Director: Julia Ducournau

Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Bertrand Bonello, Myriem Akheddiou, Lais Salameh

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Titane, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning body horror film, is not for everyone. It is certainly not recommended for anyone prone to squeamishness, or for those interested only in films which show you everything at face value without any subtext at all. Like Ducournau’s feature debut Raw, Titane is not concerned with social pleasantries, but rather subverting these conventions in the context of a female body and experience seldom, if ever, shown on screen.

The film follows Alexia (an extraordinary leading debut performance from Agathe Rousselle), a woman who had titanium plates fitted into her skull following a car crash during her childhood. As an adult, her sexual attraction to cars culiminates in her work as an exotic dancer at auto shows, writhing and grinding on the vehicles that most excite her. She emits a menacing and cold persona, made all the more apparent when she murders a particularly aggressive and persistent fan who follows her after a show.

Besides strapping herself into the rear seats of a car and bouncing around in a simulated sexual experience, the only thing that seems to get Alexia off is, well, offing humans. Though she does engage with men and women, ultimately these encounters meet fatal ends. When she learns she is pregnant, literally leaking oil, Alexia’s already unhinged demeanour becomes even more untethered. After one catastrophic night, Alexia goes on the run and disguises herself as the grown form of Adrien Legrand, a boy who went missing 10 years ago.

Alexia’s metamorphosis into Adrien (strapping her swelling body with a binder, cutting her blond mullet and smashing her nose against the sink in a public bathroom) signals the film’s transition from gruesome and absurd horror-comedy to melodrama. Adrien is reunited with his bereaved fire chief father Vincent (Vincent Lindon, in a perfect casting), who believes unrelentingly that the mute and dishevelled figure before him is his long-lost son.

Hidden behind Adrien’s muteness is Alexia’s restrained rage, which could unravel at any moment. But a symmetry and something akin to kinship develops between Adrien/Alexia and Vincent. While Alexia binds her breasts and stomach, an increasingly excruciating process, Vincent self-administers injections, presumably steroids, to slow the ravages of time. Both are grappling with their somatic agency by trying to control the uncontrollable and repress the changes that are occurring in their bodies against their will. Their subliminal needs don’t measure with what their bodies are capable of, and their lack of exposure to familial affection makes any attempt at tenderness a painful and uncomfortable experience. This relationship between Alexia/Adrien and Vincent is forged by the characters’ intense emotions and corporeal contrasts, anchored by Vincent’s unconditional love for his son regardless of whether Adrien reciprocates those feelings.

What makes Titane so different—and no doubt shocking to many—is Ducournau’s refusal to frame Alexia as a victim, or to justify her violence as some sort of revenge for her past. Alexia is unrelatable to the extreme, downright detestable for most of the film, and her unorthodox sexual proclivities make her even more difficult to pigeonhole. She’s a character with very few redeeming characteristics, one who uses violence for no other reason than her deep-seated motivations. Alexia isn’t what she seems, but neither are Adrien and Vincent. They are frail characters in myriad kinds of pain, but don’t want you to know it.

The world of Titane is one of confusion and camouflaged vulnerability, where sumptuous visuals and body language often do the talking instead of dialogue. It’s cinema at its most fearless and striking, and I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like it.