Titane Review: The Best Thing About This Wild, Bloody Horror Show Is Its Tender Heart

A sullen young girl kicks the seats of her father's car, ignoring his demands that she stop. When she instead scrambles out of her seat, her irate father jumps back to grab her, only for the car to go spinning out of control. A crash. A splatter of blood in the backseat window. It's a swift and impactful start for "Titane," Julia Ducournau's highly anticipated follow-up to her breakout feature "Raw" — a movie so shocking that there were horror stories of people throwing up at screenings. So expectations were high for "Titane," a movie that was hailed as the wildest, craziest film to debut out of Cannes — and to win the prestigious Palme d'Or, no less.

But what's most surprising about "Titane" is not its gory off-the-rails twists, or its transgressive overthrowing of the gender and sexuality conventions, or even its moments of wry humor. It's the rusted, tender heart that is hidden underneath all the wire, and metal, and veins pumping with oil and blood. "Titane," at the end of the day, is a strange and twisted love story.

Glass Heart, Steel Cage

Alexia (a lighting strike of a performance by breakout star Agathe Rousselle) is a psychopath. There's no denying that — since the car accident that lead to her getting a titanium plate fitted to her skull, Alexia has had a closer connection to cars and machines than she has had to people. It's clear from the outset, when after her surgery, young Alexia runs up to her parents' car — the very thing that almost killed her — and gives it a sloppy kiss.

As an adult, things haven't changed much for her, except now she's an erotic dancer at a car show — a sequence that plays out in a long-take shot that pulses with a slick adrenaline. Ducournau films the dancers' gyrating bodies with a voyeuristic gaze, which she lavishes equally on the cars — both of which are slobbered over by the male attendees of the show. Alexia strides in with a leather jacket and her titanium head plate for all to see, ignoring everything but the car that she dances on with wild abandon. That very car will become the impetus for Alexia's weird and twisting journey, as soon after she will bring herself to orgasm while inside that car and find herself impregnated by it (yes, really). The whole first act is heated, sweaty, sensual, lurid — the kind of testosterone-infused gearhead fantasy that a car show invokes — before Ducournau quickly turns it on its head.

Flesh and Bone and Oil

The second half of the film goes in a completely different direction than that grimy car-show opening would lead you to believe, but to go into too much detail about it would ruin the magic of "Titane." Many a movie that relies on the twist ending goes for the gruesome or horrifying shock, but rather than going for the artery (though the film slashes plenty of those along the way), "Titane" goes for the heart. It sounds cheesy and sentimental to say — two descriptors that don't sound like they'd fit in a film about a woman who gets impregnated by a car.

But it's true, especially in the interactions between Alexia and Vincent Lindon's Vincent, a grieving father who comes to believe that Alexia is his long-missing son. Vincent (played by Lindon with a fierce, raw vulnerability) is a captain of a fire station, a "man's man" who holds back the tides of his steadily aging body with regular injections of steroids. He's wholly unsuited to being a grieving father, just as Alexia is wholly unsuited to being a mother to whatever's growing insider her body, and yet the deep connection they form is oddly pure. In the bond they form, Alexia starts to gain a little humanity that she had been lacking, while Vincent gains the permission he needed to finally exhale after holding his breath since his son went missing. It's kind of beautiful — you just need to see past the blood and oil that is spurting out of every other crevice.

Titane Your Expectations

"Titane" is not beholden to your expectations. Ducournau, who wrote and directed the body-horror thriller, constantly shifts gears both narratively and tonally — now it's an erotic thriller, now it's a slasher flick, now it's a fugitive film, now it's an intimate father-son drama — putting you in danger of whiplash. But there's something freeing and exhilarating and intoxicating about the way that "Titane" constantly keeps you on the back foot, not just with its gory shocks and its sneaky self-aware sprinkling of humor, but in the shy emergence of a soft sentimentality that surprises even the cold and ruthless Alexei.

Maybe the movie's sweetness emerges too late. Maybe it goes down too many dark, shadowy corners before it finds its light at the end of the tunnel. And perhaps its pace does grind to a sluggish halt midway through before it finds out where it's headed. But slightly confused as "Titane" might be in what it's trying to say, at least it is saying something bold and wild and challenging. It's a head-pumping, face-splitting, heart-tugging visceral experience of a film that is better left, well, experienced for yourself.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10