Sometimes the excesses of festive season need an antidote. If that turns out to be the case this year – but, at the time of writing, who knows? – then the winner of this year’s Palme D’Or at Cannes may be just what you’re looking for. Just bear in mind that it won’t necessarily be to everybody’s taste.
As a child, Alexia (newcomer Agathe Rousselle) was in a car crash caused by her negligent father. Her injuries were such that surgeons fitted a titanium plate in her head which changed her personality, making her hostile and ruthless yet, at the same time, longing for affection and a father figure. As an adult, she becomes a high profile dancer at car shows and promotional events, where she also attracts the attention of less desirable fans and, when one of them goes too far, she retaliates with extreme violence and goes on the run, disguised as a boy to avoid the police.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. A poster about a missing boy who would now be about her age inspires her to take on his identity – cue a gruesome scene where she breaks her own nose as part of her disguise – and when she’s discovered and taken in by the boy’s father, fire chief Vincent (Vincent Lindon) he’s so overjoyed to be reunited with his “son” that verifying the boy’s identity never crossed his mind. The Shakespearean overtones of Alexia posing as a boy have soon faded and the film has turned into something more complex and more unsettling.
To a large extent this is a love story but, coming from Julia Ducournau, it’s far from conventional and body horror is never far away. Her 2016 debut, Raw, was smart and scary in equal measure. Titane may not hit quite the same heights, but it’s definitely unsettling to the point of disturbing and has the unerring ability to linger in your mind afterwards as you try to dissect exactly what you’ve been watching on screen. The concentration on love starts with Alexia’s strange relationships with the cars essential to her performance. And with one car in particular, so that as the film progresses, she’s increasingly pregnant, something she tries to hide: her disguise would be blown but, more bizarrely, the signs of her condition are definitely car-related. Then there’s the love between father and “son”, with the dad so desperate to find his lost child that he accepts the boy without a second thought or the slightest doubt. What seems like the most unpromising of relationships develops into something stronger.
As with her previous film, it’s a powerfully challenging watch, never easy, always compelling and, even when it’s at its most gory, it’s hard to look away from the screen. Again, Ducournau breaks boundaries, especially when it comes to gender roles, and gets impressive performances from both Rousselle, in her feature debut, and the veteran Lindon. Even if the film feels less stylish than its predecessor, there’s still more than enough to fascinate, consider and even repel.
Drama, Horror | Cert: 18 | Altitude | Cinemas, 26 December 2021 | Dir. Julia Ducournau | Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Bertrand Bonello.