Titane (2021)

Julia Ducournau | 1hr 48min

The first two feature films from French body horror devotee Julia Ducournau are very much parts of a whole, as here in Titane she effectively backs up her own credentials as an auteur with an interest in carving out her own cinematic niche of feminine sexuality, carnal violence, and acutely affecting metaphors. The use of identical character names between both films does not so much indicate a mirroring of specific traits as it does suggest a common underworld of dark secrets shared by her female characters. But where the lead of Raw, Justine, finds herself gradually being consumed by ravenous cannibalistic urges, Alexia from Titane follows a messier journey that is harder to pin down. With her protagonist’s intense attraction towards cars, her string of cold-blooded murders, and a fraudulent identity to be upheld, Ducournau sketches out a portrait of a character as unpredictable as she is brutally misanthropic, and who prefers the cold sheen of metal over the soft touch of a human.

The car collision that opens Titane and sees a young Alexia get a titanium plate fitted into her head feels strangely fated to happen. Was it she who beckoned this accident in existence, as if to bind her soul to the motor vehicle? Or was it the car who called out to her, and then sent her back into the world with a part of its own metallic substance forever grafted into her head? Either way, organic and inorganic matter are fused into one being, and even as she dances provocatively at motor shows as an adult, she maintains a steely-eyed hatred about her, detesting all things human. In a backstage shower, we watch as her hair gets caught in another woman’s nipple piercing, this knotted union of biology and steel only being resolved by Alexia forcefully ripping herself away, much to her co-worker’s physical pain.

It is also in these early scenes that Ducournau puts on her own great show of visual artistry, as she weaves her camera seductively through the show room where exotic dancers thrust and grind against the shiny surfaces of cars, conflating the objectification of women with the humanising of vehicles by lingering lustfully equally on both. Similarities may be drawn between this device and a similar long take in Raw, as both hit these cinematic highpoints rather early on and then let this aesthetic commitment fall by the wayside as they progress further.

This isn’t to say that Titane lacks style – beyond the shocking body horror of Alexia’s vehicular pregnancy and motor oil bodily fluids, there is the infrequent split diopter shot, neon-lit interior, or slow-motion dance that briefly pulls us into Alexia’s own fragmented mental state. There is also Ducournau’s glorious sound design, where clanging metal noises play out irregular beats and deep, choral vocals reverberate in stiff minor chords. But the French director’s strength is clearly in developing subtext-loaded narratives, and letting them play out in unpredictable, explosive encounters.

That said, there is an unexpected softness to Titane which only reveals itself late in the game, as Alexia finds unexpected companionship in a man she has developed an unusual relationship with. To a certain extent, this connection is founded upon a mutual self-deception – his wilful conviction that she is actually his son, and her hopeful belief that he doesn’t secretly believe otherwise. In the confusion of where they both stand with each other, there is also a common recognition of each other as lonely souls uncomfortable in their flawed human bodies. Where flesh and metal meet, both find moments of ecstasy in its cold, hard perfection, though it is in the messy, twisted bond that they form over this that they are ironically tied even deeper to their own inexorable humanity.

Titane is currently playing in theatres.

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