Warning: Major Spoilers
The news coming out of the Cannes Film Festival this year felt oddly… normal. This was the first year back after the 2020 festival was cancelled because of Covid but the festival lineup seemed to be the usual mix of world cinema. In fact things seemed especially consistent this year; you didn’t hear about much of anything being booed but not a lot was being called a true knockout masterpiece either. It felt like a very “solid B+” festival… but there was one movie that really got people talking and that was Titane, the new film from the French filmmaker Julia Ducournau who had previously been known for her 2016 psychological body horror film Raw. Titane was a movie that seemed to hit the people who saw it like a truck; everything else at the festival had seemed to fit within the usual expectations of European festival fare but this movie was a big injection of genre craziness in the proceedings and the people who saw it thought it was just one of the most outlandish things they’d ever seen and it had such an impact that it ended up scoring the festival’s highest honor: the Palm d’Or. Of course I only know all of this by reputation, I wasn’t there and it would be a few months before I actually got a chance to see it and I took care to make sure I didn’t know much more because I got word that it was a film where I would be well served by diligently avoiding spoilers so I could be similarly bowled over by its secrets. That said I’m going to be taking the opposite approach to this review and am instead opting to take more of a deep dive into the experience of seeing this wild-ass movie and where it works and where it doesn’t.
The movie opens with our protagonist as a little girl who is grievously injured in a car accident and ends up having major brain surgery which involves having a metal plate stuck in her head leaving a very noticeable scar on her scalp around her right ear. We then flash forward to when this woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is in her late twenties/early thirties and has become employed as some sort of stripper who dances on top of automobiles at car shows. This apparently makes her something of a celebrity and one night a creepy fan follows her out to her car to harass her and she responds to this by killing him with a hairpin, something it’s strongly implied that she’s done before. She then goes back into the car show building after hours to take a shower and is overcome with a strange urge to go back out to the car show floor where she sees a vintage Cadillac with flame decals which inexplicably has its motor running without a driver and seems to be enticing her in its direction with its headlights. So… she makes love to the car. The anatomical details of this act are not made clear but you did read that right and it is literal in its meaning. A few days later she suddenly starts experiencing symptoms of pregnancy while on a date with a fellow car stripper and is already “showing.” For whatever reason she responds to this experience by killing the other model and suddenly realizes she has three roommates that she now also needs to kill in order to cover that up, but one gets away so now Alexia finds herself on the run lest her serial killer ways get her arrested.
Now, up to this point in the movie I was really loving it. Ducournau is a filmmaker who makes films about characters who aren’t always what you’d call “relatable” and her films often operate on a certain logic where the world around them sort of transforms to reflect their mindsets and she seems to be taking this to a bit of an extreme by making a movie about a serial killing metal fetishist. Agathe Rousselle, who has actually never starred in a film before, gives a wild and sensational lead performance and the film’s sex and violence is presented rather fearlessly (I’m kind of surprised the MPAA let them get away with an R). I was very intrigued to see where it went from there but then in kind of zagged in a direction I wasn’t expected rather than zigging and I’m not sure I liked where it went. After Alexia’s big gory three person killing spree she sees her face on a wanted poster and comes up with probably the craziest escape plan possible: she cuts her hair, intentionally breaks her nose, binds her breasts and pregnant stomach with gauze and poses as a boy who’s been reported missing for several years and is taken in by the boy’s father (Vincent Lindon. This is where the movie started to lose me. It may sound ridiculous to be on board with a movie where a woman is impregnated by a Cadillac only to then say “that’s a bit far-fetched” when she merely tries to con a grieving man but there’s a big difference between an outright flight of fantasy like that car reproduction and something that’s just kind of an implausible bit of human behavior.
Of course I have seen the documentary The Imposter and am familiar with the Frédéric Bourdin case but this situation is even a few notches of crazy beyond that. Bourdin was not a wanted serial killer, never went so far as to pretend to be someone of a different gender, certainly wasn’t hiding a pregnancy the whole time (and her “binding” technique stops making sense somewhere around the second trimester), and also didn’t have a telltale scar on his scalp that no one suddenly seems to notice. So that all seemed far-fetched but, again, this whole movie is kind of supposed to be far-fetched. I think the bigger problem here isn’t plausibility so much as the fact that this section seemed to kind of abandon a lot about the movie I was really enjoying in that first act. Alexia doesn’t appear to be a serial killer anymore, there’s little evidence of her metal fetish anymore, and the movie instead becomes this odd story about a sad man kind of being used by a con artist. At a certain point I was thinking, “wait, what happened to this lady being impregnated by the presumably demonic child from the gods of flesh and steel… why are we not focusing on that?”
Slowly but surely a lot of this does get back on track. As the film goes forward it becomes clear that this father is primarily fooled by Alexia’s ruse out of sheer grief-stricken delusion… which still doesn’t explain why she tried it in the first place, but still that is at least somewhat plausible. Eventually the film does start coming back around to the body horror provocation it started as when the pregnancy finally “comes to term” and the final childbirth scene is among the best set-pieces you’re likely to see and the film ends on the exact right note. At that point you can kind of see the why the film needed to take the diversion it did to get where it needs to go, but I still kind of feel like the gender-bending imposter sub-plot was a lesser diversion that brings down the overall movies a bit. But it doesn’t bring it down too much and there’s a lot to recommend in the overall film but of course only to the right audiences. This obviously isn’t going to be a huge crossover hit like the last Neon distributed Palm d’Or winner Parasite; it’s a movie that requires an audience that’s willing to suspend a lot of disbelief, who are amenable to genre elements, and who find extreme imagery enticing rather than repellent. In other words it’s probably not a movie I’m going to recommend to the average family member, but it’s a bold vision that will likely be pretty influential going forward and if you are someone who seeks out provocation in their cinema it’s a must-see.
**** out of Five