Matthew Bowden waxes poetic about the sensual, transgressive Palme d’Or winning horror film, Titane.
Julia Ducournau’s engrossing follow-up to her 2016 debut Raw is another instance of the talented French director utilising the shock of the surface to examine human identity and its complexities. The film is archly Cronenbergian, interweaving striking body-horror and auto-erotica together, yet there is an intoxicating originality in how Ducournau offsets these genre conventions against gender identity and sexual politics.
The story follows Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), a young woman working as a dancer at a sleazy car show. The side of her head is fitted with titanium plates – the result of a childhood road accident – leaving her with a distinctive asymmetry. Really, within Alexia, the metallic, physical harshness of the automobile seems innate, there’s something inhuman about her that is only reinforced by how she careers from one fatal disaster to another. Ultimately she is forced to abandon her own body out of necessity and cross paths with Vincent (Vincent Lindon), an aging fire captain whose son Adrien has been missing for over a decade. This meeting is not a chance one, though, and Alexia’s transformation almost distracts from Ducournau’s focus on the nature of grievance, specifically how difficult and prolonged it can be.
Considering the complexity of the role and the fact that this is her feature film debut, Rousselle delivers an astonishing performance.
The first scene, in which we meet the adult Alexia, perfectly epitomises the film’s balance of surface and sensuality. We see dripping, throbbing engines filmed from low down, like some kind of gratuitous, Michael Bay-esque up-skirt shot, before the camera flips to a God’s-eye-view of Alexia, writhing rhythmically on the car’s spray-painted bonnet. Human and machine become one in their objectification – a poignant foreshadowing of the bodily changes Alexia undergoes.
Dancing becomes a recognisable motif in the film and one that seemingly contradicts, for its sensuality, the ideals of the pseudo-masculine world of firefighting that Alexia enters. Yet, at the same time, dancing is evidently the greatest joie de vivre for these servicemen during their downtime. In one spellbinding sequence towards the end of the film, Alexia reverts to her seductive, showgirl self and dances atop a fire engine to both the bemusement and wonder of the onlooking males. For Alexia, this constitutes a reclamation of her gender and identity in the face of its forced suppression.
Considering the complexity of the role and the fact that this is her feature film debut, Rousselle delivers an astonishing performance. Despite being near-mute for the duration, there’s a powerful conviction in how she shifts from cold-blooded ruthlessness to agitated vulnerability. Like her surrogate father, Vincent, physical ailment and suffering become normalised for Alexia and, to this end, Rousselle gives a performance that appears constantly on the edge of a visceral pain – whether that’s through inflicting or receiving it. It’s a turn worthy of a Palme d’Or winner.