Ben McDonald: With the gradual return of film festivals and the prospect of theaters becoming somewhat safe again, we thought that we’d take this October to talk about an exciting new release for a change (as a sidenote, please only go to a theater if you are vaccinated and feel comfortable doing so). The film we’re tackling this month is the 2021 Palme d’Or winner, Julia Ducournau‘s Titane. Titane is only the second film by Julia Ducournau, but she’s already made a huge name for herself with Titane and her first feature Raw, a twisted coming-of-age film about a vegetarian veterinarian student who realizes she has a taste for human flesh. Titane contains a lot of the same DNA as Raw, continuing Ducournau’s uniquely uncomfortable blend of grotesque body horror and tender family drama.
Broadly speaking, Titane follows a young woman named Alexia (played by Agathe Rousselle), who begins the movie as an exotic dancer who performs at car shows. We learn in the film’s brief pre-titlecard prologue that she got into a terrible car accident as a child after she distracted her dad while he was driving. The accident left her with a titanium plate in her skull and a strange, at times graphically sexual, affinity for cars. We open the film on one of her performances, in what is sure to be my single favorite movie moment of the year. Ducournau frames our introduction to Alexia in a single continuous take, tracking her as she walks across the car show and then panning up to her on a flame-painted Cadillac as she dances suggestively upon its hood to the tune of ‘Doing It To Death’ by The Kills. I gotta say, I was completely floored by this opening. I’m not sure if it was just the fact that it was the second time I’ve gone to the theater since COVID started, but the intoxicating assertiveness with which Ducournau executes this single take (not to mention the ridiculously amazing physical performance by Rousselle) made me strangely emotional the first time I saw it. It was just so refreshing and magical to see something so daring and cinematic on the big screen after all this time away.
But anyway, if it’s not obvious already, I adore this film. I’m very eager to hear your first reactions, Nick. What do you make of Titane?
Nick Davie: Firstly, let me say, Ben, you have brilliantly introduced the film; Ducournau has followed the powerful Raw with, in my opinion, a better film in Titane. The French director already feels so accomplished in her filmmaking, and Raw was enough to pique global interest in a welcomed injection of fresh ideas into body-horror genre film. I managed to catch a special presentation of the film at the London Film Festival, but I read your review Ben, which echoes many of my early reactions to the film. Despite reading your review and other early features of the film, I went into this without knowing what to expect. It is an entirely original project, and it continues Ducournau’s exploration of family dynamics in such a darkly humorous way, again. Whilst there is a good deal of stark and contrasting violence on display, the focus on such feels unwarranted; the true shock power of Titane is within its exploration of sexual boundaries in family units and with inanimate objects – cars.
Without littering spoilers throughout this discussion, I left the screening thinking, “I thought I had seen everything! I was wrong!.” Though we have been desensitized somewhat by the masterworks of Cronenberg, Carpenter, and company, Ducournau slickly throws something undoubtedly unique at audiences. In particular, body horror’s examination of identity is worked brilliantly into Titane, the transition and transgression through gender and sexuality. Themes that we have witnessed explored countless times, but here again, with Ducournau’s twisted humour, it shocks but is held well intact by the surreal laughs. In splitting the film into two halves, the first half establishes the eager turns to jump out at you with a metallic chopstick hairpin in hand; the second displays a narrative evolution. The shift in gears to a tender, emotionally vulnerable story of loss, love, and birth is the integral structure of the film.
In your review, you mentioned a recent Q&A with Ducournau and her explanation that her work will not provide existentialist ease but rather keep asking questions; I can happily say I am pleased she will continue asking questions! Though there have been obvious comparisons to Cronenberg, be it through Crash or just in a general horror genre sense, do you see any other comparisons with Ducournau or Titane to others, Ben? This film will sit with me for a good while. Have you viewed the film since your strong review? And if so, has anything else revealed itself to you? There are so many layers of Titane to unpeel.
Ben: As a matter of fact, I was so transfixed by this film the first time I saw it that I went back and saw it again that same night (although admittedly my first watch of the film was more characterized by disorientation than immediate adulation, so kudos to you for being able to take so much away from it after just one viewing). And then, two days later, I went to see it once again, this time with my parents. So in total I’ve seen it three times already, and to be completely honest I don’t think a fourth theatrical viewing is out of the question. I will certainly be seeking out a Blu-ray when it comes out on home media.
