal preference, but that’s also just the first of Titane‘s many big swings. And, then again, you also might’ve already read a thing or two about Titane earlier this past summer when it premiered at Cannes, where it generated walkouts, hoots of laughter and waves of social media shock and awe. But unlike past Cannes scandal seekers like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible and, maybe most notably for this movie, David Cronenberg’s great work of automotive anti-erotica, Crash, Titane conquered more than it divided. Critics were largely seduced; the jury awarded the film the Palme d’Or, making Ducournau only the second woman director to ever receive the festival’s highest honor.
Love or hate that decision, it was a significant milestone and a fitting one, given how insistently Titane devotes itself to dismantling various views around gender and sexuality. But its Cannes triumph also set the movie up for an inevitably cooler reception abroad, forcing it to compete with its own overblown art-house-meets-grindhouse hype. It’s hardly a problem unique to Titane: Absent the element of surprise, even the most heroically uncompromising vision often runs the risk of being later dismissed as a showy, self-satisfied stunt.
Yet I wouldn’t say that’s entirely what Ducournau’s movie is. To these eyes, ravished by the retina-scorching oranges and purples of Ruben Impens’ cinematography, and to these ears, ringing with the ominous choral chants of Jim Williams’ score, a little self-infatuation is more than warranted. If Titane is sometimes a bit too taken with its own daring, it also has a sharp, poker-faced awareness of its own absurdity. As in her splendid cannibal thriller, Raw, Ducournau excels at keeping contradictory themes and tones in productive tension. You will sometimes hear the grind of shifting narrative gears, but you are also brought smoothly along as the story glides from body-horror nightmare into a more subtly unnerving dramatic register. Ducournau is aided by skilled collaborators behind the camera — especially production designers Laurie Colson and Lise Péault, with their flair for womb-like spaces — and also by actors game enough to follow her to the brink of madness and beyond. The ability to engender sympathy for a cold-blooded killer is but one aspect of Rousselle’s astonishing, virtually wordless performance: With her ferocious physicality and emboldened glare, she certainly makes you fear Alexia in all her murderous sociopathic rage. But she also makes you fear for Alexia, who can outrun the authorities but can’t escape the agonizing contortions and transformations of her own body.
Through a chain of events too bizarre to summarize, Alexia takes refuge in the home of a lonely, aging fire chief named Vincent (a tremendous Vincent Lindon). There, she passes herself off as Vincent’s long-lost son, Adrien — a ludicrous yet fully sustained delusion in which they both willingly take part, and which fulfills their very different but equally profound needs. Cutting her hair and binding her breasts, Alexia trades in the over-sexualized femininity she once wielded quite freely. As she joins the ranks of Vincent’s junior firefighters, she enters a world where performative masculinity runs wild. In Titane, sexuality is as fluid as gasoline and gender is a concept both restrictive and elastic — a prison whose bars can be pried apart, though only at great personal risk. If Alexia’s plight reveals the toll of trying to escape that prison, Vincent shows us the dangers of succumbing to it. Injecting steroids daily into his ridiculously bulked-up frame, he’s like a hulking parody of hyper-masculinity, even as he also subverts that parody by showering Alexia/Adrien with an unfashionable and unconditional tenderness. There’s something strangely moving about the way both Rousselle, a chameleonlike actor, and Lindon, one of French cinema’s greats, submit to such radical physical transformations, emphasizing the wear-and-tear fragility of their own flesh. There’s also deep feeling in their characters’ surrogate parent-child bond; again and again, this movie’s sneaky emotion catches you off-guard — and feels no less sincere for having been so meticulously engineered.
And Titane is very much a triumph of precise engineering, to the point where the slickness and sophistication of its technique sometimes threaten to overwhelm the potency of its ideas. Still, it’s hard not to admire the sheer verve with which Ducournau ultimately welds those ideas together. Titane is an essay swirled in oil and violence on the oscillation of gender and the elasticity of desire. It’s also a profane hymn to the dark allure of forces that can destroy us no matter how hard we try to bend them to our will. And finally, perhaps, it’s Ducournau’s attempt to turn that very destruction into a creative act, to envision the world collapsing in an unholy trinity of flame, chrome and flesh — and to pull an improbable and singularly burning love story from the wreckage. Etched in agitated and festering streams of blood and oil, Titane is a tale of the old flesh being twisted and broken as it gives birth to anew; a transgressive odyssey that’s enthrallingly singular.
Titane is currently playing in Select Theaters