Titane is the second feature film of French director Julia Ducournau (Raw (2017)) and the Palme d’Or winner of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The film is not for the faint of heart. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a girl who suffered a brain injury as a child and now works at striptease car shows. Her encounter with grieving father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who works as a fire-fighter, unveils the full extent of both his and her mental disturbances. People say that there is no art in shock value and Ducournau is set to prove them wrong. In her horrifying picture, she demonstrates that films with violence, nudity, sex and drug abuse do not need to be “trashy” and can be as stylish as any high-end production. There is nothing “cheap” about intense Titane which shines with inventiveness and brims with its own special intellectual, emotional and physical rawness, finding its own appreciative viewers.
Julia Ducournau is proudly carrying the torch of the New French Extremity, a cinematic movement whose notable films include Gaspar Noé’ traumatic Irreversible (2002) and Claire Denis’s highly-disturbing Trouble Every Day (2001). As with her predecessors, Ducournau pushes the limits of violence and sex on screen, but also objectophilia and body-horror. However, what distinguishes Ducournau from others, even from similarly-minded Denis, is the extent of her willingness to explore the damaged female psyche. As film Raw, Titane focuses on a young woman at her wits’ end. Is she a cold-blooded killer à la American Psycho or just an unfortunate victim of her childhood circumstances? With every scene, self-defence and cold-blooded murder merge, as do feelings of love and hate. Ducournau’s audience is both repelled by the heroine’s actions and is forced into a hypnotic and empathetic trance. In this regard, Ducournau showcases to the fullest her uncanny ability to subvert our expectations. Things that people prefer not to be reminded of…it is these the director thrusts into the open, and that pull of the illicit, secretive, dangerous and disgusting is irresistible, despite the “guilt” we may feel afterwards.
The script of Titane may have drawn some inspiration from the real case of Frederic Bourdin (see my review of the documentary), but it certainly veered off onto many narrative paths beside this one and here is where the main fault of the film lies. Its first half is so intriguing and fast-paced that it sits oddly with the rest of the film, especially with its second, much calmer half which concerns solely with the question: will she be discovered or not? The problem here is that all the hints and narrative threads established in the film’s beginning are inexplicably dropped half way through, causing much confusion, and that includes Alexia’s parents, her previous job, her titane plate in the head and even, later, the object she holds dearest to her – a hair stick. This titanium hair stick of Alexia has a symbolic meaning of female empowerment gone haywire and purposeless, and in what places it has been and things it has seen in the course of the film! Still, the secret weapon of Ducournau is the total dedication, focus and bravery of her cast. Agatha Rousselle and Vincent Legrand are up for the difficult job of presenting immensely damaged individuals in an inexplicable game of misuse, abuse, lies, murders and fire disasters, but in the heart of which still lies the primal need to connect and be a part of something warm and meaningful.
In 2017, I described Ducournau’s “cannibalistic” debut Raw as a “brave and unflinching” – Titane is even more so, a much bolder and more provocative film which provides a visceral experience of the highest order. In it, Ducournau taps into the gloomiest of settings and shows the darkest of impulses, and even if she could not quite assemble all of her film elements into a cohesive whole, she still ensures that every frame is entrancing. So, what is Titane? Tasteless and gratuitous violence and “sick” gore on screen, or an admirable and demanding work of cinematic art? Repelling or hypnotising? It is both. 7/10