In He Said/She Said, critics Joe and Valeska dissect a film in a back-and-forth email exchange. For this entry, we’re going full body horror and stolen identities with Julia Ducournau’s latest, Titane (2021).
How do you even begin to talk about a film like Titane? I saw the Cannes winner on the second day of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), needed time to process, and have basically thought about it every day for the last two and a half weeks. It’s magnificent, it’s complicated, and it’s completely different than what I thought it would be.
So perhaps that’s a good entry point. A lot of the film’s advertising has focused on the film as a spiritual successor of sorts to David Cronenberg’s Crash and while there’s certainly a sexualized element involving fetishes and automobiles, Titane is really doing its own thing.
The film’s marketing and critics alike have focused primarily on the events of the first act, which opens with adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) dancing at a car show. Back up even further and Titane technically opens with Alexia getting disfigured in a childhood car accident, resulting in a noticeable scar above one ear that she proudly exhibits via a shaved hairstyle. After the show, there’s a brief meet-cute with fellow dancer Justine (Garance Marillier, the lead in Ducournau’s Raw playing a different character with the same name), then Alexia is sexually assaulted by a man in the abandoned car park.
These early scenes establish Alexia as a force of nature: she’s strong-willed, keeps people at a distance and is prone to violent outbursts. The latter quality manifests when she strikes back against her assailant using a modified chopstick/knitting needle, killing him. She then proceeds to wash up back in the car show’s bathroom…then fucks one of the cars.
The tone, atmosphere, and even the mildly standoffish character are reminiscent of Raw, which lulls viewers into a false sense of security about what to expect from Titane. The mix of visceral violence and comedy also evokes Ducournau’s first film, resulting in several scenes that demand audiences laugh aloud or shield their eyes (the whole sequence when Alexia meets all of Justine’s many, many roommates is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year).
Then Alexia goes on the run and the whole film changes gears to become something completely different. Operating under a false identity, her burgeoning auto-baby and breasts taped down, Alexia inserts herself into the life of Vincent (Vincent London) a grief-stricken fire chief who accepts the criminal-on-the-run as his long missing son.
Titane never fully loses its sense of humour or its visceral interest in violence and pain, but the back half of the film is far more interested in exploring gender identity, loss, and familial connections (among the men of the fire station; between Alexia and Vincent; and even between Alexia and the fetus growing inside her). It’s murky and complicated, uncomfortable and challenging, and filled with frequent dance breaks that are more than mere opportunities for Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens to use slow motion to accentuate a pop song.
But Valeska, I’m hogging the mic. What are your initial thoughts on Titane and how it does and doesn’t play into expectations following Raw? What do you think of London and Rousselle’s performances? And what sequence stands out in your mind?
What stands out to me? The audacity. The sheer, unbridled, glorious, gorgeous audacity of Julia Ducournau to bestow this cursed narrative upon us, and to do it with such style and venom. From the male-gazey lens caressing the greasy curves of the underside of an automobile during the title sequence, to the jaw-dropping dance sequence in the weird warehouse car show (what even WAS that?), to the agonizingly protracted first death in the film, act one had me hopelessly hooked.
And the rest of the film, though not AT ALL what I anticipated, led me willingly through a series of absurdist cinematic experiences that I never could have imagined—and somehow made me believe in them.
Titane is a challenging (if not impossible) film to talk about, spoiler-free, for a few reasons. It’s three separate films in one. It’s an off-the-rails body horror…nestled in a slasher…wrapped in a gender-bending, disturbing-yet-heartwrenching family drama. (How this combination works so well is beyond me, but it excels.) The plot points that drive the story are so singular and shocking that revealing any one of them feels decidedly unfair. It’s a film that needs to be experienced cleanly, with a mind open to taking whatever depraved journey Ducournau deems fit. As you accurately stated during our last coffee date, Joe, it’s a film that deserves editorials, not reviews.
How did it play into my expectations following Raw? I’ll be honest—I went in with zero expectations or even knowledge of the plot, apart from the “romantic relations with a motor vehicle” piece. While, as you said, the tone of the first act felt rather familiar, I was ready and willing to follow Ducournau anywhere she wanted to take me, and it turned out to be quite a departure. And I’m still willing—I will immediately drop money to see anything she makes in the future.
The performances? Exquisite. Enthralling. But Joe—we need to talk about the music. I was thrilled to find my Spotify staples Future Islands and The Kills on the soundtrack, but good lord did the moody original score by Jim Williams (who also scored Raw) just get me.
Back to you: Will you be playing the soundtrack on repeat? Were you rooting for Alexia by the third act? And do you think she somehow found redemption through her relationship with Vincent?
I’m an absolute sucker for a good needle drop, even if my capacity to recognize the artist is basically non-existent. What I love about the myriad of dance sequences in the film is how well-integrated the music works with the narrative. Ducournau isn’t simply revelling in dance because it looks cool; she’s doing it because it’s integral to the characters and moving the story forward.
Take the pair of “all male” dance sequences at the fire hall and what they tell us about how Alexia and Vincent do—and don’t—fit into this hypermasculine world. It’s so perfectly executed, particularly when you realize how the second circles back to comment on the first.
As for “rooting” for Alexia…that’s a really tough question. I’m of the mindset that audiences don’t need to like the protagonists of films, but we do need to understand them. Alexia very firmly falls into this category: she’s like a wild, impulsive animal who does everything she can to survive, regardless of the cost. That’s understandable, even when the film shifts gears to focus on the paternal relationship she develops with Vincent. How they come to need and rely and maybe even trust one another is the heart of the film, but that relationship is mired in tragedy, trauma, and lies.
So while I don’t root for Alexia, and I frequently question her judgment, she is an endlessly fascinating and tragic character. That’s why when she circles Vincent’s orbit, they connect: they both need something so badly that they’ll lie to themselves to believe they’ve found it. Considering the fantastical places that Titane goes, it’s also shockingly empathetic because it takes the time and effort to ground its leads. These are flawed characters, but they feel real.
But, oof. Redemption? That’s a tough sell, V. Even though I didn’t want to see any harm come to her, I’m not sure anything could excuse Alexia’s actions. I like her, but she’s a straight up villain in my books…and that’s not a problem for the film at all. While Raw feels like a more cohesive text, Titane is more complicated and challenging. It’s easily one of my faves of the year: 9/10
What about you: did she find redemption in your eyes? Any thoughts about the gender politics of the fire station? And what’s your grade for Titane?
Redemption? Absolutely not. But I did wind up with some sympathy for the devil, despite myself. That’s just the power of Ducournau’s sublime storytelling.
I agree with your take on the two firehouse raves. Another significant dance scene I’d like to highlight is the one occurring in Vincent’s home, after his frustrated attempts to connect with Alexia/Adrien through speech. Desperate, tender, derisive, combative, and ultimately violent, this scene was masterfully executed and irresistibly gripping—possibly one of the most compelling sequences in terms of building the relationship between the father and “son,” at least for me.
Titane gets a 10 out of 10 from me, and will likely claim first place in my Top Ten list for 2021. Just outstanding.
Titane is now in theatres.
Want more He Said/She Said? Previously, we discussed spooky Brits in Christopher Smith’s period ghost film, The Banishing (2020).