'Titane' Review: 'Raw' Director Julia Ducournau Returns With A Shocking Body-Horror Show [Cannes]

Julia Ducournau stunned Cannes audiences back in 2016 with Raw, the story of a vegetarian veterinarian student who soon develops a taste for manflesh. She returns in 2021 with Titane, an even more stylized, violent and resonant work set to shake up the main competition for Palme D'or.

The film begins in a car trip, with a haughty teen obnoxiously prodding the father in the front seat. After excoriating her to stop, she rebels, removing a seatbelt. A moment later the car smashes into a barrier, her head lacerated and requiring surgery to implement a titanium plate that gives the film its name. The result is a grisly scar on the side of her head, and a sense of rebellion and anger that is not soon quelled.

We're never sure on the gender of the character (we hear it's a her only in surgery), and this gender fluidity will play a large role throughout the film. At the outset, however, it's clear that Alexia is outwardly presenting as female, twerking and grinding at an auto show while vapid men circle to admire in order to get autographs. There's a shower scene that follows that plays with the prison trope of a dropped bar of soap to tragicomic effect, her wild hair locked in the nipple piercing of her neighbor.

This is one among many moments where the mix of pain and pleasure is at the fore, and it also speaks to the way the character themselves navigates their sullen and withdrawn air with an apparent need to surround themselves with companionship, if only briefly. Walking in the parking lot only to be chased by an admirer, the film again turns expectation, twisting the notion of a dame in distress on its head and thrusting us into the most brutal of altercations.

Alexia returns to the car show to spend time alone with her flame-covered Cadillac. Naked and dripping with water from her post-rampage second shower, she straps herself in on the cadaverous-colored upholstered seats and quite literally is fucked by the automobile. David Cronenberg, whose divisive Crash won a special jury award in 1996 for "daring and audacity," would hopefully be pleased that a new generation has taken up his kind of cinematic kink.

The following is a series of murders and mayhem that showcase the true sociopathy of the central character, only to land, in both elegant and startling ways, into an almost sweet family drama with a father who has lost his son. Think of this as Ken Russell's Yentl and you'll see how two individuals can share a lie for mutual benefit. Set in a fire house, there literally are flames that erupt between the two, yet in each they manage to find something to make each other just a tiny bit more whole.

The film soon doubled down on the body horror component, and it's here that it all feels a bit underbaked. I for one didn't need the long, grand, protracted reveal, and it's frankly a bit superfluous and supernatural for what otherwise would have for me been an absolute gem. It's this insistence to further one-up what was already confidently a weird and wild ride that makes it feel as if it's gone off the rails, while certainly the gasps from the audience may indicate others will feel far differently. I could have lost the entire storyline that leads to the final scene and had a far more satisfying experience, but I may be in the minority on this one.

At any rate, thanks to committed performances by Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, and the rest of the cast, there's plenty to bite into on both the character and narrative level. The dynamic between the two individuals who essentially adopt each other brings out much of the film's heart, and it's extremely effective how it all plays out.

Take a dash of Miike and Refn, a whole heap of Cronenberg and, above all, Ducournau's uniquely acidic vision, and you have a unique cinematic alloy that does far more than rely upon shock and horror. It's a film that's at its best when things matter and you're empathizing even during moments of total butchery. It's never easy to inject humanity into inhumane acts, yet Titane, like the metal, manages to do something remarkably strong in a compact form. The film does excess without being excessive, drawing us into Alexia and Vincent's tumultuous world and finding that the deepest connections are based on the lies we choose to share.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10