NYFF 2021 review: Titane (Julia Ducournau)

“Julia Ducournau makes a quantum leap in ambition and achievement with Titane and claims one for the history books.”

Very soon into Julia Ducournau’s Titane you will know whether you are attuned to its specific wavelength or not. It begins just like any other movie about a beautiful psychopathic serial killer – with a meet-cute. The protagonist Alexia’s hair is caught in the nipple ring of a girl she likes. A few romantic scenes later, Alexia murders her with a hairpin. Thirty minutes in, when Alexia realizes she is pregnant after torrid sex with a car (yes, that’s with a car, not in a car), the couple behind me promptly got up and started walking out, loudly proclaiming, “No more of this shit!” It was also the point where the rest of the audience realized they were in for something extraordinary, original, and path-breaking.

Julia Ducournau first enthralled us five years ago with the elegant shocker Raw, her feature filmmaking debut. She now makes a quantum leap in ambition and achievement with her second feature, which earlier this year saw her scale the pinnacle of world cinema by claiming a historic Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival – the first awarded wholly to a woman. Jane Campion, you might remember, had to share her Palme nearly 30 years ago with Chen Kaige, and Steven Spielberg’s stunt Palme awarded to actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in 2013 not only lessened the auteur sheen of the prize but did not meaningfully advance the cause of female filmmakers. It has been a long and bitter drought and who better to mold the path forward than Ducournau, who gives a fantastic account of herself with her scintillating intelligence and her rounded, supple-beyond-her-years filmmaking craft – at ample display in every frame of Titane.

Titane follows the aforementioned Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) – roughly the age of Jesus when he died – on the lam after leaving behind a savage trail of dead bodies. Her attempts to evade capture by the police lead her unexpectedly to the doorstep of fire captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a man fighting his own demons. When Vincent is not pumping his grotesque gym-freak body full of steroids, he’s mourning his 17-year-old missing son Adrien. Alexia metamorphoses chameleon-like into Adrien and Vincent forms a bond with her so unconditional that it will push them both to the very brink of the precipice. To say more would be to ruin one of the principal pleasures of Titane – its moment-by-moment invention.

Any straight recounting of the plot will sound bizarre, absurd and unhinged. And Titane is all of those things in the best possible sense of those terms. After all, we don’t take the privilege of being provoked lightly and we value any film that dares to stand out amid a sea of conformity. What sounds lurid in words can be sublime in images. And Titane abounds in them as it renders dreams tactile, makes hallucinations corporeal and casts Ducournau’s imagination unfiltered upon the silver screen.

The story for all its unconventionality remains wholly engrossing throughout and maintains an iron grip on audience attention. Vincent’s halting attempts to reestablish a filial bond with Alexia/Adrien throb with desperate empathy. Alexia’s escalating physical collapse as her pregnancy advances to term is suspenseful and excruciating. Her interactions with Vincent’s firemen crew of macho, beefcake muscleheads are biting and brutalizing portraits of gender dynamics. The cumulative pile-up of these bravura sequences has the momentum of a freight train. By its denouement, the film acquires an almost mythical power as we see our protagonist crawl towards her perhaps inevitable destiny. An inexorable narrative pull beckons us, just as it always has from Oedipus Rex down, and we watch, mouth agape, the final reckoning of a ruinously flawed protagonist. This is the very essence of great drama.

Titane exists at a fascinating crossroads of culture, cinema and the present moment. It is post-sex and post-gender and even perhaps post-religion and post-technology. This heady mix of ideas wisely resists interpretation, leaving the audience to make of it what they will. Some will project a religious allegory onto the movie – a twisted tale of immaculate conception. And some will find in it commentary about the infinitely wide spectrum of personal identity. The fundamentals of Titane are robust enough to bear the weight of all that audiences will project onto it. It is a bit disappointing then that at the two ends of her story, Ducournau offers explications where none are required. The stunning final shot conveys an idea that might have been better left to the audience’s imagination. And the prologue, setting up Alexia’s childhood accident and subsequent titanium plating surgery, inadequately explains her psychopathy – which would have been better left mysterious anyway.

Titane’s success as a film is in large part due to Rousselle’s miraculous performance. This wasn’t an easy role to cast and Ducournau looked at both men and women to play the part. For a first-time actress, Rousselle gives a performance of such intensity and commitment that it would proudly be the career-capper for many established stars. A gorgeous woman, Rousselle here is stripped of all vanity and appears for the duration of the film covered in scars and lacerations, dumpy clothes and an unflattering buzz cut – with almost no dialog to boot. Much is asked of her, too much some might say, and she gives it all, bringing an impossible character to vivid life with recognizably human traits and concerns.

Vincent Lindon, the towering statesman of French cinema, gives a performance unlike any other in his storied career. The inherent dignity of his performance might just wring a sob out of you. His unyielding investment in an outrageous relationship is haunting. And not to be outdone in actorly commitment, he convincingly plays a tough fire captain with a terrifically muscular physique, the result of a two-year-long workout and diet routine. He’s not quite Stallone but at 62 ably puts the French flag up for sexagenarian on-screen buffness. French auteur Bertrand Bonello, in a rare acting role, also makes an impression as Alexia’s father.

Shot during the pandemic, the film shows exemplary polish in rendering several sequences that we imagine are effects-heavy given the sci-fi and horror contours of the film. For a second film Titane’s technical proficiency is off the charts and it represents a sensationally well-crafted product that audiences worldwide, weaned on a diet of high-budget Hollywood genre fare, will have no problem embracing. After multiple stops on the fall festival circuit, and uncommonly robust box office performance in several territories, the film is heading towards an awards season with wind in its sails. It is also set to be one of the most widely seen Palme d’Or winners not named Parasite. It was selected as the French entry for the Academy Awards and we sense dates with the Oscars and the Césars in the movie’s immediate future.

Titane for a number of reasons will forever be etched into the history books. It seems like there was something in the air when it was conceived. Vincent Lindon committed without a script and agreed to train for two years for the part. Clearly he saw something in it. American distributor Neon unusually boarded ship on a French-language feature a year before a frame had been shot. It found its way into the Cannes Competition – a rare honour for a young filmmaker making their second feature – in a year with the first black president and the first female-majority jury. Cinema gods smile on some pictures and Titane is definitely one of them.