Dir: Julia Ducournau. Starring: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh 18, 108 minutes.
No other film this year could be accurately described using the words “sticky” and “slippery” – at least, not in the way that they apply to Titane. Not only do its frames ooze with blood, oil, and semen, but the film constantly wriggles out of the grasp of all categorisation and description. It’s a body horror that’s really a family drama; that’s really a sly comedy about the discomfort of being trapped inside all this vulnerable, imperfect flesh.
The second film directed by a woman to win the Palme d’Or in the more than 70-year history of the Cannes Film Festival, this tale of a murderous dancer with a sexual obsession with cars drew reports of fainting and vomiting in the aisles. It’s directed by France’s Julia Ducournau, who’s already made traumatising audiences her signature. Her 2016 debut film, Raw, offered a gnarly portrait of cannibal sisters that worked best as a metaphor for eating disorders and inherited dysfunction.
Titane amps up the ante considerably. It makes you wonder what Ducournau might possibly have planned next. Like Raw, the film opens with a car crash. Consider it a warning from its director that she has no plans to play nice. The splatter of blood on the backseat window belongs to Alexia (Adèle Guigue), both the primary victim of the accident and the one who’s blamed for it, since her habit of humming along to the sound of the engine drives her father to distraction. Alexia has a metal plate inserted into her head, with a scar that coils around her ear like the shell of a snail. She is, in her mind, part machine now – and that only seems to fuel her attraction to and fascination with automobiles.
As an adult, now played by Agathe Rousselle, she can be found working the local auto-shows as a model and dancer, twerking on and humping car hoods while in oblivious ecstasy. Consciously or not, Alexia has begun to disassociate from her own sense of humanity – to the point that the metal hairpin she wears has become an extension of her body, a brand new limb reappropriated for bloody and horrifying means. People die by Alexia’s hand, for reasons that are both complex and oddly simple. It isn’t pretty.
But, as is often the case, to sensationalise Titane is to undermine the full scope of Ducournau’s work. Her impulse for excess leaves little room for impure or insincere emotions from her characters. Everyone is trapped in their most vulnerable state. Alexia, while on the run, disguises herself as the missing son of firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon). There’s not all that much familial resemblance, but when Vincent is asked whether he’d like to order a DNA test, he still snaps back: “What for? Think I can’t recognise my own son?” He feels like a piece of his soul has finally been restored. It doesn’t matter in what form it’s delivered.
Rousselle and Lindon’s performances, both mesmerising, are propelled by a sense of hunger – a desperate look in the eye, and crooked fingers digging into the other’s skin. All that these two people desire is some sense of control over their lives, to make permanent the brief euphoria they feel whenever they dance, whether it be on car roofs or fire station floors. That’s the one moment when every limb seems to work in perfect harmony. One more thing – there’s a part of this film that I’ve been very careful to tiptoe around. Though it elaborates wonderfully on all of Titane’s themes, the surprise is just too good to ruin. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.