At first, Julia Ducournau’s Titane gives us a pretty strong sense of where it is going. Like Ducournau’s last film, Raw, it uses sex and body horror to dare the viewer into looking away. You may recall that Raw ends with the shocking reveal that the hero—a young woman who discovers she is a cannibal—had her fate sealed since birth (the film implies her impulse is inherited). This is where Raw and Titane diverge: Where the former has a sense of inevitability, Titane uncannily suggests its flawed, wounded characters have the freedom to make their own destiny. Thanks to that freedom, or the suggestion of it, even the more conventional choices feel shocking.
When we first meet Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), she’s devoted to cars. They clearly fascinate her: A prologue shows a younger Alexia hugging a car shortly after she leaves the hospital, due to an auto accident that leaves her with a permanent scar on her skull. As a young woman, Alexia is a model who writhes on muscle cars during an auto show. The performances attract eager fans, including one rude young man who won’t take the hint that she does not want his attention. Her solution? Murder her admirer, then hide the body as best she can. This transgression leads to a full-on murder spree—more impulsive than calculating—until Alexia realizes she is a fugitive. Desperate to avoid arrest, she assumes the identity of a missing boy she sees on a billboard. He’s been missing so long he’s now a man, and the boy’s father (Vincent Lindon) turns up to claim him. Vincent welcomes “Adrien” into the firehouse where he’s captain, and Titane follows Alexia as she struggles to maintain this elaborate scheme.
Up until this point, Ducournau has no room for psychological realism. Alexia is a creature of pure instinct, a disturbed young woman whose only real interests are the limits of flesh and pleasure. This is never clearer than a much-discussed scene where, with no other of saying it, Alexia literally has sex with a muscle car (the gearshift plays a prominent role). To her surprise, somehow the car impregnates Alexia, creating a strain of body horror that permeates the story. She does not understand the changes in her body—her nipples leak black liquid—and so becomes an oddly sympathetic figure. The lengthy section with Vincent only compounds that feeling: She suffers as she attempts to pass for a young man, using bandages to cover her belly and her breasts, while Vincent accepts her off-putting nature. By mixing archetypes from horror and melodrama, familiar characters are made vivid through a new set of choices.
Titane also upends our expectations in formal terms. The opening sections unfold like a music video or something we might expect from Gaspar Noé, the provocateur responsible for Enter the Void and Irreversible. There are flashes of chrome and garish neon color, with Alexia moving through like a feral animal. We need that kind of stylized approach, since so many of her early choices are disturbing and alienating. By the time the film settles into Alexia and Vincent playing house, the camera and editing are slightly more traditional. That is not to say, however, that Ducournau loses her nerve. This section of the film is simply character-driven, with more dialogue than the opening act, so frenzied color would be too distracting. Lindon is key to this effect: A stalwart of French cinema, he brings effortless credibility as a tortured, hopeful man who yearns to turn his affection somewhere.
If Vincent finally connects to Alexia, it is because they share similar obsessions. Both of them push their bodies to their limit, striving for some unattainable ideal they dare not articulate. Whereas chrome and metal turn Alexia on, Vincent dominates his body through steroids. He takes them compulsively, though his body is already an impressive mix of muscle and sinew, and his first tender moment with Alexia/Adrien is when he asks for help with a dose. The limits of bodies fascinate Ducournau: she is more than aware we are stuck in meat sacks propped up by bone, and her characters yearn for more than what they are born with, even when the consequences are dire. There is an odd scene toward the end of the film where the firemen dance in the garish purple light from the earlier film. The choreography and camera placement show why Alexia and Vincent hate this display: They are tourists, whose corporeal delights do not reach transcendent highs and lows where our heroes find themselves.
There is so much going on in Titane—so much chaos interspersed with disturbing vulnerability—that it is inevitable the film is not a total success. It is bursting with ideas and symbolism, and its highs must lead to a comedown eventually. In a weird way, however, the familiar notes of melodrama are more provocative than a pure descent into horrorific madness. This film does not end with defiance or suspense, but a note of acceptance and hard-earned warmth. Ducournau front-loads the shocking stuff, forcing us to question why we care so much about Alexia and Vincent’s final scene together. Like someone beaten down by life or a wounded animal, Titane requires you to prove something before it can trust you to understand it.
Titane opens in area theaters today.