Tuesday 31 August 2021

Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021)

Back in 2016, filmmaker Julia Ducournau's first feature Raw gained much attention, and in the half-decade since its release it has steadily built up a strong cult following.  A grim tale of cannibalism that tipped its blood-drenched hat in the direction of body horror maestro David Cronenberg, Raw was fairly strong—ahem—meat, and a quite striking debut.  Having made quite a splash with her first film, Ducournau had many eyes on her as she prepared her keenly-anticipated follow-up, which was preceded by a most cryptic synopsis: "Following a series of unexplained crimes, a father is reunited with the son who disappeared ten years ago. Titane: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility".  While I don't think anyone learned a great deal from that logline—except, perhaps, that titane is French for titanium—it certainly managed to create a fine sense of mystery for a film that held on to its secrets right up until it premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Of course, as many will now know, Titane did more than just premiere at Cannes: it scooped the top prize—the Palme d'Or—and in the process became the talk of the festival; anyone fretting (or hoping) that Ducournau would stumble with her second feature can now safely turn their attention elsewhere.  While at least some of Julia Ducournau's concerns haven't really shifted on from Raw, Titane is a superior film in almost every way.  Typically, the Palme d'Or attaches a heavy weight of expectation to its winner, but Titane effortlessly lives up to its tag as the film of the most recent edition of the festival; crucially, the film has considerable replay value, and in terms of content it is some way from being as outré as the headlines have suggested.  Certainly, the film is a fairly wild ride when compared to most of the summer offerings it has recently shared the multiplex with—Titane's general release serving to highlight it as a relatively shocking title, whereas the film would have come under far less scrutiny had its distribution been limited to the arthouse circuit— but it is by no means as transgressive as the hyperbole might have you believe. 

That said, Titane isn't exactly your run-of-the-mill tale, although its automobile-heavy opening stretch may mislead those who, having bought a ticket for F9, somehow find themselves in the wrong auditorium.  Titane begins with a young girl distracting her father as he's driving along, which quite predictably results in an accident; we fast forward some years to discover that the prominently-scarred girl has grown into a woman who dances for a living.  The woman in question, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), is shown performing an exotic routine on the bonnet of a muscle car at a motor show frequented by leering young men.  See what I mean about potential confusion with F9?  Once she's finished her shift, Alexia receives an unwelcome approach from one of the show's sweaty, insistent attendees, and this ignites a gruesome murder spree.  Now on the run, Alexia decides to avoid detection by transforming her appearance in a bid to pass off as Adrien, a boy who's been missing for a decade.  Alexia cuts her hair and straps down her breasts, with both of these moves registering as merely uncomfortable, but she also decides that her nose isn't quite right; now, this part will make you wince.  Oh, and did I mention that Alexia has recently fallen pregnant?  And that the father just happens to be a car?

With the baby bump now concealed and her makeover complete, the impostor presents herself to Adrien's father, fire chief Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who appears to be the only one to overlook Alexia's hopelessly unconvincing turn as a male impersonator; the careworn Vincent, whose attempts to transform his own body involve painful-looking steroid injections, is so overjoyed by this reunion that it seems he just can't, or rather won't, see what the rest of us can see.  Lindon, as always, is terrific, while newcomer Rousselle delivers a superb performance—and she really has to, in order to keep up with her veteran co-star.  These two performers make it easy for the viewer to buy into this knowingly preposterous setup, which is propelled along by both Jim Williams' excellent score and tracks from The Zombies, Future Islands and The Kills.  With Titane, Julia Ducournau has served up a slice of audacious, supremely confident filmmaking; buckle up and let it take you where it will.

