Rouselle’s performance is mostly physical, as the number of lines she has is minimal despite dominating the film’s screentime. Her extreme actions (she’s also been randomly murdering people before the present-day events of the film) perhaps overload a level of acceptability. Could she just have sex with the car, as opposed to being a serial killer who also has sex with a car? Her affectless demeanor is at first only animated by a wily will to survive and escape. Watching Alexia get in a series of bloody scrapes and misunderstanding would have been a watchable, if thin, film. Titane elevates from its technically masterful first act when Alexia commits a massacre at a coworker’s house and has to disappear. She decides to pass herself off as the long-missing son of a fire chief. The obvious complications are many, not to mention that she’s leaking oil out of her vagina and is likely pregnant with some kind of car-baby. Titane has committed to so many absurdities at this point, that the fire chief, Vincent (Vincent London), accepting a shaved-head, broken-nosed Alexia, now Adrian, as his long-lost son is the easiest buy in the film.
The introduction of new characters dilutes Alexia’s aloofness and Titane suddenly becomes a sideways family-reunion story, with Vincent deliriously overjoyed at the return of his son and Alexia receptive to male affection for the first time in her life. If Titane is about anything beyond the sheer audacity of its existence, it’s about how a failure to receive any kind of love from men leads to a warped state of being. Young Alexia had a cold father and adult Alexia was nothing more than a sex object to the men who attended her car shows. Meanwhile, the fire house is a bastion of affectionate camaraderie, not only in Vincent’s fatherly ministrations towards ‘Adrian’ but in how the firefighters talk to each other and in how they dance with each other. The level of intragender physicality between French men is unrecognizable to Americans, and as Alexia spends more time with this group and learns the trade, she visibly relaxes despite days spent with her growing breasts and belly taped tighter and tighter underneath her clothes. The completely gonzo first 30-45 minutes recedes into a bad dream, while the inevitable horror of Alexia expelling whatever’s inside her body is off in the future. Titane briefly turns into a twisted sitcom of tentative acceptance, at least before one of the funniest scenes of 2021 where Alexia remembers her car show routine and she finds the limits of what the firefighters are comfortable with.
Alongside Durcournau’s commitment to body horror is a thread of body modification that obliquely fits with the themes of affection and acceptance. Alexia’s metal plate is always visible, but so are a coworker’s body piercings and the aging Vincent’s habitual steroid use. Alexia’s modifications had to be done, but aesthetics or vanity as an excuse to adorn or juice the body symbolically places Vincent alongside his altered ‘son.’ Titane is mostly inscrutable but there’s something there in the way that Vincent’s steroid use becomes the vehicle by which he and Alexia get closer, wherein she rescues him after an injection goes wrong. I’m stretching, but the paternally rejected Alexia maybe finds something in her new paternal figure’s fear of being rejected himself, like he’s the alpha lion in danger of being usurped by a stronger underling. Raw was too thematically compact to believe that Ducournau would just throw a bunch of disconnected ingredients onscreen. Titane invites this kind of grasping by elevating itself into dark fairy tale territory, such that there has to be some kind of fable underlying whatever’s going on.
If Ducournau did, however, just want to see how much she could get away with in a single film and the experience itself is the meaning, then Titane is a rich text. An early tracking shot through one of Alexia’s car shows is pure cinematic bliss, a dizzying tour of fall-of-Rome decadence scored to the angry roars of powerful engines. Every time the lights go down, I’m hoping for exactly the kind of ecstasy that lifts the viewer out of the chair, and Titane supplies it before the ten minute mark. All the weird shit that happens after only keeps the viewer aloft, especially if they have a taste for body horror. Titane retains the can’t-look-away audacity that marked Raw, and expands on it. Ducournau goes Cronenbergian with Alexia’s pregnancy, achieving a realistic decompensation with vicious stretch marks and an otherworldly one as her skin starts to take on a metallic quality. Of her two films, Titane’s shakier on the script but an ironclad directorial effort overpowers the whys and wheretofores that the film leaves by the wayside.
So many movies are variations on a theme, especially when you watch a lot of them. The outliers and the dramatically weird automatically distinguish themselves by trying something new, and Titane is trying something new. That the try-er is someone as adept as Ducournau makes this film, and whatever she does in the future, an opening day event. She’s two-for-two, and while Titane is a slight downgrade from her debut masterpiece, the anticipation for what she’ll do next is at maximum horsepower. A-