Unbound by genre, decency or form, French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or recipient is pulsating and passionately defiant cinema that nearly defies explanation. Or at least explanation can hardly do it justice (neither does a simple R rating); this is just something that needs to be experienced. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, but I’m not even certain the concept of like and dislike even apply to “Titane.” And don’t worry, even with the unhinged violence and gore, there’s been no reports yet of fainting in any “Titane” screenings, as was the case with her first film “Raw.”
Part of the reason why it’s so hard to explain what “Titane” is about is because it is continually changing its shape. Even the official synopsis takes a pass and simply gives a dictionary definition for the title. Ducournau’s “Titane” has shades of Lynchian-sensuality and Cronenbergian-madness, but it’s also all her own. It’s even quite funny at times.
The film begins with its focus on a girl, Alexia, who gets a titanium plate in her head after a car crash and quickly develops a lust for cars. We move to an adult Alexia, played by the beguiling Agathe Rousselle, who is a dancer in her 30s doing a job that involves writhing sensually in neon fishnets atop a muscle car adorned with flames. A fan follows her into the parking lot and when he forces himself on her, she kills him. To come down from the incident, she, well, makes love to a car.
Neither the killing nor the fling with the car are isolated incidents for Alexia. In addition to sometimes having to defend herself from predators, she is also apparently a serial killer whose weapon of choice is the single metal chopstick she uses to pin her hair back. This is all captivating enough and set to a poppy, decade-jumping soundtrack that could inspire some jealousy from Quentin Tarantino.
But the film then makes an abrupt shift — when Alexia starts amassing an on-screen body count and becomes a hunted suspect, she decides to pose as a boy (now adult) who went missing 10 years ago. She tapes down her breasts and (surprise!) pregnant belly, cuts her hair, breaks her nose and shaves her eyebrows. The boy’s dad, Vincent (Vincent London), immediately buys Alexia as Adrian. And in another gear shift, soon Vincent and Adrian are living together.
This chapter moves away from murder and sex and becomes about love and lies and acceptance (and also drugs). Vincent, in addition to being a beefy, stern leader of a group of young, male emergency responders, yearns for a connection with his long-lost son. He also seems to have a pretty bad heroin habit, but he keeps that to himself at night.
Adrian/Alexia also essentially stops speaking (though Rousselle’s eyes and movements are as feral and captivating as ever) and the film turns its focus to Vincent, who blindly accepts this stranger as his son despite all the signs that something is not right.
The oddest and perhaps most shocking thing about the whole experience of “Titane,” which again, includes impregnation by a vehicle, is that somehow you come to feel for Alexia and Vincent and their strange connection in spite of everything. It doesn’t all work, but “Titane” is a messy, provocative and wild piece with attitude and style that is never uninteresting.
“Titane,” a Neon release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language, graphic nudity, disturbing material, sexual content and strong violence. Running time: 104 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.