Julia Ducournau’s ‘Titane’, this year’s Palme D’or winner, changes the language of film

‘Titane’ is a movie about a woman who gets pregnant after having sex with a muscle car. I’m not an expert in human biology, but I’m pretty sure that’s impossible. However, I also spent several ignorant years working as an automotive journalist, and I can say with full certainty that there are men and women alive who want to have sex with cars. So ‘Titane’ isn’t entirely a fantasy either.

This is a French film, so it’s not as neurotic about showing sex and boobs as modern American movies, though it certainly has the American fetish for brutal violence. Agathe Rouselle plays Alexia, the woman in question. She is deeply disturbed. She has a steel plate in her head because she didn’t buckle her seatbelt as a child, hence the movie’s title, which means “titanium” in French. As an adult in her early 30s, Alexia makes money by sexy dancing on muscle cars at muscle-car shows. After an encounter with a fan goes wrong, she becomes a serial killer. Then she disguises herself as a man and takes refuge in a firehouse. A grief-stricken fire chief pretends that she’s his lost son, determined to protect her from all costs from societal forces that want to imprison and kill her. These two incredibly messed-up people form a tender bond.

TITANE ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Julia Ducournau
Written by: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Agathe Rouselle, Vincent Lindon
Running time: 108 mins

This is a crazy film with exactly zero mainstream appeal. Some people have drawn a comparison to David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash,’ which is better than the Oscar-winning Crash film. Adapted from a disturbing J.G. Ballard novel, that Crash is also about car sex. But it’s about people who find erotic stimulation at the scene of fatal car crashes, not from cars themselves. Also, there’s only one car-sex scene in ‘Titane.’ The rest of the movie is about grief and also dancing and body horror. It features a gripping paramedic “jaws of life” scene and also a brutal forest fire.

I’m not entirely sure what Titane is about, to be honest. But I’m definitely sure that it’s brilliant. Director Julia Ducournau has created some sort of a dark modern feminist fairy tale. But unlike last year’s ‘Promising Young Woman,’ which was an engaging but very didactic #metoo parable, Titane seems to have a deeper and darker take on female identity. And the film’s second lead, the fire chief, brilliant played by Vincent Lindon, is much more sympathetic than Alexia, the tragic pregnant psychopath. The film’s most upright character is a beefy straight-laced firefighter who actually has the nickname “Conscience.” Titane is many things, but it’s not anti-male.

This film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and seems destined for a foreign-language Oscar nomination as well. Like the best movies, it’s really about the experience of getting caught up in a film narrative, no matter how absurd. Ducournau is totally committed to her insane premise, and builds the tension and drama, shot by shot. The movie is all set pieces, some set to music, and it doesn’t allow the audience a second to breathe.

‘Titane’ is a great movie, even if its not one I’m going to immediately recommend to my mother-in-law. It belongs on a short list with movies that change the way we look at the language of genre film. That list includes Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws, and Pulp Fiction. More recently, there’s been a small torrent of these movies, including Parasite, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, and the horror films of Ari Aster.

But Titane is different in that a female director sits at its helm, producing work as idiosyncratic and weird as anything Cronenberg or David Lynch ever did. It breaks the rules of what film narrative should do, how, and why. With full commitment, Ducournau changes our idea of what a movie should be about. She’s clearly a genius.

You might not love Titane. I don’t know if I did. But once you see it, you’ll never look at movies exactly the same again. Just don’t have sex with a car before seeing it. Or after.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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