Following a serial-killing car model, this ferocious and unflinching body-horror thriller is only the second-ever movie to win a female filmmaker Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or.
Eye roll-inducingly terrible bumper stickers be damned; no one honks if they're horny in Titane. Revving when aroused is more this petrol-doused body-horror film's style, spanning characters both flesh and chrome. When she's seen writhing in fishnets atop a flame-adorned vintage Cadillac, the stony-gazed Alexia (debutant Agathe Rousselle) is working. She's titillating a Fast and Furious-style car crowd with her sexed-up display, but the car model still seems to hum with every gyration. After wrapping up, murdering a grab-happy fan with the metal chopstick keeping her hair up and then showering off the gooey, gory evidence, she's soon purring rhythmically inside that gleaming vehicle. Yes, in a plot detail that spilled the instant Titane premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Palme d'Or, this is the French car sex flick.
How does someone fornicate with an automobile? Not inside or on the waxed hood, but copulating with the vehicle itself? That's one of this pumping piston of a movie's least interesting questions, although Titane does go there. In her sophomore effort after the also-phenomenal teen cannibal film Raw, writer/director Julia Ducournau isn't too interested in those specifics. She splashes the bouncy sex scene across the screen with lights flashing, human and motor pulsating as one, and pleasure seeping like exhaust fumes, but it's hardly the picture's only point of interest. Titane isn't the first feature to flirt with carnality and cars — Ridley Scott's The Counsellor had a gas-fuelled rendezvous less than a decade ago; Crash, from body-horror godfather David Cronenberg, is also steeped in automotive eroticism. But Ducournau's addition to the parking lot shrewdly links mechanophilia with agency and control, particularly over one's feelings and body.
First, before cylinders start lustily thrusting, Titane finds the initial growls of Alexia's four-wheeled fascination via a quick race through her childhood. As a seven-year-old (fellow first-timer Adèle Guigue), she enjoys audibly rumbling along with the engine. She also likes kicking the chair in front of her, exasperating her dad (French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello, director of Nocturama and Zombi Child) into an accident. For her troubles, she gets a plate of the titular element inserted in her cracked skull. That steely stare matches the alloy in her head even then. From the outset, Ducournau pairs blood and metal, reshaping her central figure while laying bare her vulnerabilities. She kicks her film into a gear it'll keep shifting into again and again, too, because this is a movie about modifications: physically, emotionally and while trying to claim one's own sense of self.
Titane isn't just the French car sex film, clearly. It isn't merely a car sex movie about a woman partly forged from titanium, and with a penchant for piercing her way through those who block her road. Nor is it simply the French car pregnancy flick, with Alexia and the Caddy's tryst bearing fruit — a condition she tries to conceal, especially after more deaths lead her to Vincent (Vincent Lindon, At War), a fire chief who takes her in as his long-missing son. If Ducournau had made her script out of metal, she'd be moulding it in its molten form. She'd be letting it bubble; key to Titane's blistering appeal is its eagerness to let things boil, then brim over, because the feelings and ideas it works with are that scorching. If her feature was a car instead, it'd be that libidinous, fire-emblazoned Cadillac, which arrives with a bang, lures Alexia in and then lets loose.
Actually, perhaps Titane would be the oily belly of the hulking vehicle that gets its biggest fan in the family way. Watching here resembles peeking under the bonnet with the engine running, seeing pulleys and belts in action, and feeling heat and energy radiate. That doesn't solely stem from the mechanical imagery, or the savage first half — where fluidly executed killing sprees, broken bodies and a watch-behind-your-hands incident of self-mutilation take on a mechanised air, too. And, it doesn't just emanate from Alexia's swelling stomach, the motor oil oozing from her breasts or, after binding down all signs of femininity in her new life, her scars. As set to both an eerie score and pitch-perfect needle drops, Titane evokes a sensation of witnessing moving parts grind, whirr, interlock and spark. The movie thrums, and it's intoxicating. It isn't always pretty, even with a neon-drenched look that'd do Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn proud, but popping the hood rarely is.
As all filmmakers aim to, that's what Ducournau does with her car porn/serial killer/secret identity/gender-bending blend. She opens up her characters, exposes what makes them run and spies what lubricates their gears. Thanks to Rousselle's stunningly physical, near-silent performance, Titane lays bare the workings of a woman who has confronted the hyper-sexualised expectations of her gender by leaning in, and by stabbing. Alexia then grasps comfort by eschewing boundaries, and gaining a surrogate dad who's similarly trapped in his own way. As lensed with an exacting yet empathetic eye by Raw's Ruben Impens — even with its lurid blue and purple hues — Titane sees Vincent's battle to meet the macho standard, too. Shots of him injecting steroids to keep up with the younger firefighters are just as brutal as glimpses of Alexia's distended, strapped-down midsection, if not her bursts of violence.
Titane is a ferocious and unflinching thriller, and also beautiful, tender and compassionate. Amid its visceral shocks, it gleans possibilities — in embracing connections, accepting change, breaking free of everything that the world throws at you and, crucially, in seeking power in transformation. Lindon's impact, and that of his soulful, sorrowful eyes, can't be underestimated; if Rousselle is the movie's fuel, he's its oxygen. Ducournau is always in the driver's seat, though. The second woman to ever win Cannes' highly coveted top prize, she packs the film's absurdities into the boot, straps her Raw-established fascination with bodies and identity into the passenger side, puts her pedal to the metal and speeds towards her own cinematic horizon. She veers, swerves and spins along the way, but never crashes — and takes her audience on one helluva ride.