There is so much to be amazed at by Julia Ducournau’s sophomore film that you would be forgiven for being taken in by the visceral angry noise presented on screen and swept away with it. Yet, when the film strips away almost all of the madness and focuses on the storytelling, that is where it really shines. There is a great film deep within Titane that would be gripping; alas, it has no interest in telling that tale and ends up being rather disappointing.
After a car accident in her childhood Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has found an unusual bond with cars. An erotic dancer, she is filled with murderous tendencies that have her on the run and in need of a haven. With the use of tape, a razor and a sink, the now pregnant (oh boy) disguised Alexis claims to be fire Captain Vincents (Vincent Lindon) long lost son Adrien. Hoping for some peace and space as she figures out her next move. Her pregnancy and a bond with Vincent plan to derail her plans.
As said, for all the extremes that Titane is seemingly intent on bringing to us, and boy does it do so with gusto. It works best and becomes far more interesting when it settles down and becomes a tense and gripping drama. Having Alexia pretending to be someone she isn’t and the parental bond that grows between her and Vincent manifest from her lie. Add in the idea of encountering the difference in how she is percieved because of her disguised gender and we have one hell of a film. It is in those moments where you fear for what will happen to either character if he finds out the truth that has you compelled. Not the body horror nor the inclination of having a very good time with a car. The ever-changing and complicated dynamic between the two is gripping enough that it almost becomes rather redundant to have had the first act be just so violent.
Again, though there are aspects of the story that work, the gender fluidity aspect is excellent. As an erotic dancer, men leer and try to take advantage of Alexia as if they own her. With fans of her asking, she remembers them from a previous event in a different city. So as a woman, she feels constrained, having to be always on her toes. However, when she comes into Vincent’s world and the men at the fire brigade, she doesn’t have to be on her toes from the sexual threat. She is Adrien now, so they treat her like an apparent scrawny man, but a man all the same.
Vincent does just the same as he tries to get some emotion and fight out of his “son”. Alexia may have lost her freedom by not being allowed out of Vincent’s sight, but she has gained something more. Acceptance. She can be her aggressive self here, and no one would bat an eyelid. This happens as she moshes away later in the film until she gets lost within herself. Yes, these men still looked at her, but for different reasons, which continues the toxic masculinity theme throughout the film.
We see other shades of toxic masculinity take place here as well. Though sympathetic as a father who wants his son back, Vincent injects himself daily with steroids, to the point where they have no effect on him and instead just feels as if he is abusing his body. To the point where his heavy breathing follows him around with each movement. He is lost in himself. So transfixed with being as fit as the young men around him, he will do anything to cheat his ageing body. He is a broken man who has focused on his body as a coping mechanism when his personal life has gone askew.
Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon are spectacular, with the confused anger rarely ever leaving Rousselle’s face until that final scene where her fears that have been trying to come to the fore are fully unleashed. It is such a strong and physically commanding performance from the actor that she compels you. Equally, with Lindon, who doesn’t even enter the fray until the second act, we have a performance that dazzles. So blinded in the hope that Alexia is Adrien, he will do whatever he can to keep his “son”. Unwilling to accept anything other than what he dreams due to his unrelenting grief, he is lives for only one person.
Trauma and grief are key themes to Titane’s success, and Ducournau and her writing consultants do marvellously when they focus on it. Alexia is disturbed by the accident and blames her father for it, and loves the car for presumably saving her. This trauma with her accident leaves a disconnect between herself and other people. It is only when she sees Vincent’s love and how he can awaken her humanity that you think she is coming around. Equally, with Vincent’s grief, he is so buried within it that he will accept any answer just to have it stop. Even if this person is not his son. He just needs the person to pretend to carry along the act with him as the thought of going back to thinking Adrien is dead is incomprehensible and would most likely cause the death of him.
Both are lonely due to their experiences, and in their own ways, they find each other. It is why Alexia stays when she has absolutely no need to, why she does what Vincent says. She has a bond with him that she has never had before, and it free’s her. That story works so well, coupled with the work of the performers and the direction, Titane becomes something special. However, that first act never leaves your mind, and while we can see how Alexia is changing, we can never care for such a callous murderer.
What rushes through your mind as you watch Titane is one question that lurches over you and the film for its entirety, what is the point of all the intense violence and mutilation. Perhaps I have quite easily missed something, and that is fine, but I have no way of explaining the pregnancy; better people will, and it will make sense, and maybe it will all click. For now, though, it simply doesn’t. It has been brought up here and will again later, but it just seems so wasteful to the story to sabotage it with such moments. It feels like two movies mashed together because they didn’t know how to start one and have a middle for another. That lacking in its coherence is often quite distracting from what should be a fairly straightforward story.
Another issue that you gather is much the point of Ducournau’s film, is that we know next to nothing about Alexia and gain no extra information about her as the film goes on. She has the accident at the beginning of the movie as a child and either already had a sense of resentment to her father beforehand, or it came out strong after the accident. Yet, we see what she does to her parents with little emotion. There is no rhyme or reason for what she is doing. We just jump in at a specific time of her life. While that is a bold narrative choice, it also leaves us feeling rather cold about her. Why should we care about this person? We are given no reason to, and until Vincent comes around, there is barely any emotional threads keeping Titane together. It is only when she meets Vincent that bond grows do we see the true Alexia; however, it is far too late to care for her due to the chaos she has left behind her. The film has gotten taken in by its spectacle and forgotten itself and undermines all the good work spread throughout.
As bold and stunning as Titane looks, Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens have provided a gorgeous film with some excellent shots. Still, it is the sound design that causes your senses the most difficulties. When we get to that scene in the bathroom with Alexia’s trust hairpin, you winch and cringe and do everything to stop the sounds that you are hearing. It is both horrendous and astonishing. Perhaps it was because I was seated in the second row where everything felt so much louder, but without a doubt, you felt every crack, gasp of pain, squelch—everything, in such a viscerally unforgettable way.
What should and could have very easily been a film about gender constraints and choosing your family ends up probably being most remembered for a woman who likes to have sex with motor vehicles and gets pregnant from one. But if you have that scene in your film, that is what people are going to remember. Is it bold? Indeed so, but at the same time, it is so utterly wasteful of a potential knock out story with tremendous performances that it feels like Vincent, like Alexia, that it needs to be something else to get by. The phrase style over substance comes to mind when thinking about Titane, which is such a shame to admit. It could have been special.
For more coverage of the 2021 London Film Festival, have a look below!
Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest
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