Film director Julia Ducournau’s “Titane,” which won France’s top film prize in the Palme d’Or, arrived to America with momentum, but failed to find a home in the states with many critics panning the film as yet another shocker flick that drifted across the Atlantic Ocean, bathed in gratuity and pretension.
There are valid reasons to dislike Ducournau’s film. “Titane” is not for everybody, and the film’s body horror — though relatively sparse — is not for the faint of heart.
But even for people who enjoy the lurid and shocking, this film likely wouldn’t appeal either. Ducournau’s sophomore film outing is also not a good Halloween date-night flick, an unfortunate fact given its theatrical run’s proximity to the holiday.
Rather, it is a deeply meaningful film, void of the gratuity that some critics have implied. “Titane” can be brutal and extreme, but it never revels in its morbidity nor does it carry the chic, articulated trajectories and aesthetic typical to shock practitioners.
When the trailer was released, many compared the cinematography to the likes of Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, known for his stark use of color and lush, stylized depiction of violence.
Ducournau’s film has some of the particular colors from the Giallo tradition, a particular movement of horror in Italian filmmaking of the late 20th century, but the violence portrayed couldn’t have been more removed from Argento’s language. The cinematography of “Titane” is messy and rough, the camera slowing down when it needs to, but otherwise uncomfortably close and claustrophobic.
The relative standard for extreme filmmaking tradition — whether it be New French Extremity in Europe or torture porn in America — can tend to be rather plain. The shocks are there, but they’re anticipated and more for the audience than they are for the film. “Titane,” by comparison, is a raw film and a difficult project.
Body horror is a much-maligned subgenre, especially after the likes of the “Saw” series and other such torture porn entries. However, if one can accept the intellectual potential of such a genre, “Titane” is on the forefront, loudly shouting the necessity of such a cinema in its depth of thought and purpose.
The plot of Ducournau’s film is best left mostly unexplained. Its first five minutes or so go like this: a young girl by the name of Alexia is forced to undergo a surgery where a metal plate is implanted in her head as the result of a car crash. From here, she develops a fixation with cars, an obsession that comes full circle many years later when she becomes impregnated by her Cadillac. The film follows her bringing the unnatural pregnancy to term.
Agathe Rousselle plays Alexia and delivers a performance at times both deeply empathetic but also surprisingly funny. The other main character in the film, Vincent, is a father and firefighter whose son was kidnapped. Vincent is played by Vincent Lindon, a rather veteran French actor.
Lindon’s portrayal of the character is also fantastic in its depth, and the film wouldn’t work without his performance’s particular vulnerability.
There is no one explanation of Ducournau’s film that reveals it in its full context, but there are certain readings which the film covers and contends with more than others.
“Titane” is a movie obsessed with reproduction, for one, but not necessarily in the classic sense that horror works through this topic, like in “Rosemary’s Baby,” for example.
One reading of Ducournau’s film attacks the gender binary. It is a film about reproduction separated from femininity. In doing so, it is also about the tenuous relationship between femininity, the socialization and construction thereof and reproduction as a mechanized process separated from that socialization.
Another tradition this film utilizes is body horror— in particular, the classic body horror of David Cronenberg — and Cronenberg’s work tended to be a kind of technological horror. The Cronenbergian metamorphosis is one of the main through lines of the film. This is, of course, a reduction, but a functional one. The body horror is always the realization that the body is nothing more than a machine and Titane focuses on that as one of its axes.
Ducournau, just as she opened up New French Extremity to a discursive female subject in “Raw,” now opens up the Cronenbergian terror to the female subject in “Titane.”
This is one avenue by which the film operates. From there, it comments on many different theoretical, literary and political traditions, but to dwell on any particular one is to ignore the achievement of “Titane.” It is a horror concerned with femininity as experienced by female subjects, a perspective that tends to be ignored.
“Titane” doesn’t require a strong stomach, though a very weak one will likely keep somebody from enjoying the film, but it does demand an open mind. It is a tangled mess of a film, the process of drawing meaning from it a careful endeavor, but that is where it hits its peak.