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