Director: Julia Ducournau
Stars: Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Agathe Rousselle
There is a scene in David Cronenberg’s vivid 1996 adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash in which Ballard (James Spader) and Vaughan (Elias Koteas) are speeding down a Toronto street on their way to a multi-storey car-park to pick up a prostitute. As the two talk about their growing fixation with entwining sex and car accidents, Vaughan posits the idea that a car crash is a fertilising event, as opposed to a destructive one. A catalyst. One wonders whether, at this moment, a seed germinated in the mind of Julia Ducournau. Five years on from her peerless debut feature Raw – and with the Palme d’Or under her belt, no less – Titane takes some of the choice perversions of Crash and daringly presses down on the accelerator.
Titane (pronounced ‘tee-tahn’ as if to half-rhyme with Tehran) introduces us to Alexia at a young age. Suffering a car accident, she has a titanium plate placed in her cranium. The exposed weave of scar tissue behind her right ear looks squidgy and fleshy like an eXistenZ game pod, furthering the sense of reverence to David Cronenberg.
Flash forward twenty years or so and we’re at a fetishistic night gathering, similar to those occasionally seen in the Fast & Furious series. Young people mill around muscle cars as women dance atop them. Part showroom, part out-door strip club. Heady atmosphere. But instead of a drag race or a bank heist, Ducournau’s wandering camera leads us to Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), now a performer with some measure of a cult following.
When one of her devotees accosts her later, in the deserted parking lot, Alexia skewers his head with the long needle she uses to tie up her messy bun. As the man convulses against the car, he foams at the mouth and it dribbles over Alexia’s shoulder. The moment is ejaculatory, climactic. On reflection, perhaps this is the moment that something new is manifested in the film’s universe.
Having killed this man, Alexia is drawn toward a demonic-seeming car that she appears to have sex with, wrapped up in seatbelts, sat stride its interior as the car thrashes up and down. The sequence is such a bold non-sequitor that exists solely to power the tense and increasingly strange story to come. For Alexia is a serial killer whom the police are closing in on. Desperate to throw them off, she decides to disguise herself as the long-lost son of firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Binding her breasts and impregnated belly, cutting her hair and breaking her nose on a bathroom sink, Alexia becomes Adrien.
Given the precision attempts to shock thus far (Titane feels very-much connected to the provocative cinema coming out of France around the turn of the millennium ) what follows is a guardedly tender and emotionally complex relationship drama.
Vincent is a wounded individual who yearns to communicate with ‘Adrien’, but only knows how to do so through aggressive masculine gestures that seem tied to the locker-room posturing of his all-male firefighting team. The elder man among them, Vincent injects steroids into his backside regularly in an effort to keep apace. So the two of them – father and ‘son’ both seem dissatisfied with the inadequacies of their own bodies, contorting and abusing them to imagined ends.
‘Adrien’ is taken aback by Vincent’s boisterous attempts at physical connection, but understands them for what they are and harnesses these overtures to build an emotional bond. All the while, that bizarre pregnancy promises some kind of terrible body-horror reveal come the end…
Titane roils with an untethered, unpredictable energy, and the already-infamous car sex scene generates much of this heady disposition, provoking the audience to wonder, “what next?”. Not only are there more bold shocks to come, but through this one sequence Ducournau shrewdly energises the picture, using the weaponry of genre cinema to tell a tale of two emotionally fragile people seeking solace in one another.
From the moment they meet, one is moved to wonder how much Vincent truly believes that ‘Adrien’ is his son, or whether he is a tacit accomplice to her rouse from the off. With the void that has defined his adult life filled – no matter how erroneously – he is fully prepared to commit to feeling completed by ‘Adrien’. It’s pitiable, but also boldly defenseless of him. This openness provides Alexia/’Adrien’ something that has evidently been missing from her own life, coming close to sating the murderous rage that governed previously.
It is a muscular picture. Both figuratively when considering Ducournau’s firm directorial confidence, and literally thanks to the multifaceted fixations with the human form. Gender is fluid and impermanent but, paradoxically, also of vital importance to every interaction. Ducournau seems to be trying to find new ways to tessellate and fuse the genders, displaying an almost scientific curiosity in how different combinations react. Vincent Lindon’s presence helps, but it connects her work here back to Claire Denis’ dour noir Bastards. Titane evokes a similar sense of fascination with muscles, backs, movement and the darker environs of sexuality.
Returning to Cronenberg, this bodily preoccupation is most potent when it focuses on the fusing of flesh and metal. The hellish pregnancy that underpins the movie is the boldest representation of this, but it appears in other ways. Early in the picture, Alexia’s hair becomes entangled in the nipple ring of fellow dancer Justine (Garance Marillier). They are awkwardly conjoined. Later, when the two begin a furtive sexual relationship, Alexia’s fixation on the piercing becomes a violent point of concern.
Is it because of the plate in her head that she is so fascinated with the fusion of metal and flesh? Is this the origin of her homicidal urge to penetrate others, and do their deaths represent orgasmic crescendo? With these questions Ducournau joins the ranks of cinema’s great soothsayers, pondering the role technology will have in our evolution as a species, especially as our perceptions of gender and gender roles evolve along with it.
Titane won’t be for all tastes. That France has put it forward as the country’s entry at next year’s Academy Awards is borderline hilarious – what will the seasoned voters make of Ducournau’s callous mix of sex, murder and engine oil? Perhaps it will shudder a few of them awake. In line with its physical fascinations, it promotes visceral physical reactions. The urge to wince, to wretch, to shriek, maybe even flee. One can only imagine Ducournau’s glee, watching from the wings as we’re put through her wringer. Such outré tactics are as old as cinema, but Titane fuses them with a love story both compelling and compassionate. Classic qualities combined to peerless effect.