It’s funny you mention the Cronenberg comparisons, because that was something I had heard a lot about going into the film and personally felt somewhat alienated by. In the last year, I’ve come to adore Cronenberg’s work, watching much of it in quarantine, and I am absolutely in the camp that considers Crash to be one of his many masterpieces. But besides the fact that Titane is at its core something of a body horror film and ostensibly explores similar themes to Cronenberg (the melding of human flesh with technology in an often sexualized manner, the alienation of modern life, etc.), I actually found the work of Claire Denis to bear many more similarities, both in terms of the film’s tone and its odd sense of warmth. Specifically, the two films of hers that kept coming to mind while watching Titane were 35 Shots of Rum, in how the film blends tenderness and austerity in exploring a familial relationship in close-up, and High Life, in how the film begins in a hole of brutality and disassociation and slowly crawls back to something approaching humanity.
I briefly touched upon in my review that I found each and every dance sequence in this film totally enrapturing, and I think the way Ducournau uses dance to abstractly communicate the emotional state of her characters at discrete points of the film to be very Denis-like, from the opening scene I mentioned above to a moment late in the film where Alexia loosely repeats her routine as Adrien to the tune of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. I feel like when you draw a line between these two points in particular, you really get a sense of Alexia’s journey throughout the film from a place of violence and anger to a place of more open, genuine connection and empathy. In her first appearance, she’s all dressed up in seductive clothing and golden make-up. It’s perhaps the most flamboyant expression of her femininity – she’s confident and seemingly in control of every single gesture and movement she makes with her body. In her final dance, her outward appearance couldn’t be more different, dressed in plain clothing, hiding her breasts and imminent pregnancy with bindings, and repeating her previous routine but with far more gentleness and consideration. It doesn’t feel insecure, exactly, but there is a subtle shyness to it.
What I find so fascinating about this difference is how it implicitly poses the question of who Alexia really is. Over the course of the film, she’s gone through tremendous physical transformations, both in the sense of her pregnancy and her increasingly painful efforts to hide it. She’s also undergone a remarkable transformation in her humanity, starting from a place of callous murder and total disregard for human life to a state of trust and warmth with Vincent. I feel like through this dance Ducournau is pondering this contradiction between Alexia’s gradual, frightening loss of bodily autonomy and her increasing sense of empathy and connection. But again – I don’t think the film is offering any easy interpretation or answer. I don’t think Ducournau is saying anything as simple and trite as her physical transformation symbolically represents her emotional journey, but rather formulating these questions in our own heads through the sounds and imagery.
But I think I’ve rambled enough for a minute – is there anything more specific about Titane that jumped out at you? What layers, if any, of the film seemed to rise above others for you in your first viewing?
Nick: That is impressive; I am unsure if I could manage mentally and emotionally with two screenings of this on the same day! It is just so powerful, and, sorry, raw! However, I hope to see it again on the big screen when a full UK release begins, and likewise will seek out a physical purchase – which will hopefully include more footage of Vincent dancing?
It could be said that the Cronenberg comparisons are fairly lazy observations but there definitely is elements of his influence on display in Titane, and I mean that with great admiration for Cronenberg and Ducournau. In a similar fashion to the former, Ducournau does not hold back when intersecting technology with human identity, whilst surreal the sex scenes in Titane are uniquely intimate. Whilst my experience of Denis’ work is limited, the comparison to High Life feels appropriate, from the birthing of a child, the familial bond, and perhaps more on the nose, but the ‘fuck box’ scenes can be viewed almost as parodies of Titane‘s sexual encounters with the car. I found the opening car scene of Titane darkly funny but also poignantly brilliant in establishing Alexia’s relationship with cars – the sudden crash, the blend of the skull, blood, skin, and body with the car is a fitting beginning. In my opinion, it is also a great example of the influence of Cronenberg’s Crash – the crashing of the car is instigation for a sexual awakening.
