This review contains spoilers.
French writer/director Julia Ducournau made a splash with her first feature film, 2016’s meaty psychological horror-thriller Raw. (Full disclosure: I have not yet seen this film.) Her sophomore effort—Titane—has also made a splash, winning the coveted Palme d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Titane falls undeniably and unapologetically into the category of “body horror,” drawing comparisons to the early work of David Cronenberg and even Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 cult-classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
Alexia is a young French girl who, early in the film, suffers a traumatic head injury as a result of a car crash (a crash, it should be noted, that she caused by annoying and distracting her father). Her treatment involves the installation of a titanium metal plate to replace a damaged part of her skull; the injury and the procedure leave her with an imposing spiral scar on the side of her head.
Years later, as a young woman still living at home, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) works as an exotic dancer at auto shows, writhing atop a vintage Cadillac painted with flames, while nerds and ne’er-do-wells watch her with hungry eyes, hoping to get her autograph or to cop a feel.
We soon learn that Alexia has a bizarre fetish for cars. After hours, she slips back into the convention center and, well, fucks the Cadillac, from the inside. Don’t ask me how. Soon thereafter, Alexia develops a slightly swollen belly, and begins leaking what looks like engine oil from her vagina.
Did I mention Alexia is also a serial killer? She murders would-be lovers, male and female, with whatever comes to hand: a metal chopstick/hairpin, a fire iron, a barstool—even, apparently, her bare hands. With detection by the authorities seemingly imminent and inevitable, Alexia burns down her parents’ home (with them inside), and improbably passes herself off as Adrien, a missing boy who, were he alive, would be about her age now. Adrien’s father, an aging fireman named Vincent (Vincent Lindon), is so eager to believe his son is alive, that he waives any commonsense identification measures like a DNA test or a medical exam. Vincent takes the strangely mute and androgynous “Adrien” back to his apartment at the fire station, awkwardly trying to acclimate “him” to the tightknit society of the sapeurs-pompiers, and hoping to reclaim his relationship with his long-lost “son.”
It’s hard to tell exactly what Ducournau is trying to say with Titane. It’s possible she’s not trying to say anything in particular, but rather simply offering a hypnotic, puzzling, and unsettling descent into madness and irreversible mutation. Is it the story of a young woman who has developed a mechanical fetish as a way to deal with the PTSD of a childhood auto accident? Is it the story of a young woman brain-damaged into being a psychopath by a childhood auto accident? Is it the story of a fireman so desperate to find his missing son alive that he would too-willingly accept an obvious counterfeit? Titane could be about all of these things, and while it’s compelling to look at, features simmering and sincere dramatic performances by the lead actors, and includes a number of powerful, squirm-inducing set pieces, the overall story does not cohere. Once Alexia transforms (via self-inflicted broken nose and painfully wrapped breasts and belly) into the bizarro “Adrien,” the film scarcely revisits her serial killer past (apart from a minor subplot involving a young firefighter who conveniently dies on the job soon after suspecting the truth).
Unfortunately, Titane does not pay off the intense and increasing anxiety and pain and shame that Alexia/Adrien experiences as a result of, uh, being impregnated by a Cadillac. The film certainly plays with evolving twenty-first century notions of gender and sexual identity, but the big finale offers a relatively pedestrian infantem ex machina that does not reward the viewer for his/her/their modest investment in the film’s one-hour-and-48-minute running time.