Julia Ducournau's Palme d’Or-winning sophomore feature is a welcome breath of nerve-shredding, fume-choked air
In her re-appraisal of J.G. Ballard’s seminal Crash, a novel in which people have sex in cars and are aroused by automobile accidents, Zadie Smith wrote that the book’s real shock comes from the fact that “technology has entered into even our most intimate human relations – not man-as-technology-forming but technology-as-man-forming.” Adapted into a film by David Cronenberg, Crash saw the auteur’s predilection for body horror stretch into new boundaries, making an explicit connection between flesh and metal.
Julia Ducournau’s nauseating new horror Titane takes this idea and runs with it, exploring the malleability and metallurgy of the human body and how our increasingly intimate relationship with technology can plunge strange and profound depths. A putrid, punk film that tests the limits of the audience’s bottle, just like Crash it invites you to take it seriously and appreciate the emotional resonance revving under the surface.
Titane opens with a young, sullen Alexia (Adèle Guigue) in the backseat of a car, her father imploring her to put her seatbelt on. When she distracts him and he crashes – resulting in a gorily filmed surgical procedure to fit a titanium plate in her skull – a cryptic bond seems to have formed between the young girl and cars. Fast forward twenty-odd years and Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is now a tattooed showgirl who writhes on car bonnets for an audience of slobby men, still harbouring a secret erotic connection to the motors she dances on. From this point the film speeds off into a series of nightmares, filled with gruesome murders, self-mutilation and sex with cars (that’s with cars, not in). After a string of such events, Alexia decides to disguise herself as Adrien, the long-lost son of troubled fireman Vincent (Vincent Lindon).
There’s a desperate sadness and comedic through-line both bubbling together in the background of Titane, making for a disorienting watch. You feel helplessly strapped in the backseat as Ducournau drives you perilously close to a cliff edge. More than its apparent provocations, however, Titane is about the bonds that can be formed between broken people. You’ll be hard pressed to find more moving, or disgusting, scenes in cinema this year than the ones shared between Lindon and Rousselle, while the former’s turn as a grotesquely muscled steroid-addict – his skin purplish, his eyes watery, trying and failing to overcome his trauma – is simply remarkable.
One only needs to look at the track titles on Jim Williams’ intoxicating original score – “Car Fuck,” “Beach Puke,” “Belly Oil,” etc. – to get an idea of the film’s viscerality. It’s a cinematic experience that leaves your nerves shredded and the metallic aftertaste of blood on your tongue. Numerous faintings and walk-outs have been reported in its festival screenings so far, but don’t let that cloud what Titane is: a genuinely moving and inventively told story of trauma, redemption and eroticism. It can, indeed, be frustrating at times, when every bizarre or grotesque decision made by the protagonists is up for individual interpretation, subliminal messages floating serenely out of reach from the maximalist aesthetics. But for a film so stuffed with tonal shifts, you can’t help but find a sincere degree of empathy for our murderous main character.
Rightfully deserving of the Palme d’Or, Titane's unashamed weirdness and unapologetic approach to storytelling is a welcome breath of fume-choked air. If there’s anything that can “save” cinema, it’s not Bond: it’s the risk-taking, conversation-starting, monstrous world of Julia Ducournau.
Titane was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 31 December.Where to watch