Content warning: Violence.
Contains spoilers for “Titane”
In “Titane,” a woman named Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has sex with a car.
Well, first, she kills a man with a hairpin that resembles a deadly “knitting needle” (he kissed her without consent, after all). But then Alexia has sex with a car. And then she gets back to bloody murder. She caves some guy’s head with a stool, then takes a seat, one of the stool’s legs planted in the dead man’s mouth. Take a seat and a breath. There’s a long way to go.
Also, she’s pregnant, by Cadillac.
Cannes winner “Titane” marks writer-director Julia Ducournau’s second feature. Between “Titane” and her debut “Raw,” the filmmaker establishes herself as a devout practitioner of body horror. Counter to the gore (bucketsful), these movies are rather spare — hardly the work of a dramatist. Their structure is built up from the essentials, the chassis: Through scenes that are often absolutely simple, Ducournau drives into the deep with calculus, not abandonment.
Ducournau knows exactly how to captivate viewers from beginning to end — perhaps because, with “Titane,” she starts at the end and writes her way back to the beginning. The result is something pared down to a wee germ, and the beginning of “Titane” flings itself way back to Alexia’s childhood. She’s humming like a sportscar to provoke her dad (Bertrand Bonello) while he drives. This escalates; he takes his eyes off the road, and just like that, young Alexia winds up on the operating table, titanium plates reinforcing her skull. A simple tragedy opens Pandora’s box.
Both of Ducournau’s features begin with car crashes, and the parallels don’t end there. Her work is intensely concerned with consent — the way it’s pushed, twisted and broken, along with the trust that it’s founded on. “Slut it up,” a guy shouts at some first-year veterinary students before taking their picture in “Raw.” One of the women slips a breast out. They’re happy; it’s a party. They’re also drunk. That film’s protagonist, Justine, pushes past the scene, but her face says the gaggle won’t remember the picture exists.
“Titane” has no time for naivete or college parties. Alexia has killed, and she’s on the run. To evade the law, she passes as a boy named Adrien, who was kidnapped a decade ago. She takes refuge with the missing boy’s hyper-masculine father (Vincent Lindon), who’s lonely enough to pretend she’s his son. The horror and the surprises are in the nitty-gritty, in the ways Ducournau takes the skeleton of an idea and spins it into something that elicits a squeal, wheeze or gag. It’s nothing short of outrageous, and throughout “Titane,” Ducournau applies that technique to impressionistic ends. It would spoil to say where and how Ducournau forges on, but it involves moshing, idiotic firefighters and a beautiful blurring of the binary.
Another part of Ducournau’s ingenuity is something that French director Leos Carax has done to great effect. The French have a knack for plucking a distinct face out of the blue. For Carax, it was Denis Lavant. For Jean-Luc Godard, it was Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ducournau finds Rousselle.
Rousselle, who worked as a model before her role in “Titane,” has a singular face. It is sharp and angular, the perfect canvas for Ducournau’s spiky expression of fear of masculinity. Rousselle spends large chunks of the film without dialogue; her jaw, cheekbones and eyes, especially, do the talking. Her body language is unique, morphing from insouciance to chill to tenderness effortlessly. In the film’s best moments, she’s all three at once.
In the film’s worst moments, she’s a carcass. What may keep Ducournau’s film from universal acclaim is not so much its gore but its muddiness. It’s compelling to compare “Titane” to Bong Joon Ho’s fellow Cannes-winner “Parasite,” which operates on much firmer ground in its tidy tonal messaging as well as in its pacing. Ducournau loses hold of the rope a couple times, but her movie must, absolutely, be experienced. Buckle up.