TITANE is the ferociously unbridled, Palme d’Or winning second film from RAW director Julia Decournau. It’s bizarre and it’s intense and if you’ve heard anything about it you probly heard about an outlandish thing involving a motor vehicle that happens early in the movie. But regardless, if it’s something you’re expecting to see I recommend not reading anything about it, including this review, until afterwards.
If you should be turning back but haven’t yet, here’s the vague version. I’ve seen it called a horror movie, but it fits existing horror templates considerably less than even RAW did. I would describe it as more like a relationship drama in a surreal world, with a lead character who is intensely flawed, strange, and yet human. It has that transgressive non-literal adult situation that the Bible would be against had the technology existed at the time, some horrific violence, and some nightmarish violations of existing biological function. (I think the term “body horror” has become too much of a cliche so I’m trying to come up with new ways to say it when necessary.) But it settles down (sort of) into a story about extremely broken people finding each other and the miracle of unconditional love.
Seriously, just go watch the movie because if you don’t I’m about to ruin it by giving you the plot in the form of a TV Guide listing.
Yep, that sums it up.
I love that in both RAW and TITANE (which means titanium – the opposite of the flesh that was the primary concern of RAW) Ducournau depicts these bizarre worlds in such vivid detail that I’m honestly unsure if they’re completely made up or just an exaggerated version of a thing I never heard of before. Are Belgian veterinary colleges the most harrowing hazing experience on earth? Do fire stations have the most intense mosh pits? Is there an underground subculture of super famous exotic car dancers? The rock star shot following Alexia’s badass lion jacket as she moves through the tuning show to take her place atop her flame-adorned hot rod partner is as thrilling as Rocky or Creed entering an arena. It makes you wonder if all the mini-skirt ladies at the starting line in the early FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies have amazing lives we should’ve been following all along.
One of the things I love about this movie is that Alexia demolishes all the different boxes you expect a female character to fit into. Take for example the early scene where she’s approached by a fan/Stan (Thibault Cathalifaud, LOVE SONG FOR TOUGH GUYS) in a parking lot at night. He’s clearly in the wrong, approaching her in a flagrantly stalkery manner, and forcefully kissing her through the driver’s side window. We could all pump our fists in celebration of righteous DEATH PROOF style overkill if she slammed on the gas and dragged his ass. Instead she kills him in what Ducournau makes very clear is not self defense: pulling him in to lustfully return his kiss before braining him with her (titanium?) knitting needle hairpin and ejecting milky, decidedly unglamorous drool all over herself. She’s neither a victim or a MS. 45 style dark avenger. To underline that point, Alexia also kills a much more innocent character, followed by a succession of unsuspecting roommates. It feels like very advanced characterization in a time when so many people want movie characters, especially female ones, to be pure, aspirational role models.
But it’s also not ANGST, MANIAC, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, AMERICAN PSYCHO or MONSTER, where we’re going to follow a rampage from the inside. The murders establish Alexia as a monster and then, once we’ve accepted that, it’s time to find out if we can find the humanity in her anyway. The story takes a sharp turn (do you get it, “take a sharp turn” is a car term) when Alexia is wanted for her crimes and goes on the lam.
We’ve all seen movie fugitives disguise themselves with a hair cut (and often dye job) in a public restroom (ANGEL, GONE GIRL, many others I can’t think of). She does that here but with the wonderfully far-fetched plan of not just changing her appearance, but changing it to that of a specific child she saw on a missing poster by smashing her face into the sink to change the shape of her nose. No disrespect to Ethan Hunt but I don’t think he could pull that off without his fancy equipment. Alexia can.
Her ploy puts her in the awkward situation of living (and working) as the son of macho fire captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon, BETTY BLUE, LA HAINE), who frequently shoots himself up with steroids out of fear of aging and death. She hides her body and voice from him and he’s infuriated by the standoffishness, but zealously protects her from the insults of the other firemen. And though her initial plan is to run off, she ends up staying with him.
There are a bunch of themes or motifs in the movie (metal, fire, cars), but one I particularly like is dancing. There are several important scenes about Alexia dancing, but I believe three where she dances with Vincent, with different emotional outcomes. Interestingly, Lindon has said in interviews that filming it changed his life because he’s always been terrified of dancing but being forced to do it for the movie made him no longer self conscious and allowed him to be free.
I love the audacity of requiring us to accept that Vincent could believe this person is his son Adrien. But when his ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou, THE CONNECTION) meets Alexia she doesn’t buy it for a second, and we realize then, if we hadn’t already, that Vincent hasn’t necessarily been fooled either. He may have just needed it to be true, and decided to accept that it was.
