Written and directed by Julia Ducournau
Difficult to watch, harder to shake, and impossible to forget, Titane is high-octane divisive cinema. Is it abusive and insolent video trash or an inspired exploration of the human body, sexuality, gender, grief and familial relationships? Few opinions will fall in between, but there will always be something to be said for a film that can divide and thereby conquer.
Agathe Rousselle is called upon to deliver a guts-with-glory performance as Alexia, a dancer who moonlights as a serial killer, dispatching her victims seemingly not by design, but by careless reflex when opportunity presents itself. No explanation given or even offered, so when the bodies begin to pile up and she must finally go on the run, she finds refuge in the arms of a steroid-abusing firefighter who’s been searching for anyone to claim as his long-lost son.
While all of Titane is not for the squeamish, it’s a film of two halves with the first a gruesome spectacle where graphic violence blends with overt and aggressive sexuality (they’re inextricably connected, Ducournau seems to say), with the entire opening hour lost in the realm of the baser instincts of fucking and fighting as Alexia, like some apex swamp predator, doesn’t come alive unless its in an extreme application of her physicality.
The second half takes an almost familiar tone of reconciliation in the most fucked-up of contexts, as Alexis poses as someone else, and strikes an odd bond with Vincent Lindon’s fire crew chief, a man with a roid-raged yearning for his long-lost son. All this, Lindon’s outsized character, the mad delusion of what’s playing out in front of you, Alexis’ awkward entrance into the brotherhood of a firefighter crew, is exhilarating, especially in the wake of the wince-inducing bloodshed that filled the first half. Compared to that, Alexis masquerading amongst normalcy (and failing) has an almost easy charm.
But Titane never lets you rests, such is the intensity of Ducournau’s storytelling, jumping from extremes and always striving for those film-defining sequences that people look back on to summon the essence of a film and define it by emotional shorthand, and to list them here would be to do anyone who decides to watch it a disservice, as some things should slap you across the face without warning.
This rip-roaring mode of storytelling gives Titane a terrorizing tension, because you’re not worried about the stakes, since you’re not really sure what they are, but instead you’re worrying about what Ducournau and co. are about to throw at you next, plastering Titane from end to end with encounters that all share a sense of brutality, even if they’re strong on sentiment and less so on shock value. The pendulum swings often, and it swings hard.
Plenty won’t have the stomach for what Titane is serving, even more won’t have the patience for where the film is going, but Ducournau, realizing this kind of vision, likely won’t care. Neither should anyone else who seeks something original, antagonizing and engulfing like this acid-bath of twisted sensibilities.