For me, good art is pretty, but great art is confrontational, forcing the viewer to reflect upon the human condition and reveal truths, however inspiring or ugly. The 2021 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Titane, writer-director Julia Ducournau’s sophomore effort, definitely veers towards the latter type of confrontation. With enough brutal violence to fill all of the Halloween sequels combined, this viscerally charged film will likely polarize audiences, but its vision and power cannot be denied.
A highly visual, almost wordless film, Titane begins with Alexia, a young, androgynous girl, pestering her father by kicking the back of his driver’s seat. Annoyed, he turns to scold her, swerving off the road and injuring his daughter. Saved by a titanium implant in her head, we next see Alexia as a young adult (phenomenally played by Agathe Rouselle), in a scene highly reminiscent of the opening single shot from Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, strutting toward her job as a dancer at an Auto Show. With punk rock aggressiveness, she forces her way through the crowd and ends up gyrating on the hood of car. A combination of antisocial, disturbed, or just not having the time of day for anyone else’s problems, Alexia, in a series of horrifically bloody scenes, establishes herself as a relentless serial killer, gets impregnated by a car (not a typo!), and uses a chopstick for all the wrong reasons. She seduces men and women alike while never cracking a smile or exhibiting an ounce of joy. You may not like this feminist anti-hero, but you won’t ever forget her.
I wouldn’t blame you for walking out at this point, as it’s not for the delicate stomach, but if you stay, you’ll be richly rewarded with this decidedly queer body horror thriller. Disguising herself as a young man to evade police capture, Alexia eventually gets taken in by a lonely fire captain named Vincent (Vincent Lindon). This hulking, muscular, man believes Alexia to be his long-missing son, causing Alexia to use binding cloth to hide her breasts and expanding belly. Vincent has troubles of his own as he’s often seen injecting himself with an unnamed substance which could possibly be steroids or heroin. The bond the pair forms proves surprisingly touching, especially in a scene involving CPR and the song, Macarena. Where all this leads may not surprise you, but it manages to land in that no man’s land between beauty and dread.
Besides De Palma, it’s easy to spot Ducournau’s other influences such as Gasper Noé’s Irreversible, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue. I also couldn’t help but see the link between the film and Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic Under The Skin, both involving otherworldly women on killing sprees. Her muscular, in-your-face style has that 80s punk aesthetic, forcing you to slam against the back of your seat with its non-stop drive and cover your eyes half the time. Aided immensely by cinematographer Ruben Impens, Ducournau has a style of her own, simultaneously over-the-top and bleak and keyed in tight to the emotional cores of her lead actors. Inspirations be damned, Ducournau has a singularly driving yet tender cinematic voice.
Titane is a film about trauma, anger, human bonds, gender identity, and the ability for even the most troubled among us to tap into their humanity. It’s a work of art in its assaultive, unforgettable, confrontational way.
Titane opens in select theaters October 1st 2021. Streaming options not yet available.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic