So much of the discussion around Titane has centered on a handful of extreme moments, that it’s easy to have a false impression about Julia Ducournau’s much heralded sophomore feature from the outside. The film is being talked about in many quarters as a mere extension of the Cronenbergian body horror of her debut, pushing audiences to uncomfortable new limits as she takes the themes of that director’s Crash to their stark conclusion – and that’s just in the opening 15 minutes. It has even had the expected festival circuit response to warrant that discussion, with ambulances on hand at the Toronto Film Festival to tend to people who have reportedly passed out, mid-screening, at some of the film’s more visceral visuals. If you’ve read a single synopsis of the film, you probably know why already.
It’s a shame that the film is only being assessed in terms of its most provocative moments, because Titane has more to offer than punk transgression. Despite introducing itself as a bleak, surrealist take on the conventional serial killer narrative, Ducournau’s film slowly evolves into something more devastating, weaving a genuinely moving domestic drama in-between the blood splatter. As with her excellent debut, 2016’s Raw, the queasier moments of horror may capture your attention, but it’s the unconventional approach to exploring family dynamics that holds it in place. I was unsurprised to be covering my eyes in certain moments, but I could never have anticipated that this was due to being on the verge of tears.
Image © Neon
Before we get there, let’s get through what has invited the surface level comparisons to Crash. As with Raw, the film opens moments before a dramatic car crash, here triggered by the young Alexia kicking her dad’s seat, the accident causing her to have parts of the vehicle embedded in her skull. As a result, she has a closer bond with cars than humans; twenty years later, now played by the outstanding debut performer Agathe Rousselle, she works as a dancer for car shows, coldly dispatching anybody who gives her unwanted sexual attention. One day, her killing streak goes too far, and she hatches a plan to escape being caught by drastically altering her appearance to become Adrien, the long missing son of Vincent (Vincent Lindon). A clearly broken man, he willingly believes that his offspring has returned, but as time goes by, this proves to be a problem for Alexia. Oh, did I forget to mention that she’s had sex with a car, and is struggling to hide her baby bump, while she’s routinely leaking petrol everywhere? Sorry, that detail must have slipped my mind.
It’s this detail that brings Titane firmly into the realms of the high concept, but has frustratingly overshadowed the film around it. Even Spike Lee, awarding the Palme D’Or to Ducournau at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, singled out the “sex with a car” sequence as testament to her genius filmmaking. It’s the sequence that best underlines the director’s intersection of body horror and off-kilter eroticism, taking the most outlandish concepts seriously even if a winking streak of jet black humour has to run through them to make them palatable. If anything, the most surprising thing about Titane may be that this approach to the more abrasive moments sits comfortably next to a more understated and complex family drama – one that can feel more emotionally agonising than the moments of bloody violence at the film’s surface.
Image © Neon
The relationship between Vincent and his son is at the film’s heart, the writer/director making the economical decision to have Alexia (as Adrien) entirely silent so that we have only the bare bones of their relationship to chew on. The film is affecting precisely because of this sparseness, Lindon giving one of his strongest performances as a man so deeply devastated by grief he chooses to believe in an obvious fantasy – constantly thinking out loud, trying to justify the surreal situation by consistently recontextualising it for himself. We never delve too deep into their past relationship, but can read between the lines in how Vincent aims to justify how drastically it has changed; noting unusual behavioural attitudes he’s Googled, or instructing his employees not to reference his son’s distinctly different physical appearance. In another filmmaker’s hands, this could be laughable to the point of farce. In Ducournau’s, it proves a nuanced exploration of long-gestating trauma that lingers long after the provocative shocks elsewhere have worn off.
The gender fluidity of the central character has caused much discussion, the director’s approach to the subject sharply dividing transgender and non binary viewers – especially considering the rapid transformation caused by the car pregnancy leads to the most pronounced moments of body horror. As a cis viewer, it’s impossible to speak about the director’s approach to such subject matter with any sense of authority, but to me the tenderness of the family drama (and the way it contrasts Vincent’s steroid pumping masculinity with Adrien’s effiminate qualities), seems to be taking a sledgehammer to the idea of conventional gender roles. That this is inherently married to a tale of uncomfortable bodily transformation complicates proceedings, even if the director does arrive firmly at the point of acknowledging that gender is nothing more than a performance.
Titane proves that Julia Ducournau is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, thoroughly reinvigorating the conventional family drama in ways that excite and challenge. It’s so much more than the car sex movie.
Written by Alistair Ryder
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