Titane review: The best sci-fi thriller of the year is here
The most original film of 2021 has arrived.
“I get why people fainted.”
Such was the sentiment I expressed walking out of Titane, the rapturously received new horror film from writer-director Julia Ducournau (Raw), which hits theaters October 1.
Reports of audience members fainting and leaving via ambulance during Titane’s recent festival screenings have been almost as widely circulated as word of its surprise coronation earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. After its world premiere there, Ducournau became the second woman ever to win the prestigious Palme d’Or.
Given Ducournau’s growing reputation as a body-horror extraordinaire, all this buzz wasn’t entirely surprising. Still, as someone who didn’t have a tough time with Raw, this critic was skeptical that Titane would elicit a more physical response.
Ten minutes in, watching one woman’s hair become tangled in another’s nipple piercing, I realized just how wrong I was.
Part body-horror thriller, part f*cked up family drama, Titane is a force to be reckoned with — a cinematic muscle car that roars, squeals, and burns so much rubber you can almost smell it in the theater air. Make no mistake: you’ve never seen a directorial vehicle like this before.
A little girl sits in the back seat of her family’s car, humming along to the quiet, steady drone of the car’s engine. The little girl’s father sits in the front seat, growing irritated by her noise. A tragedy occurs. Decades later, the girl — Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), with a permanent scar on the right side of her scalp — has become a model who gets by performing lap dances on vehicles at local car shows.
Ducournau introduces grown-up Alexia in one fluid take, following her as she enters a warehouse’s main floor and pushes her way through the crowd of onlookers, cars, and models. Finally, she reaches her stage: a Cadillac emblazoned with gaudy orange flames. Ducournau holds this shot for the entirety of the performance, swirling around, underneath, and over Alexia as she gyrates, stretches, and spreads herself over the car’s hood.
The sequence makes it clear that Ducournau’s muscular, graceful visual style, first on display in Raw, has only been enhanced in this second directorial venture. Like a musician moving from acoustic to electric, Ducournau has leaned into this transgressive material, amplifying her aesthetic until it feels cranked up. Visually, the director never steps wrong in Titane, always knowing when to hold her camera close, pull back to a distance, switch to handheld camerawork, or hold her frame steady. The result is one of the most technically impressive and visually gorgeous films you’ll see all year.
Also present across Titane, of course, is Ducournau’s instinctual, uncanny ability to make you squirm in your seat. After giving audiences one of the best body horror films of the 21st century in Raw, Ducournau here delivers a film even more uncomfortable, disturbing, and grotesque.
Both films see the filmmaker explore her characters’ inner secrets and desires bubbling up out of them in unsettling ways. But whereas Raw primarily focused on the damage its protagonist’s internal struggle had on others, Titane showcases the ways personal torment can destroy a person’s body from the inside out.
This focus makes Titane a fittingly dark experience, one in which Ducournau swaps out the tooth, bone, and blood of Raw for a sleeker yet jagged fusion of torn flesh and cold metal. At the center of this horror show are two characters: Rousselle’s Alexia and Vincent Lindon’s Vincent. Alexia is a volatile loner still reeling from the consequences of her loveless childhood, while Vincent is an aging firefighter still mourning the loss of love in his life; their dynamic gives Titane its bleeding heart.
Making her feature film debut with one of the most astonishing and versatile performances of the year, Rousselle practically devours the screen. As Alexia, she brings contradictory layers to life with an incredible level of skill and precision. Lindon, a more proven screen performer skilled enough to rival Rousselle, delivers equal amounts of desperation and loneliness, presenting an image of masculinity equal parts toxic and loving.
But Rousselle’s turn is the definite standout, perhaps the most ferociously wounded film performance we’ve seen from any actor since Joaquin Phoenix transformed himself into the primal and perverse Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Phoenix’s performance in that film blurred the line between man and animal, and Rousselle’s in Titane similarly forces us to question our preconceived notions of masculinity and feminity, as well as the frisson between human and machine.
Titane’s similarities to The Master don’t start and end with Rousselle’s performance. As in Raw, Ducournau remains fascinated by the complexities of human existence and the internal battle between desire and need that we all endure, the division between civilization and savagery. In Titane, Ducournau makes her protagonist’s body the nexus of this battleground: stretching, marring, transforming, and breaking it as she follows Alexia down a path of darkness, secrecy, and twisted transcendence.
Ducournau argues in Titane that one will only find the solution to personal suffering in the company of someone who accepts you, as one character in the film says, for “whoever you are.” That’s a surprisingly sweet answer to the film’s questions of bizarre transformation — one that might even feel saccharine were it not for the film’s conceptually deranged delivery system.
Days later, this critic is still shuddering at the thought of the film’s most gruesome moments. But that’s the strange magic of Titane. In those moments when you’re not looking at the screen through your fingers, you discover scenes so beautiful, warm, and human that you find yourself falling in love with Ducourneau’s vision, leaking motor oil and all.
Where any shortcomings are concerned, the film’s conclusion didn’t entirely knock me the way I’d hoped. It’s an ending that, to Ducournau’s credit, makes a kind of sense within the world she creates. But for a film that quite often doesn’t follow anything other than its own grisly nightmare logic, its final stretch is a surprisingly tame final note for a movie such as Titane to end on.
All of this is to say: I get why people fainted. To watch Titane is to be smashed over the head with a conceptual tire iron. Walking out of it, you’ll likely feel as if you’re recovering from this assault. Your brain will be tired and sore, and the world will seem hazy and out-of-focus — but also more colorful and vivid.
And that pounding you might hear in your ears? That’s not the throbbing of a wound. It’s the thrum of your engine, the mark of a truly singular vision roaring its audiences to life.
Titane is set to hit theaters on October 1.