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Titane director Julia Ducournau is the second woman to win the Palme d’Or

A review of the monster car movie that won the big prize at Cannes.

You have to let your notions of good and evil go to enjoy Titane, a sci-fi noir by Julia Ducournau about a serial killer who has a one-night stand with a car. The French filmmaker became the second woman to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes history, after Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993. The prize is entirely deserved. Following her cannibal coming-of-age film Raw, Ducournau’s 2016 debut, homicidal mechanophilia is a triumphant next step.

This blend of horror and family drama builds on the tradition of monster car movies going as far back as Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and John Carpenter’s Christine (1983). Alexis first appears as an androgynous teenager getting on her dad’s nerves from the back seat. A crash ensues, and next we see her skull fitted with a titanium plate just above her ear. (The brace on her head, included in the trailer, echoes Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo.) Her desire is born then. Years later, she’s an exotic dancer (model Agathe Rousselle in her first, spectacular movie role) wriggling and twerking on top of a muscle car before horny male buyers at an automobile show. She is a a tall blond beauty at this point, but does her hair in a way that keeps her spiral scar visible, and sticks to her antisocial ways. She lounges on a sofa with a cereal bowl and legs akimbo one moment, wields a deadly hair stick the next. A sexual encounter with the same muscle car, revving and jumping with ecstasy, leaves her changed forever. 

Agathe Rousselle in Titane
Agathe Rousselle in Titane

Titane develops at high speed, leaving little time to find out exactly what makes Alexis kill. Her first victim is a jock who can’t take no for an answer, but her inability to separate pain and her multisexual desires expands her targets. In a rare lighthearted moment, as roommates of her original prey keep popping up before the previous one is finished off, she asks in exasperation, readying her weapon, “How many people live here exactly?” When her killings finally come out, she decides to hide out posing as Adrien, the long-lost son of a fire chief (veteran French actor Vincent Lindon). As Alexis transforms her body into a boy’s shape, breaking her nose on a bathroom sink is only the beginning (keeping your eyes on the screen in this scene will take considerable effort). She needs to maintain the charade and her continual self-mutilation erases the line between man-woman and human-machine. 

Ducorneau aimed to make a film where “gender does not matter,” as she explained in her frank Cannes press conference, but her picture nails down societal prejudices before blowing them up. Family bonds drive the plot, from the real dad withholding affection to the adoptive dad willing to love you no matter who you are. Adrien’s father Vincent has a violent streak of his own, maintained by daily steroid injections and perceived to be necessary to control his macho firefighting crew. His son’s arrival throws the crew out of balance, seeding jealousy and sexual confusion, the latter most evident when they watch Alexis/Adrien perform an erotic dance in a fireman’s uniform on top of a fire truck. This complex, sometimes confusing minuet of relationships unfolds to the sounds of heavy techno, choral chants and even “Macarena” in alternatively cold and warm colour-tinted spaces, each movement dissected closely by DP Ruben Impens’s camera. 

French old-timers lament that a Palme d’Or for a “genre film” discredits the festival. Not true. Titane and Spike Lee’s jury breathe new life into Cannes cinema canons. Among influences, Ducourneau cites Americans David Cronenberg (especially Crash, a Special Jury prize winner at Cannes in 1996) along with LGBT photographer Nan Goldin; Lindon’s specialty, French relationship drama, is definitely part of the mix. Vincent’s desire to have his son back will withstand all the shocking revelations to come. But the star of the show is Rousselle, with her titanium womb gleaming from under her broken skin and black motor oil seeping out of her nipples. The grease recalls the all-encompassing blackness in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), about another gorgeous serial killer undone by a need for human connection. Titane tells us that beings (of all kinds) just need to be loved. Its final scene reinvents the cyborg manifesto for the 21st century and will leave you craving a sequel. ■

To read more coverage of Cannes 2021, please click here. Watch the trailer for Titane here:

Titane, directed by Julia Ducournau, starring Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon

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