By nature, a review for Titane, the sophomore feature from French writer-director Julia Ducournau, should be scant. It’s the kind of movie you’re best off knowing as little about as possible. The kind that shocks, jerks, twists, and stabs its way into wholly unexpected brilliance. You can watch the trailer and try to sense what’s coming, but you won’t be able to guess. That kind of unpredictability in an erotic arthouse thriller this assured and insane is a hell of a lot of fun.
Those who have seen Raw, Ducournau’s 2016 debut feature about a girl in her first year of veterinary school who stumbles into a cannibalism addiction, know the filmmaker’s potential for acute provocation, carnal imagery, bewitching needle drops, and captivating storytelling. All of these elements are on full display in Titane as well, and perhaps even more heightened than they were in Raw.
In an electric feature debut performance, Agathe Rousselle stars in the film as Alexia, an evocative dancer at pop-up car shows somewhere near Marseilles. But the first scene with her is in childhood. She sits in the back of the car making vroom-vroom noises, pissing her dad off royally. He keeps his eyes on the road and tries to stay patient. Eventually, she ups the ante, dropkicking his chair repeatedly with all the pestilent might a kid can muster. The commotion leads to a vicious wreck.
Next thing we know, Alexia is in the hospital, where trauma has necessitated dire surgery. Cutting into the side of her head and peeling back the crown, the surgeons insert a titanium plate over the dome of her skull that can never be removed. In the process, she collects a huge gnarly scar above her right ear that looks like a textured tribal tattoo (front and center on the poster). Titane then skips up to Alexia’s twentysomethings.
Hair doesn’t grow above Alexia’s right ear, and she’s in nearly every shot, so the swirling cicatrix is always in frame. This characterizes her as a beautiful brute of sorts. She’s a rough and ready individualist with a literally scarred past whose relationship with metal and machines is, er, unconventional. You might call it auto-erotic.
She lives with her parents, whom she doesn’t seem to like very much, and keeps to herself at home, work, and elsewhere. Whether she’s perpetually angry or just has a contemptible resting face is up for debate. But within ten minutes, we learn enough about Alexia to know two things: she’s not messing around, and we’ll be glued to her every move. And technically, we accumulate enough evidence of Rupen Impens‘ jaw-dropping cinematography to need to see the rest.
How or why isn’t important here, but soon Alexia sneaks her way into the custody of an ogrish firefighter captain named Vincent, played by Vincent Lindon. The actor worked out for two years to achieve the brawny, bulgy body he needed for the role. And it doesn’t just show; it works wonders. He and Rousselle give incredibly challenging physical performances, both of which could lead to awards consideration. Vincent, like Alexia, is bestial, traumatized, over-aggressive, and raw. But where Alexia is closed off, Vincent is wide open, setting the stage for some baffling character development.
Unless you’re Ducournau herself (hello, if you’re reading this), what lies ahead is beyond what you could imagine narratively. It’s simply too strange and too particular. Titane is truly original, something 99.9 percent of films can’t say about themselves, even if they’re great. And also too filthy to compare accurately to most other films. It’s rabid in its sharp, fleshy flavor of cornucopian violence and sexuality. However, it does join many fellow 2021 Cannes premieres in making this one of the most mix-gendered full-frontal festivals in recent memory. Alexia is naked for a heaping portion of Titane.
Ducournau’s tense absence of dialogue in the face of all this carnage makes for some of cinema’s best onscreen kills. And not just in aesthetic or technique. The filmmaker adds a layer of comedy to the darkness. It’s the space she carves out for us to laugh that keeps the carnage from feeling too heavy or melodramatic.
Titane is like titanium: cold, hard, and reflective. But it harbors a tender side that sets it above the rest. The constant onslaught of fire, both literal and thematic, can’t break down one of the strongest metals in the world, but it can heat it up, creating stirring moments of change and self-reflection. It’s a simultaneously titillating and frightening experience, but deep down you know you’re in good hands. The flames can’t get you, but you feel them all the same.