“But I’ve seen the way
That bodies lie
And bodies tend to break.
This is not you.”
As I finished watching Julia Ducournau‘s Titane, I couldn’t help but find it ironic how the film’s early characterizations by critics almost completely misdirected my expectations about its content, tone, and intentions. For a work so thoroughly committed to questioning and at times outright resisting the unnatural rigidity of labels (namely: familial, sexual, gendered, and bodily), I found it puzzling that so many critics latched onto the film’s occasional bursts of violence as its most notable aspect to lead with in their reviews. Even the insistence of some that the film is best seen cold – that what it contains is so shockingly original that to know anything about it beforehand would surely ruin it – struck me as a misunderstanding of the film’s priorities.
Titane is original, to be sure (and almost certainly the most original work any of us will see this year), but not in the ways it has been described by most reviewers. Summarizing the film’s narrative is tricky, as it takes an exceptional number of twists and turns to arrive at the main crux of its story, most of which are wrought from a bizarre dream logic. It goes something like this: a 32-year-old woman named Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) got into a nasty car accident as a child, leaving a titanium plate in her head and a conspicuous, brain-looking scar wrapped around her ear. She lives with her emotionally distant parents and works nights as an erotic dancer for a car show. The film opens spectacularly on one of her performances, the camera gliding behind her in one unbroken take, occasionally glancing around at the other dancers as she makes her way through the crowd. Finally, we pan up to observe her own routine. Under the washed-out, menacing reverb of ‘Doing It To Death’ by The Kills, the camera captures every intoxicating detail of her as a spectacle, sweeping around her as she writhes and twerks upon the flame-painted hood of a Cadillac, seemingly more in awe of the raw energy exuded by her body than aroused.
Afterwards, as she leaves to go home, she is nearly assaulted by one of her fans before gruesomely murdering him with a large hairpin. This is where the film breaks into its most outlandish and grisly stretch, which I can only imagine is the “extreme” content so eagerly alluded to by critics, essentially following Alexia as she goes on an unexplained killing spree after learning she is pregnant from a sexual encounter with her automobile. To evade police capture, she brutally alters her appearance to look like the long-disappeared son of a firefighter named Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who takes her in without question despite her very obviously not being his son. Still with me?
From here, Titane settles down somewhat, evolving into an absurd, deeply twisted family drama as the film explores the unusual relationship between Vincent and Alexia in their newfound roles of father and son. The tonal and visual whiplash of the story’s manic unpredictability is disorienting, further complicated by both the extreme emotional distance with which Ducournau tells it and the looming dread of Alexia’s increasingly nightmarish pregnancy. As Ducournau herself explains it, she views Titane’s narrative trajectory as an arrow; she originally conceived the script in a traditional three-act structure, but realized after several drafts that such a restrictive pattern of storytelling would hold back its essential momentum.
Like Ducournau’s previous film, the delightfully demented coming-of-age cannibal flick Raw, Titane uncovers a swath of hidden anxieties and impulses with a darkly comic, icky sense of empathy. In Raw, the typical coming-of-age arc is freshly re-imagined as a carnivorous, blood-soaked odyssey about a girl learning to control her desires to literally eat people. In Titane, a pregnant serial killer and a grieving father find catharsis by becoming a surrogate family. This is obviously an incredibly reductive description of the film, but it gets at the heart of what’s so strangely and uncomfortably moving about the whole ordeal. There are genuine moments of tenderness and warmth in this film, but they’re inseparable from the violent context that wrought them and the troublesome implications they provoke. What, other than total emotional desperation and a crisis of identity, would bring these two people together? And can they – perhaps the most crucial question of the film – transcend the unnatural, absurd structure of their relationship into something pure and authentic?
The answers to these questions, along with every other question Titane dares to ask, lie with the body, which the film deems at once the essence of identity, the mediator of all expression, and the terrifying, fleshy prison we all die in. Dance, sexuality, and violence all play crucial roles for Alexia and Vincent within this framework, sometimes serving as an outlet for their raw emotion, sometimes providing a mere refuge from the pain of their inevitable transformations. The dance scenes are particularly striking, bathed in neon and backed by an incredible soundtrack that often rhymes with the elusive themes of the film with lyrics such as “doing it to death”, “bodies lie and bodies tend to break”, and “she’s not there”.
In a recent Q & A, Julia Ducournau explained that she doesn’t view her work, or art in general, as a means of providing answers to the existential questions it raises, but rather as the “same gesture, going deeper and deeper and deeper, […], shedding skins in order to get closer to a form of truth”. In the same Q & A, Ducournau was asked by an audience member how she views humanity in general. Unsurprisingly, she framed her answer as a question, one that provides both a telling window into her worldview and a useful framework in which to think about Titane: is there humanity beyond our social constructs? Like any good, uncomfortable question, Titane burrows itself deeper into your mind the longer you ponder it. It’s a messy, horrifying, magnificent work of art. I don’t think I will ever get tired of watching it.