There is always a film every year that pushes the boundaries of violence and taste beyond question. While these films generate a lot of publicity thanks to polarising reviews from critics and cinemagoers alike, these films never seem to win a lot of major awards. This year is different. Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature, Titane, took critics’ breath away at Cannes Film Festival where Ducournau won the top prize, the Palme d’Or with a film that follows serial killer, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who has sex with (and is subsequently impregnated by) a car. If this isn’t complicated enough, Alexia disguises herself as a teenage boy, Adrien, who has been missing for ten years and is taken in by his fire captain father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon) who has developed an addiction for steroids in a bid to become the man he once was. Both characters then explore differing issues with the body as they are individually manipulated by their desire to be someone else.
Directed and written by Julia Ducournau, Titane is a film that holds no punches in its plot as well as the filmmaking approach. What Ducournau does so well is allow the camera to linger as though it is an observer which serves into the horror aspect well as it makes the film completely unpredictable. As with her debut feature, Raw, Ducournau isn’t afraid to push boundaries and incorporate universal issues in her film, specifically exploring gender through the female gaze in a way that feels distinguishable among a genre that is dominated by the male perspective. There is no “final girl” in Ducournau’s films as she completely subverts the traditional horror template and instead uses body horror as a way to instigate discussions on the human body.
Newcomer Agathe Rousselle makes her mark as Alexia in a role that requires a lot of physical and emotional range. The daughter of doctors, Alexia spends her free time modelling in car shows and murdering people. When her murderous ways begin to catch up with her, she has to physically manipulate her body to disguise herself as a teenage boy, all while pregnant from a sexual encounter with a car. Rousselle is absolutely relentless in her performance and pushes herself to ensure that Alexia’s physical and mental struggle is perfectly pur across to audiences. We see the character in her prime scantily clad as she dances on the classic cars with plenty of admiring spectators waiting for her autograph. This contrasts greatly as she covers herself in bulky clothing whilst taping down her breasts and stomach to hide her pregnancy in a bid to eliminate any trace of the feminine body. Alexia is a character of little words but she doesn’t need speeches to convey how or what she is feeling and Rousselle pulls this off brilliantly in what feels the breakout performance of the year.
In support is acting veteran Vincent Lindon as Adrien’s father, Vincent, who works as a fire captain. Vincent is a man who has spent the last ten years of his life plagued by grief due to the loss of his son and dedicated his life to work, injecting himself daily with steroids in a bid to maintain a traditionally masculine body. Acting as Alexia’s pilar opposite, Lindon is vocal and emotionally vulnerable, wearing his heart on his sleeve in a bid to get his son to open up to him. His protection over Adrien threatens to be his downfall as he begins to lose respect of the fellow firefighters, even venturing down violent avenues to stop them from speculating about Alexia. Where Alexia has to disguise as the opposite gender in a bid to stay hidden, Vincent hides behind the illusion of toxic masculinity, believing that the steroids will allow him to eventually become the man he once was before his son went missing.
One of the most striking elements in Titane is the cinematography which is handled by Ruben Impens. Having worked on the cinematography for Raw, Impens was the perfect choice for Ducournau’s follow-up and the results are fantastic. Impens’ approach seems effortless while also relentless as he allows the camera to sit and show us everything where most horrors would cut away. One sequence that is particularly brilliant is when we see Alexia walk through the car showroom and observe her fellow dancers, the spectators, and the cars as she makes her way to the dressing room only for the camera to pan to a car where she is already on top doing her dance. It is this kind of seamless unpredictability that makes the film such a thrill to watch.
Another highlight in the film is the music which is composed by one of the most exciting composers working today, Jim Williams. Having previously worked on a variety of different horrors such as Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field In England as well as Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor and Ducournau’s debut film, Raw, Williams proves that he is the right person for the job and uses elements of the machinery and industrialist sounds to create a score that sounds like a new form of horror music. The music never feels like it overwhelms at any point while also timing itself perfectly so it beats in conjunction with the film. One such highlight is the explicitly named “Car Fuck” track which plays through the scene in which Alexia has her sexual encounter with the car. The score intensifies subtly building like a traditional horror track while never feeling melodramatic or parodying the genre or subject.
Titane has become one of the most discussed films of the year and with good reason. Although proving to be too overwhelming for some, Ducournau has shown that she is a filmmaker to pay attention to thanks to her modern take on body horror and how it can play into gender roles and identity. Titane is a complex film that goes much deeper than its controversial subject and is definitely a film that you won’t soon forget.
Titane is released in the UK on 31st December 2021!