Titane Julia Ducournau

Palme d’Or winner Titane is probably the most f-ed up movie you can imagine

Julia Ducournau’s follow-up to Raw is hard to describe but harder to forget.

A minor sensation upon its release in 2016, Julia Ducournau’s Raw signified the arrival of a potential major horror director. Though not exactly blazingly original (the Canadian film Ginger Snaps did more or less the same thing some 15 years prior, equating the coming-of-age of two sisters with supernatural bloodlust), Raw was the kind of even-handed debut that generally mints genre superstars. That Ducournau’s followup Titane premiered in competition at Cannes was therefore only slightly surprising; that it actually won the Palme d’Or was significantly more surprising considering that genre films are not exactly Cannes catnip. Calling Titane a genre film is perhaps reductive, since I cannot for the life of me pinpoint what genre it belongs to. Any comparison you might find to describe the positively deranged Titane seems to fall short — while Zulawski, Cronenberg and stalwarts of the New French Extremity movement immediately come to mind, they do not begin to do justice to Titane.

Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) works as a dancer / showgirl for corny car shows, eroticizing the metallic curves for a male audience who creepily worship her from afar. Having had a titanium plate put in her head as a child after a car accident, Alexia has developed a sexual fetish for cars in general, which she indulges by apparently having sex with cars. It’s what she does after killing an insistent fan one evening, a traumatic event that sends her into a tailspin of murder and mayhem that she can only solve by pretending to be a boy who has gone missing some 10 years prior. Reunited with her “father” (Vincent Lindon), a firefighter with addiction issues who has become completely traumatized by the disappearance of his son, Alexia must attempt to integrate his life while also hiding the fact that her body is changing rapidly in ways both familiar and… uh, not.

Titane is borderline impossible to describe in any coherent manner as it pong-pongs between narrative strands with a verve and an energy that one would not have expected from the comparatively stately Raw. To call Titane a horror movie is to assume the film trades in traditional scares. It’s as funny as it is gross, though calling it a horror comedy doesn’t quite do it justice, either. What’s perhaps most impressive about Titane in general is how thoroughly Ducourneau does not give a shit about audience expectations, crafting a thoroughly unpredictable nightmarish vision.

It could be argued that Titane has more ideas than it knows what to do with. It’s true that part of its slippery nature comes from Ducourneau stuffing the film with leaps and lurches in every direction, but there’s such a bugnuts confidence to the way the film’s excesses are presented that it’s very easy to go along with them. Ostensibly a film about the thorny repercussions of non-standard female desire and our sometimes contradictory need to be both taken care of and to not need anyone else, Titane benefits tremendously from Ducournau’s sense of warped empathy. Alexia is not exactly an empathic figure in the standard sense; she lies, cheats and kills indiscriminately, and yet the viewer somehow finds themselves rooting for her on some level as a citizen of a sick world.

There are plenty of readings that can be done of Titane. One of them is absolutely that this is batshit free-associative provocateur nonsense, which somehow doesn’t diminish its impact. Though on its surface it resembles plenty of outré classics, the film it most reminded me of is David Wnendt’s Wetlands, a comedy that weaponizes the various secretions and excretions of the female body into a tale of gross-out empowerment. Ducournau is similarly interested in pushing Alexia’s body to the limit, but despite the overt sexuality at play here, Titane never really feels exploitative or overly concerned with shock value. Don’t take this to mean it isn’t seriously fucked up, however.

Titane, at the very least, finds itself immediately hoisted to the pantheon of movies that budding young cinephiles will recommend to each other in a furious battle to find the most fucked up movie they can imagine. It’s been a while since we’ve had one of those, and a while longer since one of those was actually good. Titane may be more overwhelming than it is a rich text, but sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

TItane opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 1.

Titane, directed by Julia Ducournau, starring Agathe Rousselle

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