When it won the Palme d’Or back in 2019, on the way to total awards season domination, Parasite began the process of dismantling popular perception of what an awards film could be. Decidedly genre yet nearly unclassifiable as a whole, Bong Joon-ho’s thrilling masterpiece was a far cry from the period drama or stuffy biopic that often garners attention late in the year. If the 2019 Palme d’Or winner blurred the once rigid lines of how we contextualize film genre, the 2021 winner completely blew them up.
Titane is not particularly interested in being pinned down, nor does it seem to care about being accessible to everyone. In an era of film in which everything seems precision engineered to be as inoffensive to broad taste as possible, writer/director Julia Ducournau’s (Raw) devilish mind bender is a refreshing change of pace.
Our first introduction to Alexia is as a child. Her boundless energy is palpable as she emulates the revving of a car engine. That youthful exuberance endears a character that will become tougher to relate to as the film carries on, but it is already too much for her father (Bertrand Bonello). His frustrations with Alexia in the earliest moments of Titane, resulting in a terrible crash and a titanium plate being inserted into his daughter’s skull.
Trauma of the past reverberates forward and when we next see Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) she passes her time dancing at car shows and has developed a taste for metal and a habit of violence. Without giving too much away, this leads Alexia down a path that will eventually cross with Vincent (Vincent London), a still grieving firefighter whose son went missing a decade earlier.
Simply trying to balance those two worlds, vastly divergent in tone but still akin emotively, forces Titane to expand the boundaries of traditional genre. Some of the most gruesome scenes double as the most humorous, the most tense equally deep of heart. Ducournau does not limit her film to and in doing so unleashes a cinematic assault on the senses unlike anything in recent memory.
To talk of Titane as simply sensory overload is to do it a disservice though as every frame is carefully curated. In an early moment the camera slyly tails Alexia through a raucous garage. Just as she turns to reveal the lion adorning the back of her jacket, the engine of an adjacent car roars to life. It’s a small thing but in that moment so much is exposed about Alexia’s ferocity and mechanical nature. Ducournau similarly uses every visual tool at her disposal throughout the film to explore its ideas.
Those ideas are profound themselves. Titane is best experienced by unspoiled eyes so this review wont take that away. What can be said is that Ducournau’s film aggressively interrogates identity and the ways we can and cannot alter our own. Alexia’s journey paints the portrait of a broken young woman literally stitched together. In her intertwining with Vincent, we see how the jagged edges of people can be of a piece.
Titane certainly is not a film for everyone, it isn’t meant to be. At times gratuitously violent, the gore alone will put off a large swath of film goers. Add to that the mercurial, at times downright villainous, protagonist centering the film and you end up with something that a few viewers will genuinely hate. That said, the energy Titane produces is downright electric.
Despite often dark themes and events transpiring on scree, Titane is a film drenched in not only blood, but vibrant color and light. It’s a quality that most high profile filmmaking lacks today. Blockbuster cinema is too often brooding, filmed to accentuate the grayness of every location. Titane continues in a proud French tradition of visual world building. Between dynamic camera movements and entrancing dance sequences, this is a film with a distinct sense of place.
All in all Titane is a film that manages to be equal parts deranged and devastated. Ducournau crafts a story with an undeniable identity and energy. It may not be everyone’s taste, but if it’s yours, Titane is surely one of the very best films of the year. 9/10