Reviewed by A.O. Scott
Alexia is a strip-club dancer in the South of France whose hobby — her compulsion, her kink, her vocation — is murder. As the bodies pile up and the law seems to be closing in, she leaves the house where she lives with her parents and takes on the identity of Adrien Legrand, a boy who went missing many years before.
Having seen a computer-generated image of the teenager Adrien might have grown up to be, Alexia fashions herself into a plausible likeness, cutting her hair short, binding her breasts and smashing her nose against a bathroom sink. The disguise works well enough to convince the boy’s dad, Vincent, the ultra-manly commander of a fire-and-rescue squad. But there is a complication: Alexia is pregnant. The father, as far as we can tell, is a Cadillac with hydraulic suspension and a custom paint job. As the pregnancy progresses, Alexia starts to lactate petroleum.
Maybe we should back up for a moment. Titane (2021) is Julia Ducournau’s second feature. The first, Raw, which also included a character named Alexia (and one named Adrien), was a gruesome, witty, insistently thoughtful quasi-horror movie about sex, cannibalism and the varieties of hunger. Awarded the top prize in Cannes this year, “Titane” consolidates a filmmaking style based on visceral shock, grisly absurdism and high thematic ambition. Violence is often played for comedy. Cruelty collides with tenderness. Eroticism keeps company with disgust. Through the stroboscopic aggression of Ducournau’s images you can glimpse ideas about gender, lust and the intimacy that connects people and machines.
Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) may be a little of both. As a child, she survived — and caused — a car crash that left her with a titanium plate in her skull. That explains the title of the movie, though not the character’s fascination with motors, which predated the accident, or the bloodthirstiness that drives her adult self. Titanically alluring, she seduces men and women before attacking them with a metal shank that doubles as a hairpin. After driving it through one guy’s ear, she wipes it clean as if she had just checked the oil in a car’s engine.
There is slapstick as well as dread in the way Ducournau stages Alexia’s crimes. “How many of you are there?” she asks as a quiet evening of one-on-one homicide threatens to turn into a mass casualty event. “I’m exhausted,” she complains to one of her victims, who actually seems to feel sorry for her.
Rousselle, a model making her film debut, has a sullen magnetism. Her iciness is edged with melancholy. Once Alexia becomes Adrien, moving in with Vincent (Vincent Lindon) and joining his crew, she seems less like a predator than a vulnerable, isolated misfit. Lindon, an avatar of weary, blue-collar masculinity, seems at first to be too obvious a foil for Rousselle. But Vincent turns out to have kinks and complications of his own. He fights aging with heavy doses of steroids, and seems willfully to overlook signs of his supposed son’s real identity.
His firehouse is a cauldron of unchecked virility and barely suppressed homoeroticism. He insists that Adrien/Alexia will be one of the boys, with some special privileges. “To you, I’m God,” he tells the men, adding that his son is therefore Jesus — but also, the audience knows, a kind of Madonna figure, carrying a miraculously conceived child. This is what I mean by high thematic ambition: “Titane” is a movie concerned with gender politics, metaphysics, the nature of love and a great deal more.
It’s no wonder that those concerns don’t entirely cohere, given Ducournau’s furious sensationalism. The hectic, brutal intensity that drives the first part of the movie, before Alexia becomes Adrien, dissipates in the middle, as the narrative engine sputters. The pregnancy supplies some suspense, of course, but the situation becomes curiously static, and the provocations increasingly mechanical. For all its reckless style and velocity, “Titane” doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go.