Courtesy of Neon

October 31, 2021

Beauty and Bloodshed in ‘Titane’

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Titane is easily the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. The Palme d’Or winner gained notoriety and praise for its demented portrayal of love. While that sometimes gets lost in the movie’s unhinged plot, Titane’s visceral experience of blending horror and eroticism results in a thrumming crescendo of creative ingenuity.

Titane centers around Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a murderous strip-club dancer who takes on the identity of a long-missing boy named Adrien in order to escape the authorities. At risk of spoiling the movie, I should note that it is also about cars, and the companionship that accompanies the grotesqueness of the human body. It’s a lot to take on in just under two hours, but director and writer Julia DuCourneau deftly navigates her subject material with artistry, precision, compassion, discomfort and even humor. 

From a technical standpoint, Titane is stunning. In an opening scene wherein Alexia dances on top of a car, the camera sweeps around her writhing form, a mess of spandex and aluminum underneath headache-inducing stadium lights. Just as her thrusting becomes nearly unbearable, and the viewer begins to grasp her violent intentions, the camera pans upward to a wide shot of the dispersing crowd, mostly disturbed. Alexia is nothing but a spectacle to them, a passing amusement; she retains a similar relationship with her father, who views her with a detached disturbance.

Dance scenes are also a vehicle for DuCourneau to subvert expectations of gender. In Vincent’s, the father of the missing boy, fire station after hours, a crew of burly firemen gracefully sway in slow motion, bathed in pink light. DuCourneau deliberately cast professionally trained dancers to play the movie’s firemen, noting in an interview that through these graceful, almost typically feminine movements; DuCourneau said: “Somehow it becomes more of a tableaux than just a regular party.” In a later scene, the same firefighters jostle violently in a mosh pit. It is an aggressive affirmation of masculinity in which Alexia tries and fails to find comfort.

For DuCourneau, the film is rooted in a search for familial love. In her words, “The whole point with my film is to make you feel what the characters feel, but it’s hard to make you feel love, to physically feel it. So I decided to do it as a challenge and ask: can you do that with love?” . This is most evident in another dance scene between Alexia and Vincent. Set against “She’s Not There” by The Zombies, Vincent desperately seeks connection with Alexia/Adrien despite her shoddy disguise; Alexia, on the other hand, tries to kill him, but can’t quite bring herself to do it, instead quietly dodging him. 

All of this is accentuated by a brilliant use of sound. From the vibrating rev of a Cadillac to the sickening crack of a broken nose, DuCourneau pushes noise to extremes. I flinched and squirmed every time Alexia tightly binds her chest and bulging belly; even if you look away (I did), there is no respite for the agony of ribs cracking and heavy breathing, all tangible through the theater’s subwoofers. This repulsiveness is expected for DuCourneau, whose infamous debut Raw caused some viewers to feel physically ill and even pass out in theaters.

Titane, however, never feels like it uses its violence for shock value alone; as gruesome as it was, I enjoyed the murder scene when Alexia frantically slaughters her coworker. Just as she starts to pin her hair back up with her weapon (has anyone seen Killing Eve?), yet another dopey housemate bumbles in and witnesses the horror. The needle drops to “Nessuno mi può giudicare” by Caterina Caselli, a bouncy 1960s pop song, as Alexia grumbles, “How many of you are there?” and proceeds to finish the job. The best part of this dark comedy? Throughout the bloodshed, she wears a neon muscle tank that reads “Never Give Up.” Later, when Alexia brandishes her killer hairpin on another victim, he blankly asks, “Do you like to knit or something?”

My main criticism of the movie is that once Alexia moves in with Vincent, the movie’s frenetic energy plummets into a more subdued emotional drama. Maybe this is the point, but Agathe Rouselle’s quiet and withdrawn Adrien felt too separate from her assertive and unpredictable Alexia.

That said, the development of Vincent and Adrien/Alexia’s relationship adds a surprisingly tender note to the prior bloodshed. Vincent struggles with the pressures of masculinity. He routinely injects himself with steroids, his body a leathery, worn-down version of the masculine “ideal.” Eventually, Vincent collapses from the drugs, and Alexia/Adrien caresses him against the backdrop of a pepto-pink bathroom. At this moment, they both know he is deluding himself to avoid grieving for his son, but it no longer matters whether Alexia is “really” Adrien. They have simply found each other. In the soundtrack, the scene is referred to as “Bathroom Pietá.” Vincent mourns his dead son, but Alexia/Adrien resurrects his ability for compassion. Perhaps Alexia/Adrien is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary, with her seemingly impossible pregnancy. Religious allusions aside, the two soften each other’s hardened outlook on life.

After all this, I still don’t really “get” Titane, but I do find myself wondering about it every now and then. Titane is not for the faint of heart (or stomach), but for those willing to dwell in discomfort, it rewards you with surprising compassion and clear creative vision.