Rating ** Worth seeing
Directed by Julia Ducournau
Going strictly by the marketing and discussions that have surrounded Titane, one would think it impossible to sense a whiff of ambivalence or equivalence in the film or in Julia Ducournau. Already predestined to be enshrined as a take-no-prisoners whirlwind of sex and ultraviolence, it has been seized by hyperbole and outrage even more forcefully by the social media apparatuses than the average arthouse sensation. But as is so often the case, the most buzzworthy aspects of the film, its explicit provocations, have overshadowed the actual progression of the film.
It isn’t just that Titane is half gleefully gonzo body horror and half tender, unconventional family drama, though in pure runtime that might be the case. Ducournau gets through the bulk of her kills awfully quickly, frontloading most of her most outré, non-vehicular-pregnancy related material into something like 30 minutes. Additionally, calling it a breathlessly-paced thrill ride isn’t a terribly fitting description either: the first kill is as much focused on an almost clinical process of cleaning up as it is the hairpin in the head, and an equivalent amount of time is spent on Bertrand Bonello — basically a sight gag for the small percentage of people who know his directorial oeuvre — heating pasta as it is on the succession of murders in the house, as memorable as the image of a stool leg through someone’s face might be.
That still leaves at least an hour, and the vast majority of that is taken up by much subtler, tender, and thus less marketable elements. It’s well worth noting that much of the true parallels, genderfluidity, and even pain could have been conveyed without recourse to a serial killing spree or car-induced pregnancy. Alexia could simply have needed to go on the run for some impulsive crime, devised the same scheme to disguise herself as Adrien, and needed to do the same painful breast and stomach bindings. This feels especially relevant because of the fundamentally mundane yet deeply perverse nature of Vincent’s own body issues: a man on the opposite end of the age spectrum, subjecting himself to rituals of externally-induced regeneration and degradation equivalent to the virtual mask-wearing and performance that Alexia is enacting on a more overt basis.
Indeed, many of Ducournau’s most memorable images and moments — a talent which, from my hazy memory, she has improved upon considerably from Raw — don’t stem from its explicit body horror at all. The looming shadows in the parking lot, a few scenes of group dance that then shift focus to Alexia, and most of all fire — Titane is certainly explicit in drawing parallels between father and surrogate son, and one of the most effective lies in the almost holy, all-consuming way in which fire is featured and adapted throughout the film: a curling and implacable element, which is never shown truly extinguished on screen.
Vincent Lindon embodies that sense of a man being eaten alive by his obsessions and past so well, and more than any other element in the film, he displays that quick-witted, unpredictable range of emotions that Titane can sometimes lack. The dinner scene in which he attempts to get Alexia to talk, begins dancing with an amusing levity, then fights her in a manner that straddles the line between violence and play, succeeds precisely because Lindon is able to turn the somewhat abstract way in which his — and every other character, including Alexia — character has been written into a source of tension; instead of falling back on it as an excuse to exude menace 24/7, he takes his time to skillfully modulate his presentation, even within such a short span of time.
In contrast, Agathe Rousselle, while ably embodying the blasé, rebellious sociopath of Titane‘s first part, struggles some with the plentitude of ciphers placed upon her by Ducournau. Is Alexia actually a true serial killer prior to the beginning of the film? Is this really her first time with a woman (in one of the more effective graphic scenes, despite or perhaps because of its more typical outré nature)? Such questions ultimately aren’t important, and it’s a relief and something of a revelation when she transforms herself into Adrien and consequently settles into a much quieter, much more creepily compelling mode of performance. Of course she looks like herself when she was a child, getting that all-too-important metal plate put into her head, but the potential head-slapping obviousness of such an image is outweighed by its effectiveness on a purely photographic level, and her body movements and trepidation act as a perfect sounding board for Lindon’s stolid, outwardly assured persona; the clash between his established stardom and her screen ascension alone provides for a compelling throughline.
So it really is a true shame each and every time Titane cuts back to another scene of Alexia scratching away at herself, leaving deep scars, or leaking motor oil from her orifices; there’s even a very late recapitulation of car sex that feels thrown in entirely at random, perhaps in an attempt to remind the viewer of what the film had been up to before it plunged into more interesting and knotty territory. The pregnancy element seems to come and go whenever Ducournau feels that the viewer might be losing interest; something like twenty minutes go by at one point before a squeamish person would feel compelled to cover their eyes. Far be it from me to claim that a film like this is being unrealistic or not beholden to the rules that it has set for its world — this is, after all, a film that more-or-less begins with erotic dancers being mobbed by fans asking for autographs — but this is more a question of what the film is actually trying to say, whether it be regarding gender, sex, family, meat, and metal.
Without going into each element specifically, there is an incoherence that seems unproductive in all respects except family, which remains productively muddled to the very final image. Despite his statements to the contrary, Vincent’s level of dedication to his son despite the eventually-obvious nature of her deception remains in constant motion, hinging in the last scene on the statement of names, the interpretation of certain actions; the gender-bending here feels vital as well in further confusing the lines of performance and perception. Where the film falls is in trying to collide these thought-through, small-scale but graspable ideas to the plotline of a person being distended by an automobile fetus, which ostensibly remains one of the two driving elements of the entire film.
If I was being uncharitable, I’d say that Titane almost felt like it was initially conceived along similar lines as my hypothetical retelling of the second part as its own film, free of such fantastical elements, given the amount of time and care put into the interactions between Rousselle and Lindon. After this initial draft was written, whether from internal or external pressures, Ducournau could have lost her nerve and decided to add in this early bout of violence as a means of grabbing a wider audience’s attention and to sprinkle in bits of body horror throughout to avoid a sense of alienation on the part of gorehounds and the like.
Given Raw and her statements, this is unlikely to be the case, but it’s hard not to note that Titane ends in exactly the most logical manner that it could, with a final set of actions that could have easily be pulled off without the need for metal prosthetics. If the ending — effective, emotionally visceral, and genuinely moving as it is — is so legible in its intent, so removed in all the senses that matter from the surface provocations that have dominated the conversations surrounding it, might it not be the case that this purportedly out-of-this-world work bears a marked resemblance to the quiet dramas that it tries so hard to distinguish itself from?