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“Titane,” Reviewed: The Body Horror of Family Life

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“Titane,” Reviewed: The Body Horror of Family Life

The curse of genre is that it encourages filmmakers to downplay causes in the interest of effects. In the best genre movies, the quantity and power of these effects serve as sufficient compensation for the thinned-out drama. “Titane,” the new film by Julia Ducournau, is a genre film, a twist on horror with a twist on family—like Ducournau’s first feature, “Raw.” But “Titane” is far stronger, far wilder, far stranger. The radical fantasy of its premise—a woman gets impregnated by a car—wrenches the ensuing family drama out of the realm of the ordinary and into one of speculative fantasy and imaginative wonder that demands a suspension of disbelief—which becomes the movie’s very subject.

The film’s protagonist, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), has an affinity for cars that amounts to a sort of destiny. As a child (played by Adèle Guigue), Alexia is sitting in the back seat of a car driven by her father (Bertrand Bonello, himself a notable director), who’s got music on the radio. But Alexia is instead growling along to the sound of the engine. Moments later, she unbuckles her seat belt, distracting her father and causing him to lose control of the car. Alexia suffers a serious head injury and has a titanium plate inserted in her skull. Emerging from the hospital, she lovingly caresses her parents’ car—in particular, the driver’s-side window, an ingenious Freudian touch that will echo mightily through the entire drama.

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Flash forward, and the grown Alexia is performing as an erotic dancer at car shows. She’s seen dancing at a hangar-like venue where cars are fetish objects. (One woman soaps a car and rubs her breasts against a side window.) Men wander among the vehicles, taking selfies with the women. With her unfeigned attraction to cars, Alexia is a star in the field, and, when she energetically and sinuously dances on a classic Cadillac, Ducournau renders her in ecstatically soaring images. But, when one of Alexia’s male fans follows her out and forcibly kisses her, she kills him—gorily, graphically—with a knitting-needle-like stick that holds her hair in place. Then, while showering his brain goo off her body, she responds to a heavy, metallic thud at the door. The vintage Cadillac that she’d been bumping and grinding on is flashing its headlights at her, and she walks to it, naked, then enters it for a sex scene, on its front seats. She and the car—displaying pleasure with its ever more vehement motion and flashing lights—bounce up and down in rhythm until both climax.

It’s hard enough for Alexia to cope in a world that is disinclined to take her sexual preference, let alone its reciprocity, seriously. (The mocking tone of some reviews of “Titane” confirms this.) She tests herself in a lesbian affair but is no more satisfied with a human woman than with a human man. She discovers that the car has impregnated her; already a killer, she kills again (and again), goes on the run, and—cutting her hair, and binding her breasts and conspicuously pregnant stomach—takes the identity of a teen-age boy named Adrien Legrand. He went missing a decade earlier, as a child, but his case is back in the news. Spotted at the airport by the police, Alexia, as Adrien, is taken into custody and viewed through a one-way mirror by Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who claims to recognize him and brings him to the firehouse where Vincent is the captain.

Here, with canny artistry, Ducournau tosses off an extraordinary detail casually, to let viewers ponder and absorb its mystery. The police offer to do a DNA test to prove Adrien’s identity, but Vincent refuses—he’d surely recognize his own son, he says. Some critics have complained that his sanguine self-confidence is implausible, a ridiculous convenience to move the plot along. Yet Vincent’s active, self-reliant embrace of Adrien (let’s call the disguised Alexia that from here on) is no mere story lever—it’s a mark of what it means to be a father and to have a child. Whether Adrien is Vincent’s biological son is beside the point: Vincent had (with Adrien’s mother, played by Myriem Akheddiou) raised their son until the age of seven, and no retrospective proof or doubt of his biological paternity will have any effect on his sense of the paternal bond. (An alert viewer might even suspect that Vincent refuses the test precisely because he might know what it will reveal.)

When Adrien and Vincent get to the firehouse, the movie shifts gears and becomes a thriller. Adrien desperately tries to sustain the secret of his identity even as his relationship with Vincent inevitably intensifies, the countdown of pregnancy inexorably continues, and the police close in on Alexia the serial killer. Even more important, the emotional and dramatic focus of the movie turns, definitively, to the intensity of Vincent’s drive to connect with Adrien, and the pressure on Alexia to sustain the fiction for his sake.

These subtle psychological maneuverings take place alongside the hard and harsh physical realities on which the entire story, and its very concept of selfhood, depends. “Titane” is a body-horror film that relentlessly displays the anatomical agonies its characters endure. Alexia has a large scar above her right ear, from the childhood accident and the surgery, and other markings left by her self-binding. Ducournau shows her attempting to perform an abortion on herself with the same hair needle she used as a murder weapon and, later, gashing the flesh on her belly to force her delivery and baring not muscle but metal. Elsewhere, she slams her nose with her fist and bashes it on a metal sink to change her appearance. The film’s explicitness about bodily fluids (including Alexia’s various discharges, which appear to be based not on water but on motor oil) and the ferocious physicality that’s onscreen throughout set the tone for the hectic intensity of the story. The commanding and combative Vincent, too, is self-punishing in his quest for strength, subjecting himself to agonizing injections into his bruised buttocks to overcome the ravages of age. (Lindon, both rumpled and buff, comes across as an irony-free version of Bill Murray.) More than that, the details of extreme physicality prove to be load-bearing elements in the drama, doing the work that dialogue and backstory don’t.

The fire station is a hothouse of male bonding. The firefighters—all are men—work together, face death together, and celebrate together in frenzied scenes of improvised dance parties that exude a furiously submerged eroticism. Vincent’s quasi-paternal role to the young men under his command is also ambiguous—one of them, behind his back, suggests that Vincent is gay—and the arrival of Adrien disrupts and reorients the entourage. One of the young firefighters, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), considers Vincent a mentor, and becomes jealous when Vincent flaunts his devotion to Adrien by way of a peculiar sort of nepotism—training Adrien in firefighting and allowing him to join a very small crew of first responders. In that scene’s extreme idiosyncrasy—played with an earnestness that muffles any humor—Adrien has to resuscitate a person who’s not breathing, and Vincent sings “Macarena” to keep the beat. (French liability law must be very forgiving.)

Ducournau boldly blasts past the absurdities of the story with an overheated style, filled with low angles that exalt the fury, the daring, and the heroism of her characters—especially of Vincent and Alexia. Their heroism isn’t principally in firefighting; it’s in the strength of their passion, the reckless intensity with which they follow the demands of their emotions and seek ecstatic, white-hot redemption in their mutual bond. The relationship between them is strongly gendered, and Alexia’s impersonation of Vincent’s son takes constant effort, at many levels. To keep her secrets (and perhaps to conceal her voice), she maintains a monastic silence. She suffers grievously as she continues to bind her body. Yet it turns out (carefully avoiding spoilers here) that, despite appearances, Vincent, too, has to labor mightily, at least emotionally, to overcome his judgment of appearances—which leads to yet another level of complicity and contention between them. Adrien eventually lets loose in one scene, yielding to automotive desire and expressing it in a fire-engine dance that simultaneously delights, awes, and bewilders the assembled company. In another, Vincent casually but cruelly subjects himself to a self-mortification of vast symbolic import.

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“Titane,” Reviewed: The Body Horror of Family Life