IFFI 2021: Under Its Visceral Images Of Body Horror, French Film Titane Has Real Heart, Film Companion

Director: Julia Ducournau
Writer: Julia Ducournau
Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh
Cinematographer: Ruben Impens
Editor: Jean-Christophe Bouzy

Titane is a tender movie about found family, about the people who recognise something worthwhile in us even as we’ve lost sight of ourselves. It just happens to take the grisliest, most violent route to this revelation, even staging a series of brutal killings in its quest to deliver what is, by the end, a life-affirming message. Sly ironies like these thrive in this year’s mesmerizing Palme d’Or winner and France’s official Oscar submission, which careens between sweetness and savagery even as writer-director Julia Ducournau’s vision stays singular, and her grip assured. In her film, a dance can turn into a brawl, and through her lens, they’re executed with the same balletic grace. Titane has a bloody, beating heart, and her method of revealing it is to peel back several layers of skin, one painful strip at a time. Ducournau’s characters undergo a particularly violent form of cinematic exfoliation, scrubbed raw and left vulnerable, but also renewed and replenished.

When Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) gets into a car accident as a child, the fragments of her skull are held together by a surgically inserted titanium plate, but Titane teases the connection between man and machine right from its opening scene, which traces the metallic guts of a car engine shot to resemble the innards of a human being. The doctor performing the medical procedure warns Alexia’s parents of potential neurological issues, at which point anyone who’s watched Ducournau’s previous feature Raw (2016) knows that horrifying bodily transformations can only result in insatiable hungers. For Alexia, this manifests as a sexual attraction to automobiles and a vicious murderous streak. One killing spree later, she impulsively decides to alter her appearance and pass herself off as the missing son of grieving firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon) to evade arrest. He takes her in, desperation clouding his judgement. Both plot developments, and Alexia’s androgynous features, point to a setting in which gender and sexuality are as fluid as motor oil, and as subject to change as the gears of a car.

It’s hard to think of another filmmaker in recent history who converts human anatomy into a sprawling cinematic canvas as effectively as Ducournau does. Her short film Junior (2011), her feature debut Raw (2016) and Titane all examine the messiness of people’s bodies and their capacity to evoke disgust, but also their ability to experience pleasure. When Alexia, working as a an automobile expo model, drapes herself across the hood of a car and proceeds to writhe across it sensually, her act is staged for the pleasure of the men watching her, but also her own. And while Ducournau has the uncanny knack of locating the razor-thin line between pleasure and pain — a shot of a mouth on a pierced nipple traverses both extremes — she also makes the case for how easily body horror can slide into physical comedy. A scene of Alexia ramming the leg of a stool into the side of a man’s face repeatedly is set to a jaunty, foot-tapping guitar rhythm, evoking morbid laughter.

Like Junior and Raw, Titane continues Ducournau’s streak of contemplative, yet viscerally disturbing studies of how the body’s flesh can betray the mind of the person inhabiting it. Vincent turns out to be more of a father to Alexia than her own father was, but the more she attempts to mould herself into the image of his son, the harder her female body rebels. The ageing Vincent attempts to defy nature in his own way, taking steroid injections so he can still perform the exercises time is robbing him of the ability to do. Titane lingers on harrowing flourishes of body horror, drawing them out as if reveling in the audience’s anticipatory flinches, but also finds the space for moments of real human connection and warmth. Part violent thriller, part dark family drama, the real triumph of this wild and unpredictable ride lies in how it champions the courageous act of showing up for somebody, even if we’re not quite sure what we’ll have to offer them once we get there.

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