Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Neon releases the film in theaters on Friday, October 1.
During the first half of Julia Ducournau’s “Titane,” it’s hard to tell if you’re watching the most fucked up movie ever made about the idea of found family, or the sweetest movie ever made about a serial killer who has sex with a car, poses as the adult version of a local boy who went missing a decade earlier, and then promptly moves in with the kid’s still-grieving father. During the second half, it becomes obvious that it’s both — that somehow it couldn’t be one without the other.
Following the cannibalistic “Raw” with another ravenous film that pushes her fascination with the hunger and malleability of human flesh to even further extremes, Ducournau has made good on the promise of her debut and then some. Whatever you’re willing to take from it, there’s no denying that “Titane” is the work of a demented visionary in full command of her wild mind; a shimmering aria of fire and metal that introduces itself as the psychopathic lovechild of David Cronenberg’s “Crash” and Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” before shapeshifting into a modern fable about how badly people just need someone to take care of them and vice-versa.
Alexia’s parents never really fulfilled either end of that bargain — least of all her sleazy father, played by “Nocturama” director Bertrand Bonello (who serves up enough withering face to see all sorts of intimate sins behind his blank expression). The first time we meet her she’s a pre-teen girl sitting in the backseat of her dad’s sedan and loudly revving her body like she’s a Ferrari. He gets annoyed, takes his eyes off the road, and the next thing you know Alexia is at a hospital having a titanium plate surgically implanted into her skull. “Watch out for any neurological signs,” the doctor warns her parents. Anyone who’s seen “Raw” will be cackling already.
Cut to: The present, when Alexia is a terse and severe thirtysomething car model embodied by newcomer Agathe Rousselle (in an unforgettable performance that often evokes a gender-fluid take on the murderous vulnerability Scarlett Johansson brought to “Under the Skin”). She wears her shaggy blonde hair so that the scar from her implant is still extremely visible on the side of her head, as if she wants the world to know about the metal inside her.
Alexia writhes around on muscle cars while horny male fans line up for selfies, but the pleasure seems to be all hers. When one of those horny male fans refuses to take “no” for an answer in the parking lot after an event, Alexia does not take kindly to his actions. She prefers the company of a very special vehicle — one that calls to her from the darkness with its high beams. While every frame of Ruben Impens’ slick and ultra-saturated cinematography leaves an impression, the chiaroscuro wide shot of a freshly showered Rousselle walking naked towards the eager car and dripping a wet trail of water onto the floor of the garage feels like the kind of movie image that might outlive us all. At the very least, you’ll never hear the phrase “strap in” quite the same way again.
The what-the-fuckery of “Titane” climaxes early, but the fun is just shifting into gear as Alexia soon embarks on a hilarious killing spree so rash and out of control that not even she seems to understand what’s driving it. At a certain point, shaving her head, taping down her breasts, and assuming the identity of a long-missing little boy named Adrien Legrand seems like Alexia’s best gamble for getting away from the cops. She hits the jackpot: Adrien’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon, a bruised old slab of raw beef) might be the most frighteningly ultra-masculine firefighter captain in all of France, but he’s also so happy to have his son back that he’ll open his heart to anyone who comes through the door.
Is it denial, or is it sheer desperation? “Titane” addresses that question in movingly explicit fashion by the end, even though the judgmental looks from the other firefighters who live at the station — a found family in its own right — are quick to indicate that the movie has at least one foot in the real world. For the most part, however, Ducournau is happy to convey her story by more indirect means: A violent bonding dance soundtracked to The Zombies classic “She’s Not There”; cinema’s most morbid invocation of the “Macarena”; a striptease atop a fire truck that catches a group of aggro young men in a state of confused arousal.
That last example hints at just one of the many different ways that heteronormativity is unsettled in a fever dream of a movie where transgressive sex paves the road towards miracles, and gender identity never interferes with even the most militaristic expression of paternal love. The words “I don’t care who you are” have rarely carried so much weight. Watching the soon-to-be iconic last scene of “Titane” — a spectacular mess of motor oil and catharsis that will leave your jaw hanging off its hinges — it’s hard not to think that this is the future liberals want.
Even for all of its fable-like flourishes however, “Titane” can be a bit too vague for its own good. Lindon muscles as much detail and feeling as he can into a character defined by steroid injections and hard stares (think less Paddington and more R. Lee Ermey), but Vincent is still kept at a distance from us even when Alexia fades into the background, as if Ducournau were afraid that spending too much time with him might force the film in an unsustainably literal direction. Likewise, for all the bracing physicality that Rousselle brings to her role — and in spite of how spectacularly resistant “Titane” can be to the kind of closed circuit metaphors that left “Raw” feeling less adventurous than it tasted — there are so many unanswered questions about Alexia that you’re often left to wonder what really makes her tick.
That being said, the magic of “Titane” (at least one very major component of which has been omitted from this review, even if it’s sure to become the defining element of the movie) is also owed to the grace with which Ducournau threads the needle between clarity and madness, shock and recognition, throttle and clutch. If Alexia is less of a fully fleshed out character than she is the homicidal eight-cylinder engine that will power us into a future where people are as malleable as the metal inside of her dome, well, that’s pretty neat. Mileage will vary, but it’s easy to imagine that viewers will be eager to fill the blank spaces Ducournau left behind when this movie hits theaters. And, lest it need to be said, this is a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen with even bigger sound and a screaming crowd surrounding you on all sides. “F9” was cute, but outer space is hardly the most fun place a car can go.
“Titane” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Neon will release it in the United States later this year.
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