By Nicole Veneto
For all its skin-tearing brutality, Titane is uncharacteristically tender underneath its heavy metal shell.
Titane, written and directed by Julia Ducournau. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theater and Kendall Square Cinema.
The story goes that at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, jury president Francis Ford Coppola was so adamant against David Cronenberg’s Crash receiving the Palme d’Or (or any award for that matter) that his fellow jury members created the Special Jury Prize category just to award the film “for originality, for daring, and for audacity.” According to Cronenberg, Coppola found his controversial adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about car-crash fetishists so distasteful that he personally refused to hand Cronenberg the award at the festival’s closing ceremony. That year, the top prize went to Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, but had Coppola not been such a stubborn hold-out, Cronenberg likely would’ve walked away with the Palme for making a movie wherein people get horny over violent car accidents and — excuse my crassness — James Spader eats ass.
In this light (or headlights), it’s deliciously ironic that this year’s Palme d’Or went to Julia Ducournau’s hypersexual but surprisingly touching body-horror thriller Titane. Ducournau, who first made waves in 2016 with her cannibalistic coming-of-age feature Raw, is only the second female director to receive the prestigious award (the first being Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993). A spiritual successor to Crash, Titane is a film about how love and sexuality are forged through the steel and shiny chromium that constructs our modern world — a reflection of a society wherein the boundaries between the organically human and the machinery we harness throughout our everyday lives grows thinner with each passing day, rendering us all cyborgs in one way or another. In certain aspects, Titane manages to out-Cronenberg the King of Body-Horror himself with its viscerally graphic visuals and squirm-inducing shocks, all of which accumulate into an experience that is both jaw-droppingly bizarre to watch but heartwarming at its titanium core.
I recommend going into Titane knowing as little about it as possible, but even a summary of the film’s first 30 minutes can’t prepare you for all the twists and turns that make up the remaining 78. After causing a near-fatal car accident that cracks her head open, seven-year old Alexia has a titanium plate drilled into her skull, leaving her with a distinctively embryonic-looking scar and an unflagging attraction to automobiles. Years later, Alexia (played by model and first-time actress Agathe Rousselle in a bombshell debut) works as a sexed-up showgirl dancing at motor shows, twerking and grinding on the hoods of tricked-out Cadillacs for crowds of salivating gearheads. She also happens to be a serial killer, her weapon of choice being a metal chopstick she drives into her victims’ ear canals (echoing a line of dialogue spoken later on by a vulgar fratboy, “[I’d fuck her] even in her ear.”)
The night she murders an obsessive fan stalking her after an auto show, Alexia has a close encounter with the flame-emblazoned car she modeled with on the showfloor; the consequences gradually transform her body into something distinctively inhuman. Once Alexia’s string of murders begin to catch up with her, she assumes the identity of a long-missing boy named Adrien, whose bereft father Vincent (The Measure of Man’s Vincent Lindon in an equally stunning performance) is a steroid-abusing chief firefighter desperate for some kind of resolution to his son’s disappearance ten years ago. I won’t give anything more away, though Titane is the second movie I’ve seen this year where a woman who’s sexually attracted to inanimate objects gets down and dirty in motor oil secretions. (If New French Extremity is too, well, extreme for you, then I highly recommend Zoé Wittock’s Jumbo for a softer take on objectum sexuality.)
For all its skin-tearing brutality, Titane is uncharacteristically tender underneath its heavy metal shell. It’s really a story about (found) family and the inherently human need to care for others, no matter who they are in relation to us. This angle, along with the myriad of ways Ducournau plays with gendered embodiment, makes Titane an essential piece of queer cinema. I saw the film with my roommate Fallon (a trans woman) and we both emerged from the theater with distinct — but overlapping — senses that womanhood is a perpetual state of body-horror: the binding and reshaping of the unruly body, the oozing secretions, the swelling and malleability of the flesh, the sharp needles and phallic objects that penetrate our orifices. Above all else, Ducournau’s film demands that it be felt, be it through graphic scenes of self-mutilation or heart-wrenching moments of human vulnerability.
And in the sameway horrific car-accidents command passerbys’ morbid attention, Titane makes it difficult for audiences to tear their eyes away. Reuniting with Raw cinematographer Ruben Impens, Ducournau orchestrates a transfixing visual spectacle that focuses on supple, sweat-drenched bodies and greasy twisted metal with the same fetishistic gaze. The film opens with a darkened closeup on a car’s undercarriage, the piping and metal grates appearing like oil-blackened limbs tangled up in one another. We’re introduced to the adult Alexia in a slick long-take that trails her through the black-lit motor show floor before settling on the flaming Cadillac she gyrates on top of, The Kill’s “Doing It to Death” punctuating every provocative thud of flesh that humps its blazing hood. Jim Williams’ (who composed the music for Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor) accompanying score is just as hot-blooded, alternating between discordant strings, dark synths, and baroque choral chants.
With Ducournau’s big win, Cronenberg and his cinematic acolytes clearly got the last laugh over Coppola — in the 25-years since the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, not only has Crash been given the Criterion-reappraisal it always deserved (the same for which can’t be said of Coppola’s universally-panned Jack, also released in 1996), but its unapologetic embrace of weird, abject sexuality as onscreen spectacle has gone on to influence a whole new generation of acclaimed genre filmmakers. For obvious reasons though, I’m doubtful Titane will achieve the sort of mainstream success that the previous Palme recipient, Parasite, was able to generate. Yes, the Academy did give an Oscar to Guillermo del Toro’s horny take on Creature from the Black Lagoon not too long ago, but car fucking is still a step too far for the crowd that deemed Green Book the best movie of 2018. And that is unfortunate: Titane is heavy-metal cinema at its most provocative, but beneath its hard, cold exterior lies a heart that beats with a love of humanity in all its forms.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter for weird and niche movie recommendations.