Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) had an early connection with cars. Her insistence on using her voice to mimic the rev of an engine as a young girl (played by Adèle Guigue) while her irritated father (French director Bertrand Bonello) drove was so undaunted that one day she caused him to lose control of the vehicle. The accident rendered her father mostly unscathed, and Alexia with a titanium plate implanted in her skull. It was a procedure that seemingly strengthened a curious linkage between her and metal and machine, an innate affection for something hot and alive that could never turn away Alexia’s love. As the doctor removes Alexia’s surgical metal headgear, her father looks on with something that can only be described as disdain for his child. Perhaps, it is because he knew what Alexia would become; perhaps, Alexia was just born bad.
Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning follow-up to 2016’s Raw crunches, tears and sizzles. Bones break, skin rips, libidos throb—the human body is pushed to impossible limits. It’s something that Ducournau has already proved familiarity with, but the French director takes things to new extremes with her sophomore film. Titane is a convoluted, gender-bending odyssey splattered with gore and motor oil, the heart of which rests on a simple (if exceedingly perverted) story of finding unconditional acceptance. Eighteen years following the childhood incident, Alexia is a dancer and car model, venerated by ravenous male fans aching to get a picture and an autograph with the punky, sharp-featured young woman. She splays her near-naked form atop the hood of an automobile to the beat of music, contorting and touching herself with simmering lust for the inanimate machine adorned with a fiery paint job to match Alexia’s sexuality. Pink and green and neon yellow glistens on every body (chrome or otherwise) in the showroom, but Ruben Impens’ cinematography follows Alexia as she guides us through this space where she feels most at home.
Yet back at her real home—with her parents, where she still lives—Alexia endures as the deplorable problem child. She shares space with her father but she barely exists, even when they’re in the same room or when he examines her abdomen for latent stomach pain. Alexia also possesses an inexplicable bloodlust, brought to climax (no pun intended) during an intimate moment with fellow car model Justine (Raw breakout Garance Marillier). Suddenly, as if the primal urge had lay dormant her entire life, Alexia embarks upon a brutal killing spree that causes her to assume the identity of a long-missing child while on the run from the authorities. Alexia was already familiar with inflicting violence upon others, like upon the fan who follows her to her car and professes his undying love before forcing himself onto her. Still, something in Alexia didn’t snap until later on—something that cut the final tie between her and other soft-fleshed, warm-blooded bodies.
It’s possible that this had all been catalyzed by an experience immediately following the one with the persistent fan, in which her flame-painted love interest revved its irresistible engine at her doorstep, its headlights beckoning Alexia to climb inside and give her all to it. The result of this renders Alexia’ body in a state which makes it increasingly difficult to hide that she is not the missing teenage boy Adrien that she’s disguised herself as, binding her chest and torso daily to rid herself of the feminine features she more permanently marred on her face. Her visage still fits like a misplaced puzzle piece amidst the rampant machismo of Adrien’s emotionally unstable father Vincent (Vincent Lindon) and his firefighting crew, who are just as suspicious of faux-Adrien’s arrival in Vincent’s life as they are discomforted and confused by his/her androgyny. Nonetheless, Vincent makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t care who or what Alexia is, nor how many times she tries to hurt and maim him. He wants to believe she is his child, and he loves her completely.
As Alexia slowly becomes as close to comfortable as she can in her strange new life, the film makes a sharp tonal shift from erotic thriller to family drama. Nonetheless, Titane persists as a boundary-pushing exploration of the human form, of gender performance, masculinity and isolation; Ducournau’s script is surprising, shocking, titillating at every turn. And despite her cruelty, and the relative distance from and lack of insight into her character, Alexia remains an empathetic protagonist. This is in no small part thanks to Rousselle’s commanding portrayal which astonishingly doubles as her feature debut.
Rousselle carries Alexia with a presence that is constantly under siege by flesh itself, cramped by her own skin and by others’, picking at an unending itch, tugging a pierced nipple, cracking a bone. Apprehensive of men and resentful of her status as an object of male desire. Ill at ease in her given femininity, emboldened only by her sexuality.
It’s a carnal discomfort that matches Vincent’s, eager to push his body to extremes manifesting in a crippling addiction to steroids. Vincent is similarly kept largely unknowable to the audience, notwithstanding the fact that Adrien’s mother left him sometime after Adrien went missing, and that Vincent is desperate to be loved and to love in return, regardless of whether that empty space is filled by his missing son. It all makes the increasingly bizarre relationship between Alexia and Vincent a match made in motorized heaven, a kinship that negates the paths that led them here. No, maybe we don’t know very much about Alexia and what exactly drove her to kill, or the life that Vincent led prior to Alexia’s arrival in it, but maybe we don’t need to. Still, the lifelong coldness Alexia experienced at the hands of her biological family, her father in particular, puts the concept of “nature vs. nurture,” to the test. The glances of scorn from her father are coupled by her placement in her family’s own home, as a body perceived to be as inanimate as that of a car.
But when Vincent looks at Alexia, he doesn’t see a killer, or an insufferable child, or a sex object—he doesn’t even see his son Adrien. He sees someone he can take care of; someone he can love and who can, maybe, love him back. Love, undaunted by the implemented binaries of our world and something withheld from Alexia her entire life. It was previously found only in the machines with which she shares a titanium bond, something that required death and destruction, resurrection and reinvention, in order to attain. Titane is not just 108 bloody minutes of bodily mutilation and perversion, but of blazing chaos inherent in our human need for acceptance. Ducournau has wrapped up this simple conceit in a narrative that only serves to establish her voice as one which demands our attention, even as we feel compelled to look away. Yes, it’s true what they’ve said—love will literally tear us apart.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Writer: Jacques Akchoti, Jean-Christophe Bouzy, Julia Ducournau, Simonetta Greggio
Starring: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh
Release Date: October 1, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.