Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 30th, 2021
Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
To rock the status quo and unsettle those too complacent for their own good has long been the goal of avant-garde artists, “épater les bourgeois” (or “to shock the middle classes”) the perennial rallying cry. That is all to the good, for systems need to be shaken up, lest we drown in the ennui of the ordinary. It would be a sad, listless world were all movies, books and more created equal and equally. What joy there is in outrage, be it polemical, ideological, expressive and/or more! And yet, sometimes it is not enough to simply defy expectations. Worse, there is always the danger of becoming one’s own new cliché. Such is the pitfall and downfall of Julia Ducournau’s latest film, Titane, which may have won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but proves a disappointing, if often intriguing, follow-up to her 2016 Raw.
The movie begins with enormous promise. After an evocative, close-up tracking shot through the innards of a mysterious, shiny engine, we meet young Alexia, a girl so obsessed with making motor noises in the back seat of the car that her father is at his wit’s end. She moves on to kicking the back of his seat (always a pleasure) and then removes her seat belt. Turning to grab her, furious, dad takes his eyes completely off the road. Bang, spin, crash. Cut to a hospital, where Alexia undergoes surgery that implants a titanium plate in her head. Brushing off her parents once they leave, she hugs the nearest car. It will be a lifelong love affair.
Cut to years later, and now Alexia is a disaffected twentysomething who appears to earn a living gyrating suggestively atop brightly painted vehicles at car shows, a sexual ornament to look at it, but never touch. Toxic masculinity is everywhere, from the open-mouthed onlookers to a would-be groper to the stalker who follows her out to her car that night. When Alexia takes drastic, graphic measures to get rid of that last problem, Titane suddenly takes a turn towards violence that hints at a powerful attack on male privilege. Instead, what follows is a muddle, if a glossy one.
That is no fault of lead actress Agathe Rousselle (making her feature debut), who delivers an intense, fearless performance in which internal pain is gloriously externalized. Whether she is stabbing victims (deserved or not), abusing her own self or dancing with abandon on top of a fire truck, Rousselle makes extremes of behavior somehow relatable. Joining her in excess is French stalwart Vincent Lindon (Casanova, Last Love), who bares body and soul, like his costar. To explain the relationship between his character and Alexia would give too much away, but kudos to Ducournau (also the writer) for a truly outlandish conceit that only gets stranger along the way.
And yet it’s not enough to just shock. Body horror, sex with machines, incestuous parenting, gender impersonation and a creepy pregnancy notwithstanding, the disparate parts may individually fascinate yet together form little more than a bundle of ideas that barely cohere. It’s hard to look away, though, partly because Rousselle and Lindon form such a mesmerizing pair, but also because train wrecks offer their own perverse pleasures. Still, there is nothing particularly transgressive here, and barely a method to the madness beyond madness. Titane clearly has its appeal, but it’s all surface, underneath the hood nothing but a sputtering engine.