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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

Late in a film festival like Cannes, where Titane premiered, there comes a point when you want something to liven things up. You’ve seen good films – some wonderful, some perhaps masterpieces – but as a critic you are beginning to run out of adjectives, and even excellence can begin to dull with repetition. With Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature our prayers were answered: Titane smashed into the competition at Cannes like a ram raid, full of turbo-fueled energy, fuck-you bad taste and glinting murderous intent. 

We open inside the workings of an engine, like one of those old Castro GTX adverts but shot by H. R. Giger. Everything’s black, shiny and dripping. A father and his young daughter are in the car, getting on each other’s nerves. She’s making revving noises from the backseat and he keeps turning up the radio to drown her out – until the situation is resolved by a car crash.

Fitted with a titanium plate in her cranium, Alexia retains her love of cars and grows into an adult who wears her hair up to better show off the brain-like swirl of her skull scar. Played with aggressive insouciance by Agathe Rousselle, Alexia is a high-end exotic dancer, working a car show. The camera stalks her in one long swooping take as she strides through hardbody vehicles and ends with her dance, the male punters scurrying to beg autographs. Their timidity and the way the women are grinding on the cars gives the distinct impression the lads have been cuckolded by the automobiles.

Titane (2021)

It’s quickly apparent that Alexia’s enthusiasm for human contact is strictly limited, requiring either a measure of pain or some kind of metallic interface. When a fellow dancer flirts in the shower with her post-show, Alexia’s interest is only piqued once she notices her piercings. When she’s harassed in the car park by an overly insistent fan – he loves her – her response is immediate and deadly, and is only the first of many wince-inducing moments to come.

It is clear from a news report that this is not the first time around the block for this female avenger. Soon she is on the run and comes across the loopy idea of assuming the identity of a kid who has been missing for years. After some DIY facial reconstruction surgery and some chest binding, Alexia becomes Adrien, and is reunited with his fireman father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who accepts him blindly. Vincent himself is hooked on steroids and his own self-destructive machismo but is immediately and utterly devoted to Adrien, even though the subterfuge is wearing thin as Alexia’s pregnancy comes to term.

After the hit cannibal horror Raw (2016), expectations were high for Ducournau’s follow up. In Titane, she has met and surpassed them. The film looks and sounds gorgeous, with Ruben Impens’s day-glo cinematography giving way at times to something more naturalistic, and Jim Williams’s score accompanying the fervid action with its own fever dream rhythms, alternating between techno and something more operatic.

Titane (2021)

Ducournau and her fellow screenwriters Jacques Akchoti, Simonetta Greggio and Jean-Christophe Bouzy have created their own universe. Here, gender identity isn’t so much fluid as oily. The police are always late and innermost desires are acted out regardless of the cost. This is the film that David Cronenberg’s version of J. G. Ballard’s Crash should have been. It is funniest at its most murderous and is unrelenting in stripping the fetishist love of cars of its garish bodywork, revealing truly unusual lusts under the hood.

And yet the most shocking aspect of Titane is how tender and perversely romantic it is. The relationship between Vincent and Alexia develops into something exquisitely human. Lindon is perfect, with his familiar face’s soulful eyes and his battered body the color of steak tartare. As he fumbles another injection into a bruised buttock, he tells Alexia he isn’t sick, “I’m old.” For her part, Rouselle, in her first major film role, is astonishing. Her psycho-killer motorhead is all glares and angles at first but is gradually humanised by Vincent’s grief. Queerness fuels the film with its wit, and at one point in the macho firehouse Alexia stops the party with an aggressively horny dance. 

Extreme French cinema has become a genre in itself but can all too often have the effect of a faulty smoke alarm: it might wake you up with a jerk but for no real reason. Titane in contrast has an abundance to say: about gender, sexuality, family, human relationships and fetishisation. It’ll shake you, and something is definitely on fire.

Further reading

Raw – first look

Chloe Roddick hails a fresh feminine (and sororal) horror from French first feature director Julia Ducournau, set in the blank spaces of a veterinary college.

Raw – first look

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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