At the heart of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning sophomore film Titane is strength, but not just in the sense of endurance and resistance. It’s also about the strength to change, to be vulnerable, and to lose control. Viewers familiar with Ducournau’s debut film, the cannibalistic coming-of-age film Raw, will likely be less shocked by her penchant for squirm-inducing imagery. Both films use body horror to discuss the chaos of change our bodies put us through as we grow and embrace sexuality, with her latest adding bodily autonomy, modification, and transmutation into the mix.
We first meet protagonist Alexia (Adèle Guigue) as a young girl revving as if she is a car herself while antagonizing her father to drive faster by incessantly kicking the back of his seat. When he turns around to discipline her, he loses control of the car. Alexia is fitted with a titanium plate fused to her skull. Cold with her parents as they exit the hospital, she passionately kisses their car when the two are reunited.
Many years later we’re introduced to a grown up Alexia (a steely, androgynous Agathe Rousselle) through an impressive tracking shot as we follow the distinct scar on her head while she makes her way through the crowd at a motorshow. Cinematographer Ruben Impens fixes his camera equally on the writhing bodies of the models and the horny, mostly male, crowd. Provocatively dancing atop an orange Cadillac, it’s clear Alexia still has an erotic connection with automobiles.
Showering after her dance, she shares a brief flirtation with her coworker Justine (Raw star Garance Marillier), their chemistry immediate. As Alexia’s hair catches on Justine’s nipple piercing, erotic tension surges. The moment turns violent when she suddenly rips it free, leaving the stunned Justine equally as aroused as she is terrified. This feeling colors each of their subsequent encounters throughout the film.
Suddenly alone in the shower, she hears a loud boom coming from the showroom. Upon investigation, a nude Alexia finds herself face to face with the vehicle, beckoning her like a siren. Slipping inside the car’s leather interior, she continues her dance, this time climaxing violently.
Exiting the showroom, she is chased to her own vehicle by an obsessive fan. In one of many subversions of power dynamics throughout the film, this encounter begins with Alexia appearing fearful for her life, even acquiescing a kiss when the fan’s earnest tone becomes violent. Only for the altercation to end in a big reveal: she’s actually a serial killer who uses a large steely hairpin to annihilate her victims.
The next day Alexia discovers an oily black discharge coming from her body. The mounting pressure that she may be pregnant from her vehicular copulation leads to more violence. Sharing her concerns with Justine, the two share a delicate moment waiting for pregnancy test results. For every bonkers choice, Ducournau layers in a grounded beat lulling the audience, before inducing carefully calibrated cinematic whiplash.
Setting up what seems to be a sultry seduction of Justine, she pivots hard into a high octane murder spree, after which you will never look at a chair the same way again.
On the run from the cops, Alexia comes up with a truly unhinged plan to elude them. Altering her hair, face and body through increasingly violent means, she poses as a long lost child, grown. It’s here we see the brilliance of casting Rousselle, whose body is a blank canvas. Despite the outward cosmetic changes, her internal fire burns steadily, keeping the audience constantly questioning when it will completely consume her.
At the police station she is taken in by soulful fire captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon, in his most tender, sublime role to date), who believes her to be his son Adrien. Ducournau wrote the role specifically for Lindon, and uses his body to subvert gender expectations. All muscles and gruff talk with his crew, internally Vincent is a bleeding heart desperately in need of an outlet for paternal love.
Through sheer emotional brilliance Ducournau walks an incredible tight rope as she nurtures this relationship between a cold-blooded murderer and grieving father. It’s left up to the audience to decide who is manipulating whom, and in doing so Ducournau crafts a gorgeous ode to the power of true connections and chosen family.
Although the beating heart of this film is this emotional truth, it never once shies away from shockling imagery. Ducournau displays a clinical curiosity for the mechanics of the body – our rocky relationships with our own bodies, our drive to explore others’, and the ways in which we often cannot control how others view us.
Forged in the fire of films like David Cronenberg’s Crash or the slick stylings of Nicolas Winding Refn, what sets Ducournau’s film apart is her unflinching vision of female strength and uncompromising subversion of familial and societal norms. Where David Lynch’s Eraserhead found the horror in fatherhood, Titane finds the horror in gestation. And just like Lynch, she finds the grace buried deep underneath the grotesque.
“Titane” is out in theaters Friday.