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‘Titane’ is one of the most unsettling films of the year, making space for more than shock

If you’re trying to describe the plot of Titane to a friend, it's a grueling task. You'll probably mention vehicular sex (not in one, as such), and perhaps a string of graphic violence involving a deadly hair accessory. But beyond that, things get gloriously murky.For reference, here's the official film synopsis: "Titane: a metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility." That's all you get. Biocompatibility, indeed.This deliberate ambiguity is the brilliant ploy of Titane, one of the most-talked-about films of the year, winner of the...

If you’re trying to describe the plot of Titane to a friend, it’s a grueling task. You’ll probably mention vehicular sex (not in one, as such), and perhaps a string of graphic violence involving a deadly hair accessory. But beyond that, things get gloriously murky.

For reference, here’s the official film synopsis: “Titane: a metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility.” That’s all you get.

Biocompatibility, indeed.

This deliberate ambiguity is the brilliant ploy of Titane, one of the most-talked-about films of the year, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, France’s newly announced submission for the Best International Film Oscar, and the latest endeavor from Julia Ducournau, the director behind 2016’s gruesome feast Raw. It’s a superbly maddening, unsettling voyage through excruciating mutilation, physical restraint, gender presentation, unconventional bodily juices, the balance between subtle threat and overt violence, displaced human tenderness, and an unlikely union between human and car, all of which will leave you rattled for days.

Just as Raw delved into animalistic urges and insatiable hunger, the concept of the body lies at the heart of Titane, both the flesh-and-blood version and its metallic automotive antithesis. The film follows the exploits of Alexia, a woman with a titanium plate in her head, who finds herself on the run — after a violent happening — and so disguises herself as a man’s missing son. But that’s truly putting it basically. In fact, it hardly scratches the film’s polished surface.

With unrelentingly close cinematography from director of photography Ruben Impens, Ducournau wields shock like a carving knife, serving audiences a collection of gruesome experiences that leave a deep, lasting mark. The director’s knowing approach to impending gore often rests on a sense of collective dread, a “no, they wouldn’t, they couldn’t, fuck, it’s happening” level of unwelcome, relatable pain. A playful nipple piercing, a heavy bar stool, a metal hair stick — we all “see” it before it happens, recoiling in our seats and issuing a shared groan as our predictions come to terrible life onscreen. Like Alexia’s trusty hair stick, the director’s capacity for inflicting distressing, deep pain on viewers is sharp and final. But she also makes space to examine more than just violence and pain, including some complicated relationships.

Agathe Rousselle is simply incredible as Alexia, bringing intensity without dialogue for most of the film.

Agathe Rousselle is simply incredible as Alexia, bringing intensity without dialogue for most of the film. Credit: CAROLE BETHUEL

Agathe Rousselle puts her whole self through the proverbial meat grinder with her outstanding performance as Alexia. She undergoes a colossal physical change across the film, from a projection of idealized, sexualized femininity through various states of transformation — all within male-dominated spaces. Alexia’s intense mechanophilia, her urgent lust for cars, is consummated in one of the film’s most shocking and nervously funny scenes, involving a Christine-like introduction and thrusting hydraulics. Long before and after, we’re never free from the metallic presence of this tryst, thanks to Jim Williams’ ominous, percussive score. There’s a constant whirring, dripping, and banging to be heard, a creeping embodiment of resistant metal growing through each scene as Alexia does.

The film’s first act leads to a truly strenuous and painful bodily journey for Alexia — and one that sees her do so with skint dialogue. She beats and binds herself into a disguise as Adrien, a boy who has been missing for years. Her daily routine of concealment is a painful one that sees Alexia constantly flattening parts of her body into submission. The foley sounds that Ducournau has chosen for these compressions are simply excruciating.

Alongside this, fatherhood becomes a particularly sinister realm for the film, explored through Alexia’s blatant disdain for her own father and the invasively unnerving relationship between firefighter captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon) and Alexia (in the guise of his son Adrien). This twisted connection between these two core characters is the majority of the film. Lindon is at once overpowering and vulnerable, physically imposing and suddenly gentle, making his erratic behavior a constant threat. Without giving the audience much assistance to navigate the pair’s inner thoughts, the film is an extremely uncomfortable examination of parent-child relationships, balanced with some dark moments of distorted tenderness.

Vincent Lindon's performance is one of polar opposite extremes.

Vincent Lindon’s performance is one of polar opposite extremes. Credit: Carole Bethuel

However, you go into Titane is likely not how you’ll come out of it. It’s a deeply affecting, uncomfortable, disturbing, and brilliant ride that deserves every inch of its hype. You’ll never look at a muscle car the same way again.

Titane is out now in cinemas in the U.S. It’s showing at the BFI London Film Festival in October and in cinemas Dec. 31 in the UK. And it’s showing at the Sydney Film Festival in Australia in November, before a national cinema release later, date TBC.

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