The audacious body horror film (now in theaters) centers on an erotic dancer named Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who makes her money performing at car shows and murders people with a hair needle while she’s off the clock. After one such incident, she returns to work to clean herself up when a flame-painted sports car beckons. She gets inside and proceeds to fornicate with the jolting hot rod. Days later, she lactates motor oil and her belly starts to bulge.
As shocking as it may sound, “this is not a comedic moment,” French filmmaker Julia Ducournau (“Raw”) says. “It’s playing on this weird mix of tenderness and sexuality and the strangeness that goes with it, but it’s also played completely straight. That’s why I use choir (music in the scene): I wanted to add something sacred to something that could feel profane.”
Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) writhes on top of a car in “Titane.”
Alexia’s turbo-charged pregnancy is merely the jumping-off point for “Titane,” which won the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honor, the Palme D’Or, in July. Ducournau is only the second woman to earn the prestigious award in the festival’s 74-year history, after Jane Campion’s “The Piano” in 1993.
The movie boasts 86% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics calling it “demented,” “wildly original” and “really, really, really crazy.” But what makes “Titane” transcend pure shockfest is the wholesome parent-child relationship at its core.
After a particularly savage killing spree, Alexia becomes a wanted woman and is forced to disguise herself in order to evade arrest. She shaves her hair, breaks her nose, buys a sweatshirt and assumes the identity of Adrien, a boy who went missing a decade earlier. She goes to the police and claims to be the long-lost Adrien, whose father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), is still mourning his disappearance.
Through Alexia’s paternal figure, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), writer/director Julia Ducournau wanted to explore “the complexities of love, unconditional and transcendental.”
Vincent, an aging fire captain, is overjoyed that his “son” is back and takes in the curious, mostly wordless young man. Through spaghetti dinners and dance parties at Vincent’s fire station, Alexia gradually warms to the old man, who becomes the attentive father figure she never had growing up.
“I definitely wanted to make a movie about love,” Ducournau says. “I don’t like to put words on that feeling, so I knew from the start that my film would be of very few words. For me, it’s not only about father-daughter at all: It’s a mix of father-daughter, father-son, lovers, companions of misery,” and lonely people finding each other. “I wanted to portray love as it could be.”
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In addition to exploring grief and trauma, “Titane” is also a profoundly queer story. As her pregnancy becomes more debilitating and noticeable, Alexia painfully binds her breasts and stomach in order to “pass” as male. Men at the firehouse call her identity into question, insisting to Vincent that she’s not actually his son. At one point, Vincent finds her crouched in a closet wearing a sundress paired with baggy gym shorts and long-sleeved T-shirt.
“Titane” has received mixed reactions from some people in the trans and nonbinary communities. Indiewire’s Jude Dry wrote it “uses the iconography of transition in blind service of its faux-feminist fable.”
“The first (goal) was to try to debunk all stereotypes linked with gender throughout the film,” says Ducournau, who saw both male- and female-identifying actors while casting the role of Alexia/Adrien. “I really felt free to explore how fluid an identity can be beyond gender. At the beginning, Vincent is trying to make her fit his own fantasy of a son. She chooses to become that son, but in the end, what makes her complete is that she’s Alexia and Adrien at the same time, and neither of them at the same time. You have this whole journey of breaking the boundaries of gender.”
“Titane” played the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals before opening in theaters earlier this month.
Rousselle is a model making her acting debut in “Titane.” Ducournau was keen to cast an unfamiliar face so audiences wouldn’t “project the gender they had seen in that person’s other films before. Then they can really move through the identity and accept each stage of (Alexia and Adrien). And I needed someone with a very androgynous look, for obvious reasons.”
The complexity of gender binaries is often reflected in the film’s arresting soundtrack. During one early scene, Alexia (as Adrien) joins Vincent in dancing to The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” after dinner, which quickly turns into a violent test of machismo as they wrestle on the floor.
“With ‘She’s Not There,’ it’s playing both for Vincent’s denial of the true identity of the person that is in front of him,” Ducournau says. “She’s not there, meaning Alexia is not there. For Vincent, this is Adrien. It has to be Adrien. And for her, it’s a step forward in how she’s leaving Alexia behind and taking a step deeper into Adrien’s life.”