French director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau burst upon the horror landscape back in 2016 with her excellent, cannibalistic coming of age film Raw, and it’s safe to say that fans of that movie (like me) were eagerly waiting to see what her next project would be. And I’m happy to report that Ducournau really outdid herself with her second feature film, going bigger, wilder, and much, MUCH weirder with 2021’s bizarre body horror Titane, which drew worldwide acclaim and won Ducournau the Palme d’Or at Cannes, making her only the second female director to take the top prize (the first being Jane Campion for The Piano way back in 1993).
Though comparisons to David Cronenberg’s 1996 masterpiece Crash (based on J.G. Ballard’s novel) are inevitable, they’re really not entirely fair. While Titane does feature a woman who is erotically inclined toward cars, there’s a hell of a lot more going on in Titane than that, and in fact, the film is so metaphorically rich, and so full of strange twists and turns, that you’d be hard pressed to ever guess what was going to happen next. For that reason, it’s best to go into the film more or less blind (as I did); that said, this discussion is inevitably going to spoil some plot points, so proceed with caution if you’d rather approach the movie with no preconceptions.
Journalist and model Agathe Rousselle, in her film debut, plays Alexia, a troubled woman with some even more troubling proclivities. When she was a child, she indirectly caused a car accident by distracting her father, who was driving, and her injuries necessitated the placing of a titanium plate in her head. It’s made clear that even from this very young age, Alexia was sexually aroused by vehicles, as we see her caressing her parents’ car after she’s released from the hospital.
Jump ahead several years, and Alexia is working as an exotic dancer, specializing in car shows. She performs a passionate routine on the hood of a flame-painted Cadillac, but it seems she has far less interest in the human fans who pester her for selfies and autographs after the show.
We see just how little interest when one obsessed fan follows her out to her car as she’s leaving the venue; the man confesses his undying love for her and forcibly kisses her, at which point she pulls out the sharp stick that’s been holding her hair back and rams it into his ear, gruesomely killing him.
After this, the Cadillac she danced on earlier lures her out to the garage; she climbs inside and has sex with the car. We soon discover that this act of auto-erotica has resulted in a pregnancy, complete with motor oil leaking from Alexia’s nipples. She attempts to give herself an abortion with the aforementioned sharp stick, but it doesn’t take.
The audience is later clued in to the fact that the obsessive super fan in the parking lot was likely not Alexia’s first murder, and indeed, throughout the front half of the movie, we see her trying and failing to make connections with human lovers, after which she dispatches men and women alike with a cold-blooded efficiency, tinged with a barely suppressed rage.
Alexia still lives with her parents, who are both distant and seem to have no idea what Alexia gets up to. It’s implied that there has been some sort of past abuse concerning her father, which may have been why she caused that car accident so long ago, and why she became so aloof and emotionless. At any rate, after a multiple murder incident one night in which one of the victims escapes and goes to the police, Alexia is forced to go on the run. She locks her parents in their house, burns it down, and hitchhikes to a bus station, where she is horrified to see police sketches of her face on screens all over the building.
But then, the sight of another police poster gives her a brilliant, if dastardly, idea. Ten years ago, a seven-year-old boy named Adrien LeGrand disappeared, and the age-progressed Adrien on the poster bears a superficial resemblance to Alexia. She ducks into a bus station bathroom, cuts off most of her hair, shaves off her eyebrows, breaks her own nose to give it a different shape, and tapes down her breasts and swelling pregnant belly. She goes to the police and claims to be the missing Adrien LeGrand. She is then taken home by the boy’s firefighter father Vincent, who significantly turns down the police offer of a DNA test to prove his “son’s” identity.
From there, the second half of the film is a twisted family drama interspersed with disquieting body horror, as Alexia begins to develop a peculiar relationship with her adoptive “father,” all the while fearful of what will happen when her secret inevitably comes out.
Titane is an audaciously grotesque film that explores themes of trauma, gender identity, loss of control over one’s own body, and the finding of love and understanding where one least expects it. Though it’s presented realistically, it’s more akin to a freakish fairy tale, with Alexia’s titanium skull-plate and expanding metal belly representing the detached machine she’s become, a purposeless serial killer who only begins to come back to humanity after pretending to be someone else and obtaining the unconditional love and acceptance she never had in her own life. It’s a daring, provocative piece of filmmaking that’s not for the faint-hearted, and I want to give a particular shout-out to Agathe Rousselle for her astonishing performance as Alexia. I’m going to have to side with the voters at the Cannes Film Festival who showered this one with accolades; it’s brilliant, full stop.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.