Winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this disgusting French oddity caters to audiences who long to say to themselves “I can’t believe they went there.” Luke Buckmaster wasn’t impressed.
I would love to read a critique of Titane from an excessively prudish person—because there is no way you can write about this disgustingly odd French film and not mention the fact that it is about a woman impregnated by a car. And not just any banged-up fuel-guzzler: a shiny, flame-coloured Cadillac. This isn’t, by the way, one of those sweet, lovey-dovey girl-meets-vehicle rom-coms we saw so many of back in the 90s, starring Meg Ryan and Optimus Prime—according to my admittedly dim recollection of that era.
It is a ghastly body horror flick from rabble-rousing writer/director Julia Ducournau, who delights in shoving her camera where anybody without cast iron stomachs fear to tread (and even then…). In one scene, on-the-run protagonist Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) deliberately breaks her nose in a train station bathroom in order to pass herself off as the long-lost son of Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fatigued fire chief who gets his equivalent of a caffeine hit by injecting steroids into his butt. The director doesn’t cut away from the moment of impact. It’s up to the viewer to blink—but you can’t win a game of chicken against Ducournau.
I liked Titane about as much as I liked her previous film, Raw, a horror movie about a veterinary student who discovers she likes the taste of human flesh—which is to say, not at all. Both films are “high art” provocations designed to solicit nervous laughter on the festival circuit, and to appeal to audiences partial to an experience that makes them say to themselves “I can’t believe they went there.” This kind of look-through-your-fingers spectacle has justified some truly revolting things, from the arse-eaters of The Human Centipede to the unspeakably graphic A Serbian Film.
In the context of a movie about a woman impregnated by a vehicle—though this isn’t exactly a burgeoning genre—an important part of “going there” is the moment of conception. Alexia actually has sex with a car and we actually, kind of, sort of, see it. The flame-coloured Cadillac turns itself on—literally and otherwise—and the protagonist sits in it naked, in a way that cleverly suggests the car might be holding her, its belt straps entangling Alexia’s arms like vines. The vehicle bounces up and down, up and down, up and down, and, by god, I’ll stop there, fearing a new career nadir in the form of human-automobile erotic commentary.
Titane’s…unusual brand of greasy sleaziness is evoked from its opening images: mega close-ups of a car engine, and various internal bits and bobs, moving, turning, and dripping fluid, as if they were body parts. But freaky fetishisation of things that go bump, screech, and vroom vroom in the night does not a full movie maketh, so Ducournau develops two core plotlines to pad the experience out.
One captures Alexia’s relationship with Vincent, a pathetic figure who (thanks to Lindon’s downhearted performance) evokes the film’s glimmers of humanity. The other follows her exploits as a psychopath who goes on a brutal killing spree while pregnant, which doesn’t bode well for the morals of the impending bub, suggesting the thing that eventually comes out of her will be some kind of greased-up devil spawn: Damian from The Omen crossed with the Gigahorse. The storyline is bland, spruced up only by shockingly squeamish images, though there is a modicum of interest—maybe even of value—in the portraiting of two outsiders connecting, never in the obvious way.
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Instead of using visual properties to communicate a particular subtextual meaning—the way Hitchcock for instance used train tracks and tennis rackets to visually express the theme of double crossing in Strangers on a Train—Ducournau simply brings to life a nightmare, then lets you deal with it. Critics tend to appreciate this kind of non-didactic approach because it indulges their egos and works their interpretive muscles, allowing them to stare into the inkblot and emerge with meaning. Completely lost in this perspective is the idea that, if a film is going to conjure unshakably horrible images, it ought to have a decent reason for doing so.
In a sense Titane is critic-proof: call it empty and somebody will conjure some reading to argue you’ve missed the point; call it gratuitous and you risk sounding like a prude. But I will not be drinking the Valvoline Kool-Aid: this intentionally unlikeable film is chilling more than anything because of its vacuousness. The most compelling thought running through my mind was whether Alexia would ultimately given birth to a remote control-sized toy car, like the kind I got for Christmas one time as a kid.