At the centre of Julia Ducournau’s first film, Raw, is a car accident that starts the journey of a young student into the dark corners of her true nature . In that case, she has, like her family, a particular taste for human flesh. In Titane, there’s also a car accident at the centre of the narrative, but this time in the prologue. And instead of revealing something about our protagonist, it heightens an element that she, Alexis (Agatha Rousselle), always had in her. In this case, an emotional and physical obsession with motorised vehicles.
Due to the accident, Alexis has a titanium plaque drilled into her head. Closer to a machine, it’s easy to say the procedure leaves her emotionally stunted, but the little moment we have before this shows a child already having to deal with trauma. Her father lashes out at her for imitating car noises, and shows no remorse after picking her up from the hospital. Alexis is not who she is because of that one event. If anything, she’s now closer to her true self.
Years later, adult Alexis is a dancer in a strip club/car exhibitor, subject to awe from fans looking at her on top of a Cadillac like they are looking at the same object of desire. The body of a woman is displayed like legacy vehicles, to be idolised and not touched. We don’t know if Alexis even thinks of these implications; we know she hates people – after that first night, a violent fan attacks and she promptly kills with no shred of guilt. And we know she loves cars – to celebrate her kill, she has sex with a Buick. Not in – with.
From this act, Alexis becomes pregnant. Motor oil coming out her parts (again, like a car) in a confusing scene of Cronenbergian nightmare. Her murderous rampage continues as this seems to be her preferred coping mechanism. Alexis, an angel of death who kills everything she touches. Ducournau understands Alexis. Yes, she’s a serial killer, but there are circumstances to consider, and ultimately, she’s lost in a city of lost children. Alexis kills a girlfriend and all her flatmates in a particularly defining moment just because it felt like the easiest way to cope.
Society, though, tries to catch up on her, and she finds herself on the run from the police. To hide in plain sight she takes the identity of Adrien, a boy missing for several years who would now be 17. Like all transformations, it is painful – she tapes her breasts, and pregnancy, breaks her nose, shaves her head – but it works. The father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), accepts this son as his long lost notice without even asking for proof (“I don’t know a DNA test, do you think I don’t know my son?”).
As with all things, Titane is ambiguous about Vincent’s intentions. It’s not essential if he knows the truth or not, for playing the part of a father again is inherent to his identity. In the same sense Adrien is now himself, even with the sacrifice of hiding his every-growing bump, bruises from the tape, scarring his body as he forces himself physically to be who he truly understands to be. At the crossroads of this, Vincent gives him a chance to run away, but just one hour outside in the world – listening to how other, predatory men accost women – is enough to return to be his son willingly.
If the first half of Titane is violent and unrelenting, the second is a slow ascent away from the shadows. Adrien brings life instead of taking. Adrien connects and reacts, and even cares. They live in the Fire Station where Vincent is master (“I am God, and this makes my son Jesus”), surrounded by testosterone-filled men. The kind of men who probably objectified Alexis before, though they face their identity and cultural repression issues. In a beautiful moment, they dance shirtless to the Future Islands. Adrien joins them with his father with such pure joy I suddenly felt overwhelmed by how much I cared for these characters.
Titane is a hard film to explain but an easy one to enjoy. The fantastic elements are woven into the moral reality of the movie without making them inaccessible. There’s meaning in Alexis, with the titanium plaque in her head, dancing on top of cars and having sex with them. It means something that that connection, as incomprehensible as any other loving relationship, manifests itself physically. Ducournau’s first film was also terrific, but I feel Titane’s truth resonated louder. The last shot is the kind of vision every other filmmaker wishes to earn, and Ducournau confidently ends with it. Characters finding their peace, saying that thing they couldn’t justify before: I am here.