Adele Guigue as young Alexia in Titane. Image courtesy Neon

R 18+, 108 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

So, the jury at Cannes has given the Palme d’Or to a film directed by a woman. It’s the second time this has happened and for the first time the prize is not shared by two films. The award for Titane is a great win, something to do cartwheels for, but will the work of its writer-director Julia Ducournau prove as stunning and as compelling as the work of Jane Campion?

I’m thinking a bet both ways on Ducournau at this point. Raw, her first film, was well received, and now that the young French filmmaker has smashed through at the world’s pre-eminent festival of cinema, perhaps still revealing enduring elements of ‘cinema de papa’, it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Tough and unsentimental, it is steeped in some protracted violence before a reconciliation with a shared humanity

To make a fine point, however, Ducournau won for best film this year. The best director award went to Leos Carax for another risky piece, his crazy-beautiful gothic opera Annette.

Alexia at work at the motor show. Image courtesy Neon

Titane also looks good, you might even argue crazy-beautiful, lit in a garish, night-time neon by Belgian cinematographer, Ruben Impens. There are in the final scenes some soothingly tender touches, and there are astonishing performances throughout by newcomer Agathe Rouselle as the main character Alexia/Adrien, and by the likable and impressive Vincent Lindon as Vincent, who becomes her father figure. But the film is steeped in the protracted violence and the journey before some reconciliation with our humanity is often tough, unsentimental and harsh.

When we meet her, Alexia is already an established serial killer. Then we see her impale a would-be sexual partner with the knitting needle-sized hairpin she wears in her unruly locks. It’s no spoiler to say you can see this and much of the rest of the violence coming.

I’m not a particular fan of horror, but watching it from time to time comes with the territory. Besides there are some great horror movies in the archives like Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Halloween, Psycho, and recent additions like The Babadook, Suspiria, and A Quiet Place. And these days, it can be argued the genre is going mainstream.

Thirtysomething Alexia, a dancer, suffered terrible head injuries as a young girl in a vehicle that crashed with her hopeless father at the wheel. A titanium plate was inserted in her skull to save her life.

It may or may not be unsurprising that Alexia subsequently develops a thing for cars. We realise this quickly in an abrupt narrative leap forward when she is seen writhing on the bonnet of a car in a car sales showroom. When a forceful admirer chases her for an autograph afterwards, she just has to kill him. Then she is so wound up she needs to duck out to make love to a car, to consummate this passion.

An auspicious delicious humour at first, parodying the motor salesroom

Up to this point, there is an auspicious delicious humour parodying the way cars are sold, as though the delectable body draped across it comes with the purchase. But there is little of the kind of esprit you find in TV’s Killing Eve, another celebration of a female serial killer, or last year’s brilliant Promising Young Woman. All of these are riding a tide of female indignation in the current gender wars.

With posters of her likeness on the walls of subway systems, Alexia is on the run. She must change her already androgynous appearance to that of a glowering youth by shaving her eyebrows, taping her curves flat, and lopping off her wild blonde hair. The ruse works so well she is claimed by a father, Vincent (Lindon), also vulnerable and alone, who is desperate to reunite with a long-lost son who would be about the same age.

When, after body horror detailing multiple murders, self-administered abortion and catastrophic self-harm, the drama is resolved in scenes of compassion, it may disappoint some who want the horror experience consistent from go to whoa. Even horror fans who like to meet their fear head-on may find Titane, for all the flashes of brilliance, memorable but somewhat chaotic.

Like David Cronenberg’s weird and astonishing Crash, that brutal and provocative blast from the past, Titane is about sex and cars and perhaps car crashes. It’s a connection you just wouldn’t imagine, and it somehow works, but Titane is by comparison an uneven, and shocking rather than compelling journey.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 November 2021. Also published on Rotten Tomatoes