Darren Arnold

Images: Diaphana

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)

Believe it or not, half a century has now passed since the release of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's first feature film, Wat zien ik!? (aka Business is Business).  In the years since, Verhoeven has shocked audiences both in Europe (Spetters, De vierde man) and across the pond (Robocop, Basic Instinct), all the while cementing a formidable reputation as an enfant terrible with major box-office clout.  As time has gone on, Verhoeven has slowed down—perhaps understandably, given that he's now 83 years old—and significant gaps have appeared between his projects; the Dutch-language Zwartboek was his first film in six years, and a full decade would pass between its 2006 release and his return to cinemas with Elle.  While his new film, Benedetta, has appeared a mere five years on from Elle, you do wonder when Verhoeven might decide to call it a day.  It will be a pity when he does as, ever since the mid-1980s, the release of a new Paul Verhoeven film has always been something of an event, and neither his reduced output nor his return to Europe from Hollywood—it is now over 20 years since his last English-language effort, Hollow Man—has impacted on the anticipation that precedes a new Verhoeven movie.

Benedetta premiered in competition for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and while it didn't win—Titane, which will be reviewed here shortly, scooped the main prize—the film nonetheless enjoyed a high-profile outing at the first post-COVID edition of the festival.  As is almost always the case with Verhoeven's films, Benedetta is a work that sets out to ruffle more than a few feathers, yet it falls some way short of the transgressiveness of many of the director's prior films, including its immediate predecessor, the enjoyably trashy Elle.  The success of the controversial, highly successful Elle owed much to the committed performance of Isabelle Huppert, who received an Oscar nomination for her electrifying turn; I fully expected Huppert to turn up in Benedetta, and I can only speculate that the role filled by the excellent Charlotte Rampling was originally penned with Huppert in mind.  Given that Huppert played a similar part in Guillaume Nicloux's 2013 adaptation of Diderot's The Nun, perhaps it wouldn't have been the best idea for her to be cast here, if indeed she was offered the role; plus, it's always good to see Rampling at work.

Benedetta is adapted from Judith Brown's book Immodest Acts, and the title character is played one of Isabelle Huppert's Elle co-stars: the terrific Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who can consider herself very unlucky not to have been among the winners when Albert Dupontel's superb Bye Bye Morons netted a glut of César awards earlier this year.  In Benedetta, Efira's nun has been in a convent since the age of eight, and during her time there she's claimed to have been on the business end of several miraculous happenings—such as visions of Jesus and the acquisition of stigmata.  All of this is viewed with some scepticism by Rampling's stern abbess, whose demeanour grows yet more severe upon the arrival of a new charge in the form of Bartolomea (Efira's fellow Belgian Daphné Patakia), a rebellious type who wastes little time in entering into a romantic relationship with Benedetta.  On Bartolomea's frantic introduction—she's trying to escape her abusive family—the abbess points out that the convent isn't a charity, and asks the desperate girl if she has money; this frank discussion brilliantly illustrates how quick God's earthly ambassadors can be to move the goalposts when the time comes to help those in need.  1-0 to Verhoeven.

With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven has set out his stall somewhere between Jacques Rivette's stately La Religieuse and Ken Russell's scabrous The Devils, yet the end product serves up neither the emotional point of the former nor the biting critique of the latter; furthermore, Verhoeven's film doesn't give the viewer much of an opportunity to invest in its characters, despite the sterling efforts of both Efira and Rampling.  And in spite of its best efforts to offend, Benedetta feels an oddly tame, muted affair—compared to 30 years ago, the bar has been raised considerably vis-à-vis what is considered to be outré, and Verhoeven is doing little more than treading water here as he rifles through the index cards of his past successes; in all honesty, it's quite disappointing to discover that this director's attempt at nunsploitation has resulted in one of the subgenre's milder entries.  It all feels a bit reheated, and the casting of Lambert Wilson and Olivier Rabourdin only serves to recall their work in Of Gods and Men—a much more affecting tale of monastic life.  Still, for all that, Benedetta generally works as lurid, pulpy fun, which is pretty much what we all want and expect from a Paul Verhoeven film.  You won't change him now.

Darren Arnold

Images: MatejFilmu [CC BY-SA 4.0]