REVIEW: Titane [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes
    Release Date: July 14th, 2021 (France) / October 1st, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Diaphana Films / Neon
    Director(s): Julia Ducournau
    Writer(s): Julia Ducournau

You think I can’t recognize my own son?

It always fascinates me when you hear stories about audacious new films being “unlike anything you’ve ever seen” and “wild enough to cause audience members to faint in their seats” since the ones carrying those labels are often quite tame by comparison. That’s not to say Julia Ducournau‘s latest Titane isn’t without its tensely disturbing moments. Watching Agathe Rousselle slam her face down onto a bathroom sink to break her nose isn’t going to be for the faint of heart, but I honestly can’t think of another scene where the violence isn’t hidden out-of-frame or the blood of an attack isn’t replaced entirely by foaming drool instead. Ducournau could have gone a lot further to warrant that overblown hyperbole. Her refusal, however, makes the film better.

The reason is simple: she isn’t looking to shock us. The story she’s created is intriguing enough to not need that sort of distraction. Ducournau wants us to look past the superficial nature of a woman having sex with a fire-painted muscle car and see the human relationships beneath that gimmick. Why? Because Alexia (Rousselle) doesn’t feel loved by flesh and blood. Her father (Bertrand Bonello) was at the wheel when a car accident left her in the hospital as a young child and neither he nor her mother seemed fazed beyond asking if the titanium plate on her skull would hold. That metal becomes her support. It takes on the role of protector. And she quickly finds herself less interested in humanity than she is with machine.

There’s strength in titanium that skin cannot equal. Alexia knows this truth well considering she’s been prone to sticking a foot-long metal hair spike into the temple of those who dare to get too close. Murder isn’t necessarily a compulsion as much as evidence of mankind’s biologic inferiority. She unsurprisingly flaunts the evidence of her implant by ensuring the giant scar spiraling around her ear is visible when grinding atop that aforementioned automobile at an underground nightclub/car show where every vehicle is accompanied by its own dancer, each holding enough celebrity to warrant men requesting autographs. They do nothing for her sexually, though. Only an engine revving and metal piercing penetrating another dancer’s (Garance Marillier‘s Justine) nipple can. One handles Alexia’s proclivity for the extreme. The other doesn’t.

What happens when Alexia discovers herself pregnant? She’ll need to find escape from the fetus or those close enough to ask questions and demand an ultrasound revealing a not wholly human creature in the womb. A comedic scene of violence throws a curveball, however, plastering her face all over the news as a potential serial killer. This is where the synopsis about “a father being reunited with his son” finally comes into play because Alexia crosses her fingers and decides to turn herself into the police as a missing person who’s been gone for almost a decade. The hope is to get a ride out of town, but what she receives is a delusional, broken man (Vincent Lindon‘s Vincent) willing to do anything to have his son back.

Whether Alexia would admit it or not, who she’s become is partly a result of never having a loving parent by her side. And who Vincent has become is definitely a result of not having his son Adrien by his. So while the dynamic is obviously strained at first—she has to bandage herself up to flatten her chest and belly while choosing not to speak in order to avoid accidentally saying something to ruin the fiction—they do ultimately find themselves fulfilling roles they need to feel safe and whole. Add Vincent injecting steroids into his muscle to try and turn back Father Time to the mirroring of these characters and you understand how both rejected humanity’s limitations. They embrace a newly augmented, body horror reality instead.

As I said, though, the lengths those horror aspects go are not as far as you might think when listening to the noise surrounding the film. Having motor oil come out of Alexia’s nipples and vagina will get minds racing as to what she’s carrying or becoming (or both), but Ducournau nicely leaves the possibilities to our imagination (save the inevitable, climactic payoff). And that’s probably Titane‘s greatest strength because nothing she shows us can prove crazier than what we can manifest ourselves. So rather than show Alexia with a stick-shift disappearing inside of her, we merely see her orgasming with seatbelts wrapped around her arms. And rather than pour buckets of fake blood everywhere, we get the milky discharge of hemorrhaging brain matter. It’s much more distressing.

This choice also means the proceedings advance at a gradual pace, though, since the “monster” is a device that places Alexia and Vincent onto their collision course. How does he protect her despite everyone around him knowing she can’t be his son? How does she help him and learn to love him in that role despite having lived her entire adult life more than capable of protecting herself? It’s often what’s not spoken that resonates loudest thanks to fantastically visceral performances by newcomer (Rousselle) and veteran (Lindon) alike. They ground what is, on paper, a science fiction nightmare into a rather heartfelt drama about finding purpose and meaning beyond oneself. It might not be as strong as Ducournau’s debut Raw, but it is memorably bold just the same.

courtesy of TIFF

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