The contrasting dances you mention Ben from start to final sequence do have a distinct difference, which I think is captured brilliantly through the male gaze. How the male audiences react to the two dances embodies the transgressive shift the film’s narrative takes. The opening dance where Alexia has total control over her own body and the attention of her onlooking fans in contrast to the final dance atop a fire truck, where the straight male audience, unaware of her identity, look puzzled and uncomfortable as she reenacts her previous dance slowly and shyly, with a seemingly striking acceptance of who she really is. Not only is the director playfully prodding fragile masculinity, but she also does so through a gender shift borne that eventually falls apart. A masterful combination from Ducournau, the more I think about Titane, the more I admire.
As you mentioned previously, many critics have highlighted the film’s violence as a potential trigger warning, which I accept may not be bearable for all. Whilst there are violent scenes, the body transformation itself is an act of extreme violence. The shocking methods displayed to break her nose, eye socket and hide her breasts and pregnant body with bindings is such a powerful form of body horror; it looks and feels real, painful, and bizarrely necessary. This external change takes place without many of the genre’s tropes, and it happens brutally.
In answer to your question, this is what has been on my mind since the screening – the external self-inflicted body horror that takes place is all to disguise an internal horror. This pregnancy is a) unexpected and perhaps unwanted, considering the other situations surrounding Alexia, and b) unnatural, mechanical, and metallic, a throwback to that metallic titanium plate in her head; Alexia is different. The possibilities for Ducournau’s next film feel limitless in some aspects; Raw and Titane are new leases of life for the genre. Firstly, I would love to know what your parents thought, Ben? Secondly, how do you think the film will perform during award season? Though it shouldn’t reflect the value of the film, I will be surprised if I am to see anything as original as Titane in the coming months, in a visual or narrative sense.
Ben: I’m actually not quite sure what my parents made of the film, and to be honest I’m not quite sure they know either. I certainly don’t blame them – I’ve shown them a number of the more “out there” releases from the past couple years, including the aforementioned High Life and Gaspar Noé‘s Climax, but I think even after seeing those films nothing really prepares you for how visceral and wildly unpredictable Titane is.
As to your second question about awards season – I initially thought that there’s no way France would even dream of selecting Titane for their entry for best International Feature, but this morning they actually did just that. I still have no idea how Titane is going to do with regards to non-festival awards. Although Parasite, the last Palme d’Or winner, turned into a huge international success and swept the Oscars back in early 2020, I have an exceptionally hard time seeing Titane do anything similar. For one, Titane is much more alienating and divisive than Parasite, which I would consider a genuinely populist film in that it was so incredibly well-received nearly everywhere, and even performed surprisingly well in the United States (meanwhile Titane barely broke half a million at our box offices over here).
Nick: I don’t often follow general audience reaction, but as you mention, Titane is so wildly unpredictable – it makes for exciting discourse. Credit to your parents, I think many will be disturbed by some shocking imagery, but looking past reveals the robust nature of Ducournau’s storytelling.
Again flowing into a bigger perception of audience reaction, Parasite swept many away, and rightly so, it was masterful. Titane is just as brilliant, in my opinion, but it will challenge viewers and the Academy in ways few films have; it also serves as a small reminder Cronenberg never received an Oscar nomination for so many challenging classics. Parasite was a great moment for international film (finally) being recognized amongst great American cinema, and it would be a coup for Titane to get the odd nomination. Though I don’t expect Titane to break box office records here in the UK, the film’s current critical acclaim is suggestive of a cinephile hit, perhaps.
It is baffling that only two women have won the Palme d’Or, and hopefully, Ducournau can produce plenty more fascinating horror and genre films that can push the establishment domestically and abroad. The cast of Titane also deserve praise; Agathe Rousselle oozes cool and controls a balance between punk and tender particularly well. Parasite was frustratingly not recognized internationally from an acting perspective, and though I would be surprised if Titane is also, Vincent Lindon has such a phenomenal screen presence; I sincerely hope he and Rousselle are credited in discourse at the very least.
Ben: I agree that Titane is just as masterful a piece of art as Parasite, and while I know far fewer people will ultimately seek it out, I hope this discussion will motivate at least one person to watch it. It’s truly a magnificent, challenging work, and I for one cannot wait to see whatever Julia Ducournau makes next.