Titane may only be her second feature film, but French director Julia Ducournau has already asserted herself as among the strangest and most exciting filmmakers working in genre cinema. Her follow-up to 2016’s Raw exceeds even that film in its unhinged capacity to disturb and enthral. In short, Titane is a triumph.
As a small child, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) he has a titanium plate implanted in her head in an emergency operation following a car crash as a child. As an adult, she still sports the scar from the operation, while her awkward, anti-social behaviour may well be the result of the accident or a deeper-seated disorder. We catch up with Alexia working as a stripper working in an industrial club for petrolheads who gawk at latex-clad women gyrating on machines like a Fast & Furious movie taken to its pornographic extreme. The women and their machines become virtually indistinguishable in the shiny surfaces and bright colours of their dress and paint jobs. The cars are fetishised as much as the women; one becomes an extension of the other.
This fetishising is turned on its head, however, after Alexia kills a would-be attacker in her car, stabbing him through the ear with a metal hairpin as he grabs and kisses her through her car window. Later, while she is sleeping in the club, she hears an ominous knock at the door. Is it the police? Did someone see her kill the man? Has he somehow returned from the dead? There is little to prepare us for what is waiting for her, made intensely eerie with a sense of the vast negative space and cavernous sound design that frames her visitor. Afterwards, we learn that this is not the first time that Alexia has killed, nor will it be her last, her vampiric urge to do violence driven apparently by the titanium plate in her head.
Without spoiling the reveal the obvious comparisons here are David Cronenberg’s Crash and John Carpenter’s Christine. But there is something else going on under the hood, revealed by increasingly complex modifications to the film as the plot barrels forward, shifting gear and direction at a moment’s notice. Ducournau effortlessly slips through the tropes and plot devices of genre cinema to assemble a story that is by turns horrific, fabular, and always deeply, deeply strange.
Ducournau has always been inspired by the bodily transformation in women, from her short film Junior to feature debut Raw. In Titane, she doubles down with two bodily changes. The first comes when Alexia has her plate installed, but in the film’s second half, she shaves her head and brutally breaks her nose to adopt the identity of a 10-year-old boy who went missing a decade ago.
Unexpectedly, this is where Alexia transforms into a sympathetic figure, bonding with father-figure Vincent (Vincent Lindon) whose dogged determination to outwardly deny the obvious truth of Alexia’s identity inadvertently brings out something of her humanity. The film’s denouement compels Alexia and Vincent to confront the bizarre truth in front of them. Among all the violence, body horror and Giger-esque sexuality, Titane’s most surprising quality is its tenderness.