But will he be cool about it when he finds out his son is pregnant with a car baby? Most of the pre-film or not-having-seen-the-film or being-reductive-of-the-film discussion has revolved around Alexia having sex with a car. I got a sense from the cryptic trailer that there was something pretty CRASHy about it, and when I bought the ticket and admitted I didn’t know how to pronounce the title (I guess it’s “tee-tahn”) the box office guy told me he calls it “The One Where the Lady Has Relations With a Car.” When I got home, Mrs. Vern (who generally avoids gross movies) asked, “So, how does someone have sex with a car?” My answer was, “It was pretty impressive!”
And I meant it. That vintage Cadillac lowrider shows up pounding on her door at night, and eyes her naked body with its headlights. She’s had an attachment to cars at least since her near death in one as a child (young Alexia nuzzles one right before the title comes up), but if it was Christine or The Car making a move on her I don’t know that she would go for it. This one she knows from work, and it’s a real looker, and she decides to hop in. It starts bouncing her with its hydraulics and, I mean, you can just tell how much it’s enjoying itself before you see her inside, arms wrapped tight with seatbelts. I’m honestly not saying it’s hot or anything, I’m just saying I appreciate that this unlikely pair are able to have a connection of such unrestrained passion, if only for one night. Maybe there’s something profane in that she just murdered an actual human who pursued her in similar fashion, but took up a machine on its offer. But I promise if you saw the two guys in question you would agree she chose the better of the two.
Like in RAW, this is a depiction of female sexuality that is far from standard, even aside from the participation of automobiles. In the opening scene she’s something akin to a stripper – dancing sensually in a gold lame bikini and neon yellow fishnets for men at a car show, humping and twerking, the camera getting more intimate with her camel toe than I’ve probly ever seen on a multiplex screen. Ducournau found Rousselle modelling on Instagram, where her screen name is “afundisaster,” and she spent months training in acting, dance and kickboxing. As Alexia she has a modern type of female sexiness – she’s tall and covered in tattoos, and the shaved patch of hair around the plate in her head makes her look extra punk. But men mob her for autographs, that one guy waiting three hours to tell her he loves her.
And then she obliterates this persona to disguise herself – shaving her hair and eyebrows, breaking her nose bone, binding her breasts and belly, wearing baggy clothes, living for most of the movie as a young man. I think in recent years many of us have become more aware of and tried to understand the lives and stories of trans men and women, non-binary people, some of which are perspectives I never even knew to contemplate when I was young. But I think TITANE goes beyond even those categorizations because Alexia/Adrien is not trans, at least not necessarily. It’s a disguise, but by the end by my reading she may not see herself as the woman Alexia or the man Adrien, she is just… herself. (Theirself?) When she reprises her twerking in the guise of Adrien, on top of a firetruck instead of a Caddy, for a bunch of very uncomfortable firefighter bros instead of lusty custom car aficionados, I felt like it looked awkward because she’s no longer the same person who danced like that at the beginning. But in a Daily Beast interview Ducournau explains it differently: “It’s about being complete. When she is dancing on the truck, it’s a moment where she shows herself as being fully complete—she is both Alexia and Adrien, and at the same time, she is none of them. Gender is irrelevant in terms of the definition of an identity.”
When she has no choice but to reveal her female body to her new father, she reverts to some of the expectations people had of her at the beginning. She seems to approach him sexually. When he pushes her away it seems at first comes off as hateful or angry, but it’s not. He has accepted her as his child, regardless of not being Adrien, so the advances disgust and disappoint him.
I get the sense that Ducournau doesn’t give much of a fuck what anyone thinks of her. I don’t think she’s much interested in either provoking people or being appreciated for her edginess. The violence and gore in her movies are viscerally effective in a way that very few can match (here she returns to RAW’s under-the-sheets closeups of itchy rashes) and her protagonists certainly display nihilistic tendencies, yet to me the overall feeling is very humane and compassionate. If you don’t take everything too literally, they’re stories about how we all have our fucked up problems and also our worth; that everyone deserves to know themselves and find love, friendship and family, and be happy, or at least less broken and alone.
In real life if you find out your loved one is wanted for a series of brutal murders I don’t think you should just let that go. But in the operatic reality of the Ducournauverse the idea of getting past something like that, of forgiving the unforgivable, is absolutely beautiful.
P.S. I was surprised and delighted that Garance Marillier, who starred as Justine in RAW, shows up playing a character named Justine. Also note that the missing child Alexia impersonates is named Adrien, the same name as Justine’s roommate in RAW. While watching it I took it as being the same Justine and Adrien, but I had forgotten the older sister in RAW is named Alexia. And it turns out Marillier also plays a Justine in Ducournau’s short film Junior. Docournau told Deadline, “It makes sense to me to have this evolution between characters because they bear the similar names somehow mutating from one film to the next. I definitely think of them as different forms of the same character.”
I really liked this piece about Ducournau in Vulture. For me the most illuminating information is that her parents were a dermatologist and a gynecologist and she first saw (and enjoyed?) THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE when she was 6 years old. I mean, that’s the origin story right there, isn’t it?