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Titane: fast cars, titanium plates and inherited trauma

Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” is finishing its first month of American showing to the delight and horror of audiences. On July 13, 2021, Ducournau became the second woman to win the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival and the first woman to win this award solo. 

While this prize is a stunning achievement for the director on the festival circuit, critics have had a far broader range of opinions. A particularly uncompassionate review (1.5/5 stars) published in The Washington Post by Ann Hornaday laments that, “whatever ideas animate “Titane” feel half-baked and secondary compared with the filmmaker’s desire simply to make spectators squirm.” 

Indeed, Ducournau’s work has disturbed audiences from the start of her career. Upon the release of her debut feature, “Raw”, in 2016, paramedics were called to respond to the fainting of several audience members at a Toronto screening. “Raw”, a film Adam Gabbot elegantly summarized for The Guardian as “the all-too-common tale of a vegetarian woman becoming a cannibal after being forced to eat raw rabbit liver during a veterinarian school initiation,” also interrogates “Titane’s” horror of bodily mutilation. 

While both films are unapologetic in their disturbing nature, amounting to works of extreme cinema, they are also stunning visual, acting and narrative achievements. Expectations are denied as the film engages in complex social critiques that many leave theatres puzzling over. I will try to keep this as free of spoilers as possible.

“Titane’s” more sympathetic reviewers have noted the film’s sprawling thematic patterns and wide-ranging cultural references. At the heart of the story is Alexia, a woman with a titanium plate embedded in her skull following a childhood car accident. As an adult, she is a famous dancer on the street racing circuit. 

The film plays with the notion of trauma as a physical process, a thing that can become embedded in a person. As the narrative continues its bizarre and winding path, Alexia’s titanium implant reemerges as a salient metaphor. The horror of the film is a product of the non-agentic transfiguration of her body. Toeing the line of being taken as the film’s reality and metaphor, Alexia’s body reproduces the titanium (think “Rosemary’s Baby”) that was embedded in her as the film begins its second movement. 

She seeks refuge in the home of a firefighter—an ironic parallel to an earlier scene—and then enters the male dominated firehouse disguised as a man, all the while processing the radical changes happening to her body. The film raises questions about gender but are ultimately leaves the audience with ambiguous conclusions. The film’s most concrete ideation pertains to ideas of inherited trauma; “Titane” physically represents this process in the mutilation of Alexia’s body as the film closes out. 

Ultimately, the film moves from a shockingly and unrelentingly disturbing experience to a more measured pace—at least for a moment. In this second half, Agathe Rousselle flexes her impressive acting abilities as Alexia encounters increasingly perilous circumstances. Throughout, the film is visually stunning and compelling.

I watched the film with two friends (we were accompanied by one other couple in the AMC theatre). We discussed the film for two hours following the screening. Like its critics, we each had vastly differing reactions to the film. All enjoyed the film’s creativity and artful presentation. However, people have different tolerance levels for “Titane’s” brand of horror. If you are considering watching this film, I would try and find a theatre screening. For extreme cinema appreciators, contemporary, commercially released films of this caliber are few and far between (and I doubt it will be making a SUMO appearance this year).

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