“Titane” may have only just been released in theaters stateside, but writer/director Julia Ducournau’s second feature, which recently won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is already notorious for its main character’s, um, affinity for automobiles. But there is way more to “Titane” than that. It’s a horror film, sure, one that involves pregnancy and self-mutilation and gruesome imagery, but it isn’t present merely for shock value. The craziest scenes in “Titane” may take place in the beginning of the movie, but it doesn’t necessarily move into conventional territory either. Told through Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) and Vincent (Vincent Lindon), Ducournau’s story of gender fluidity, control, acceptance, and found family is incredibly touching and powerful—and maybe that’s the most surprising thing about this movie.
“Titane” opens with a car crash. Alexia, then a child (played by Adèle Guigue) is injured, and has to have a titanium plate inserted into her skull. Years later, Alexia, now an adult (played by Rousselle), is a showgirl paid to dance on cars. Ducournau equates the beauty of the gleaming vehicles with the human body here, as the camera lingers on both in equal measure as it follows Alexia around the showroom. A lot of these cars have likely been modified, with paint jobs and other enhancements, and Ducournau argues that the human body can be modified too. When Alexia discovers that she is pregnant, and also wanted for murder, she goes on the run, disguising herself as a young man who has supposedly been missing since he was a child. In a cringe-inducing scene, she chops off her hair, tightly binds her chest and rapidly-swelling belly, and smashes her nose. It’s obvious that, despite these painful changes to her appearance, Alexia does not resemble the missing boy, called Adrien, but Adrien’s father Vincent (Lindon) identifies her as his own and brings her back to the firehouse where he is the chief firefighter.
Alexia spends the majority of “Titane” concealing her body and hiding her true self. If she’s found out, she could both lose Vincent’s protection, as well as end up in jail. But throughout the film, Vincent tells her that he doesn’t care who she is, he will never hurt her. He may not be aware of the full extent of Alexia’s deception, but it is apparent that this is a man who is so alone, it doesn’t matter that Alexia may not be his biological son; he just needs someone to fill that void. Lindon’s sad eyes make him a sympathetic presence throughout the film, and we see him also attempting to manipulate his body, injecting himself with something (steroids, perhaps) to help him maintain his waning physical strength. However, Rousselle’s features are harder to pin down. It’s a courageous performance, no doubt, and she deftly controls both the feminine and masculine characteristics of her body. But she and Ducournau also make Alexia into someone elusive. Some of her actions early in the film seem understandable; others, when she lashes out seemingly out of nowhere, seem to have little discernible motivation. Maybe it’s because the plate in her head has rendered her as cold as the metal it is made out of. One thing that is certain is that she does not want this baby that she is about to have, and her fear and anxiety as she tries to regain control over this one aspect of her body that is out of her hands is palpable.
The relationship that ultimately forms between Alexia and Vincent, while fraught with uncertainty, is genuinely touching. Even though I never fully connected the dots between Alexia’s actions as Alexia and Alexia as Adrien, there’s something to be said for a movie whose messaging is that it can and should be possible to accept people for who they are now, regardless of who or what they used to be. “Titane” is sometimes funny, sometimes anxiety-inducing, frequently shocking, often unpredictable, and wholly original. Ducournau’s fascination with flesh, well-established in her first feature, “Raw,” is evident here, but so is her distinct ability to use body horror as a way to tell stories about how changes to the body affect us. “Titane” may be harder to pin down than the more straight-forward coming-of-age story told in “Raw,” and its wild, sometimes incomprehensible, shifts in tone don’t always work, but Ducournau’s vision is all the more gripping and awe-inspiring.
“Titane” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated R.