In kinky Cannes Film Festival sensation “Titane,” an accident survivor winds up with a metal plate in her head, wounds ooze blood as black as motor oil and a car show girl dramatically expands the definition of autoerotic climax, getting pregnant after making it in the back seat of a pimped-out Caddy … by herself.
Proving that her cannibalism-themed feature debut, “Raw,” wasn’t merely an attention-grabbing stunt, French director Julia Ducournau returns to that untamed place where appetites run dark, using the human body as a vehicle to deconstruct ideas of gender, desire and incredibly dysfunctional family dynamics. It’s a daringly queer and undoubtedly controversial ride, resulting in a most uncommon monster movie — a cross between David Cronenberg’s “Crash” and the uterine horrors of Takashi Miike’s “Gozu,” perhaps — where the main character hardly ever speaks and what Ducournau is trying to say is wildly open to interpretation.
From the beginning, it’s hard to identify what kind of antihero we’re dealing with — or even what gender the character is supposed to be. Bored in the back of the family car, short-haired Alexia kicks the driver’s seat while making low vroom-vroom sounds, prompting Dad (a cameo from director Bertrand Bonello) to lose control. The car spins and smashes against a cement guard rail, knocking the kid hard into the window and requiring a lifesaving titanium plate to be installed just above the right ear.
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Revealed to be a girl, Alexia is a human Transformer of sorts, and this implant may as well be her first upgrade. “Titane” never makes clear what impact the operation has on Alexia, but seems to revel in the idea that she’s simultaneously broken and made stronger by it. The first thing she does upon leaving the hospital is run out to the parking lot and kiss the car that nearly killed her — and then the film flashes forward a couple decades to observe her getting far more intimate with automobiles.
From this point on, Alexia will be played by tall, angular Agathe Rousselle, a model-actor whose prior work (most notably the gender-subverting short film “Looking for the Self”) toys with ideas of androgyny and seduction. Ducournau introduces this newcomer in an elaborate plan sequence, like something out of a classic De Palma movie, opening with a close-up of now-adult Alexia’s lacerated scalp — a Frankenstein scar that gives her a tough, punk cred as she struts through the crowd.
Alexia works as a dancer for hire, and the long take ends with her twerking on the hood of a flaming muscle car, a show that’s at once gymnastically impressive and a major red herring. She’s hardly the sex object such an introduction might suggest, although Ducournau continues to play tricks with that persona for most of the first act, as in the post-show group shower, where Alexia drops the soap and gets her long hair tangled in another dancer’s nipple piercing. In a more traditional horror movie, a character like this, leaving the venue after everyone else, might wind up victimized — raped or stabbed by a lusty serial killer. But that’s not at all how the night plays out, and before long, Alexia has demonstrated that she can defend herself just fine.
She may, in fact, be a lusty serial killer herself, although it’s worth pointing out that she’s far less desirous of flesh than she is of metal. Maybe it’s that titanium plate in her head. Who knows? There’s not much in the way of cinematic precedent for this story, making the movie’s logic tricky to follow at times. Her attractions, when they strike, are of an almost magnetic nature, although it’s not at all intuitive why this young pyro sets fire to her home (with her parents locked inside) and then claims to be the long-lost son of a lonely fire chief (Vincent Lindon).
With “Titane,” audiences occasionally just have to give themselves over to the movie’s demented momentum, taking whatever perverse pleasure they can from Ducournau’s willingness to push the boundaries: Alexia doesn’t stop at cutting her hair and binding her breasts, but decides to demolish her face as well, smashing it against the sink in one of the movie’s many wince-worthy moments. As if DP Ruben Impens’ velvety, high-contrast cinematography weren’t dark enough, there’s the unnerving low chanting of Jim Williams’ score to make it all sound like a Black Mass.
Lindon’s character, Vincent, enters the film relatively late, but proves to be far more relatable than its unpredictable protagonist, so audiences will almost certainly find their sympathies shifting toward him for the next two acts. Between his grotesquely bulging muscles and the painful-looking injections to his bruised buttocks (likely steroids, but never specified), the character is attempting to change his body as well — although Alexia couldn’t have known they share this tendency when she hatched her plan.
She presumably wants to escape the police, although doing so among a squad of pompiers (the studly, ultra-masculine firefighters who serve as a kind of hyper-sexualized fantasy in France) makes no sense. And then there’s the small matter of her pregnancy to conceal. Vincent so desperately wants to believe that Alexia really is his missing son that he looks past the glaring clues to the contrary, but the guys on his team aren’t convinced — nor are we. While Rousselle certainly looks striking from any angle, she doesn’t read as a dude.
Perhaps Ducournau was too effective in establishing Alexia’s female side up front, making it tough for audiences to transition when the characters decides to switch gears. We can sense the movie building to a big reveal, at which point we’ll discover whatever Alexia might be carrying in her womb, but the movie never gives us the tools to interpret that twist. It doesn’t matter if it’s a baby, a bowling ball or a bloody V8 engine when we don’t understand how it got there. With “Titane,” sometimes the shock can be enough.
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