Critic’s Note: I’m going to include what some might consider “spoilers” in this write-up, as the movie is, in my opinion, fundamentally un-spoilable. I don’t think I’m ruining anything, and I think a fun, interesting review with a handful of specifics is more useful than dull one full of oblique allusions. Opinions differ on what constitutes a spoiler, but for whatever it’s worth, consider yourselves warned.
My wife had to leave early during our viewing of Julia Ducornau’s new movie, Titane, and when she returned I struggled with how to catch her up on the story. “So, this girl kills people, and I also think she might be pregnant with a car?” I said hesitantly. “Now she’s pretending to be this guy’s dead son.”
How could I not love a movie that allows me to form a simple declarative sentence like that, and with complete sincerity? Some people might consider that a spoiler, but the truth is, even in those glorious specifics I omitted a lot. And anyway, these are not reveals on the level of “Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.” The fun of Titane is in how Ducournau gets there, and that she does it with absolute conviction. Her craft is to make us to believe the fundamentally unbelievable; to force us to see ourselves in characters patently outlandish.
She accomplishes this through a razor-focus on the physical form. Her style is so tactile that it never becomes abstract, no matter how far her narratives stray from mundane realism. She’s admirably in touch with her own kinks and entirely unabashed about exploring them; she might be the most blood-and-guts filmmaker working. Hence why I don’t believe in the usual kind of spoilers as it applies here. One simply can’t “ruin” something so visceral. Describing it can be fun, but Titane is something you just have to feel.
Ducournau’s last movie, Raw, was about a family of cannibals, using the act of eating flesh as something of a slant metaphor for burgeoning sexuality. Titane is arguably even more thematically loose, and if it’s some kind of allegory I don’t have a strong sense of what for. The beauty of it is that I didn’t need to; I could appreciate it purely on the level of visceral surrealism.
Agathe Rousselle plays Alexia, who we first meet as a child during an intense car accident, that she causes herself by antagonizing her father until he slams into a guard rail. Next we meet the grown Alexia, working as some kind of sex punk car show stripper, cavorting on hoods in rave-lit exhibition rooms, a job I imagine comes with six weeks vacation and a pension plan in France.
Like the protagonist of Raw, Alexia seems driven by a series of primal, primitive urges, flitting from one turn-on to the next. Unlike the characters in Raw, she mostly lacks any shame or sense of morality about them. She’s a kind of vampire, living outside normal society and occasionally preying on its members, all delivered, of course, with maximum gore. Which Ducournau has a way of shooting in a way that doesn’t seem at all schlocky or kitsch, but intensely realistic. Back in 2017, I wrote of Raw, “Raw rarely goes five minutes of screen time without trying to make us puke, whether from raw meat, dead animals, full body rashes, or various gore, usually accompanied by some teen flesh, just to make you feel extra weird about it all.”
Titane has that same sense of ever-present body horror, but Ducournau seems less compelled to depict something “shocking” at regular intervals. The result is something that feels just as raw, but even more honest. It’s like we’re watching Ducournau indulge in all her most scattershot perversions, whether they be sapphic, gory, cannibalistic, or car-based in nature. I don’t entirely know what all those disparate urges add up to, and I’m not sure that Ducournau does either. Yet there are few things more compelling than true obsession, and Ducournau lays hers out like macabre smorgasbord.
In the course of the film, Rousselle goes through physical transformations so intense they make Christian Bale look like Sean Connery (who was so thoroughly “himself” that he once played an Irish cop with his natural Scottish accent and won an Oscar for it). Meanwhile, acclaimed French actor Vincent Lindon, nominated six times for France’s version of the Oscar, winning once, plays Alexia’s unlikely father figure, Vincent, looking a bit like a beefed-up, overtanned Jack Klugman. And In its final act, Titane offers arguably its most shocking twist of all: something genuinely heartfelt. I’m not entirely certain I understand what Titane is, but I’m convinced that all movies could stand to be a little more like Titane.
The best part of it all is that Julia Ducournau doesn’t seem to be doing any of this to be cute; it’s all pure, wild-eyed commitment, a story that feels like it could’ve just as easily been a confession, or a suicide note. Whatever she’s got should be isolated and mass-produced, to be injected into other directors every time they get too cerebral or too circumspect, too concerned about public reaction to their work.