The French horror-thriller-whatzit Titane won’t be like any other movie you see this year. It’s the brainchild of writer-director Julia Ducournau, whose debut Raw got the world’s attention thanks to its outrageous premise: A vegetarian goes off to veterinarian school, eats meat and discovers she really likes it — so much, in fact, that she turns to cannibalism. Raw was twisted, frightening and thematically pointed, and when I interviewed Ducournau about it, she made it clear that her main character’s dark odyssey was a feminist commentary. “Female bodies portrayed on our screens and in our society [are] always either sexualized to please men or glamorized to set expectations for women,” she said. “No one can relate to that — we are only building up fantasies about the female body. I wanted to present another option. A body that sweats, that pukes, that pees.” If you were uncomfortable with a female protagonist feasting on flesh, it was your problem, not Ducournau’s.
She pushes boundaries even further with Titane, which opens Friday after winning the top prize at this summer’s Cannes Film Festival. There’s plenty going on in the film, and most of the coverage will be understandably directed at the transfixing journey undertaken by Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), the unknowable woman at the story’s center. She’s had a hard, unusual life, and it will only get more bizarre over the course of Titane, which flirts with body horror, gender fluidity and jaw-dropping titillation. (You and your friends will be talking about the sex scenes for a while — partly because they involve a car.)
The film doesn’t all work, but like Raw, it suggests that Ducournau will gladly go to extremes to provoke an audience and make them question their preconceived notions. But what might get lost amidst the film’s holy-shit audacity is its unexpectedly tender — but also outré — portrait of a father in turmoil who gets drawn into Alexia’s orbit. You’ll probably go see Titane because of Rousselle’s nervy performance, but you may leave the theater haunted by Vincent Lindon, her equally gutsy co-star.
Titane starts with a car accident. We meet young Alexia (Adèle Guigue) as she’s involved in a terrifying crash, which she miraculously survives — although it leaves her with a plate in her head and a nasty scar, a constant reminder of her near-death experience. Cut to the present, where Alexia (Rousselle), still proudly brandishing that scar, works as a model at car shows, grinding up against the automobiles in sexy outfits to appease the horny male clientele. One of the patrons decides to chat her up after the show — the clueless dope mistakenly assumes she’d be interested in a tool like him — and when he doesn’t get the hint, she kills him. But as we’re going to discover, this isn’t an isolated incident: Alexia has no problem murdering people, and because Ducournau isn’t concerned with “explaining” her character, we simply go along for the ride, fascinated but also horrified. Oh, and Alexia fucks cars, too.
Clearly, Titane is A Lot, but that’s only the film’s first act: The strangeness is amplified once Alexia realizes that the cops are after her and she needs a disguise. Normally in situations like this — at least in the movies — you’d want to disappear, become anonymous, not attract suspicion. Alexia doesn’t do this — instead, she tapes down her breasts and brutally breaks her nose, pawning herself off as Adrien, a local boy who went missing 10 years ago. Is Alexia believable as Adrien? Her hair is shorn short enough and her features adrogynous enough that the police don’t question it — and when they contact the boy’s father, Vincent (Lindon), to tell him that his long-lost son has been found, he’s so happy that he accepts this person in front of him. If the kid says he’s Adrien, then he’s Adrien as far as Vincent is concerned.
I’ve left out plenty in that plot description — the random killings, the surprise pregnancy, a performance of “Macarena” like no other — but I confess that while Titane is nothing if not daring, in its initial stages, I worried that Ducournau was merely trying to outdo Raw’s startling horror by being even more outlandish. But once you get on its wavelength — and especially once Lindon enters the picture — you begin to understand precisely what the filmmaker is driving at. In its own provocative way, Titane is a movie about finding someone who truly understands you — but also about making peace with your own weird self. In Ducournau’s fever dream, Alexia and Vincent will become an unlikely family unit, but if Alexia is the more ostensibly “odd” one of the duo, it’s only because, in our society, a man like Vincent is considered normal — what the film argues is that that’s actually what’s really fucked up.
Lindon, who turned 62 this summer, isn’t especially well-known among American audiences. He’s never crossed over into Hollywood films, although he’s a respected star in France, winning that country’s César Award for Best Actor and appearing in terrific arthouse dramas like Bastards and The Measure of a Man. But for U.S. viewers, not having much past association with Lindon actually works to Titane’s benefit — it more easily allows you to simply see him as Vincent, a sad, quiet older man who’s incredibly buff. Vincent is a fire captain, leading a company of young, hunky, ultra-macho dudes, which may be why he spends his free time injecting steroids into his ass. In a profession where machismo is everything, Vincent can’t risk losing a step to the guys who serve under him.
If Alexia is play-acting as a man as a form of self-protection, so too, in some ways is Vincent, whose super-chiseled physique took Lindon two years to create. (“Everything is more complicated when you are 62,” the actor said at Cannes. “The skin is not the same. I am too old to transform my body in three months. … I did a lot of cardio, tried not to drink or eat too much French bread.”) But as soon becomes apparent, Vincent’s ultra-jacked exterior is a way to block out the pain he’s feeling — not just over the loss of his son all those years ago, but also the wife who left him. When Vincent is around “Adrien,” he loosens up and shows a sweetness he won’t permit himself to reveal at the firehouse. He wants to demonstrate to the world that he’s still all man, but only Alexia knows the truth, finding in Vincent, ironically enough, the loving parent she never had growing up.
In her brief career so far, Ducournau has been keenly attuned to the ways in which women are scrutinized on the basis of their physical appearance and whether they’re behaving “properly.” In both Raw and Titane, her female protagonists do “gross,” shocking things — they’re the furthest thing from being “lady-like.” And she often exhibits a dim view of men, who in her movies are often ruled by their hormones and other base urges. (It’s no accident that she skillfully reduces Vincent’s fire crew to a bunch of homoerotic pretty boys, slyly torpedoing their cocksure, bro-heavy demeanor.)
All of which makes her treatment of Vincent that much more surprising and touching. Like a lot of men, Vincent is hung up on projecting a macho toughness — it’s one of the film’s darkest jokes that it’s actually him, as opposed to a woman, who’s desperately concerned about his looks. But Lindon, whose grim face often belies his characters’ gentle decency, exudes so much emotion as this broken man who refused to give up on the idea that his boy would someday be returned to him. That he believes Alexia is Adrien could be grist for easy laughs, but Titane goes for something richer, focusing on the ways that parents will entertain any number of wild delusions when it comes to their kids. The ‘roided-up Vincent wants so badly to have his son back — wants so badly to be a dad and feel complete again — that he’ll unquestionably accept that Alexia is him, even when all the guys at the firehouse know better. Vincent could be pathetic, but Lindon makes his delusion deeply moving.
Ducournau will mess with your mind in lots of ways in Titane — toying with gender roles, puncturing heteronormative conformity — but her compassionate peeling away of Vincent’s alpha-male certainty might ultimately be the most cutting gambit. For all of the film’s trippy visuals and transgressive ambitions — all leading to an over-the-top ending that’s both startling and touching — it’s one of the story’s simplest images that has stayed with me. It’s of Lindon’s befuddled mug as Vincent tries to keep up appearances, telling himself that everything’s fine now that Adrien is home. “They can’t tell me you’re not my son,” he insists to “Adrien” at one point. Serial killers and sex with automobiles are one thing — Titane’s vision of wounded masculine pride is a reminder of the truly surreal behavior going on around us all the time.