Similar to how Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, Jennifer Kent, and Ari Aster all secured their place in the annals of genre cinema with their debut offerings, Julia Docournau‘s bold cannibalistic horror effort Raw cemented the French filmmaker as a name to pay consistent attention to. And just as those aforementioned auteurs all swung big with their sophomore projects – and respectfully landed too – Docournau has maintained her focus on sexual identity for Titane, framing it in an auto-erotic narrative that is wildly left-of-centre but handled with the utmost of care.
The thematics of fetishism and recognition are apparent from the film’s opening minutes. A young girl, restless in the backseat of her father’s car, hums along to the sound of the engine whirring. Her father grows more and more impatient with her antics, eventually turning to scold her before they’re involved in a crash that leaves her with a titanium plate in her head.
Years on and this girl, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who proudly shows the circular scar on the side of her head as a declaration of who she is, stalks the floor of a car show, writhing on the hoods of automobiles in a “sex sells” presentation to the predominantly male clientele. Despite the energetic eroticism she displays through her dancing, both the male gaze and the intent on selling the vehicle prove to not be her focus. Something runs deeper, and as she creeps back into the warehouse after hours, we bare witness to Titane‘s off-kilter elevator pitch premise as Alexia, hands tied, jumps into the backseat of the fire-adorned car she was teasing only hours before and proceeds to fornicate with it. The car bounces as if to return the favour, leaving her bruised but satisfied.
It’s a sequence that may evoke nervous laughter from unprepared audiences. And the notion that Titane is a film basing itself around a woman who has sex with a car is enough for the masses to either turn away or laugh at in disbelief, but Docournau never allows such a premise to be treated with disrespect. There’s black humour peppered throughout – sequences of Alexia’s serial killer instincts are both deathly funny and squirmingly violent as she murders various conquests and poor bystanders – but, quite surprisingly, the material born from her vehicular coitus is tenderly handled, lending the film an emotional edge that is alarmingly sincere.
Docournau appears to be setting the film up to focus squarely on Alexia’s serial killer persona, suggesting Titane will become a woman-on-the-run thriller as news reports flash throughout mentioning the various disturbing murder scenes that she has been responsible for. But the “Missing Boy” posters also doing the media rounds prove something of a way out for the androgynous Alexia, noting that the digital ageing of said child – Adrien – resemble her, so she alters her appearance (another violently uncomfortable moment) and passes herself off to Adrien’s long-distraught father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon).
The introduction of Vincent allows the film to indulge in its many queer subtexts, with Alexia-as-Adrien having to hide her femininity – both physically and performatively – within the toxic masculinity-driven environment overseen by Vincent. The captain of a local firehouse, his world is all about the security and appearance of hyper-manliness. The band of “bros” that work underneath him can’t help but look at the slender frame of “Adrien” and react in disagreeance, though, purposely ironically, Docournau makes sure to highlight the almost-hypocritical nature of their bonding exercises, with the men all cooking and cleaning together, before one sequence explodes in an after-hours dance party where they, all shirtless too, slam together in a parade of sweat that would paradoxically turn away men of queer identification.
Vincent, however, is written in a manner that plays at odds with the virility of the men he captains. Wanting to remain the pinnacle of a masculine figure he has taken to steroid abuse, something that has riddled his body with needle marks, yet he’s not above slow-dancing with his “son”, tenderly kissing him and begging that he not be shut out, unaware that his beloved Adrien is harbouring a darker, growing secret. It’s these sequences of vulnerability and inadequacy that Docournau allows her male characters to transcend their hetero-normative framings and connect to something astoundingly real.
And this is still the “woman has sex with a car” movie.
A film that presents itself as a body horror oddity but delights in its emotional execution, Titane is truly wild and grotesque, yet also one of the most heartfelt tales put to screen this year. Docournau has crafted something beautifully assured here, with the captivating Rousselle and complex Lindon proving ever up to the task of creating wholly realised characters out of could-be archetypal descriptions.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Titane is now screening in select theatres across the United States. It is currently scheduled for an Australian theatrical release on November 25th, 2021.