Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Titane – the coupling of unconditional love and a revving, twerking, killing machine (QFT, 31 December–6 January)

Browsing through this year’s film viewing before last week’s end-of-year Banterflix recording, I noted how strong a year it had been for French cinema. Petite Maman was the crème de la crème, but movies like Gagarine (a young lad Yuri tries to save his estate from being demolished, both named after the cosmonaut) and France (looking at the pressure social media puts on a TV news journalist) stood out too.

But having driven home from a screening of Titane, I’m not quite sure whether it’s a triumph of or a turkey. Julia Ducournau’s directorial debut covered a lot of ground and dealt with a lot of big issues: Raw featured a vegetarian veterinary student who developed a taste for meat.

And so it is with Titane. Where an ordinary film might meld together two themes, Ducournau takes on auto-eroticism (the vehicular meaning), serial killing, the loneliness of a parent whose child ran away, body modification, fire house machismo, and much, much more in her second full-length feature.

The film wants the audience to believe that Alexia’s behaviours and desires all stem from the titanium plate placed in her head after a childhood car accident. If that sounds far-fetched, then jump on board, as that’s perhaps the least fantastical element of the 108-minute story.

Alexia dances provocatively at car shows – though the Belfast Motor Show in the King’s Hall in the 1980s was tame in comparison with her after hours indecency – and is troubled by fans who want more than their eyes can saviour. Needing to evade the authorities who are searching for her after the escape of a witness to her ability to harm with sharp and blunt instruments – she is to hairpins what Hawkeye is to arrows – Alexia transforms from a socially distant, dangerous dancer into a voiceless man, Adrien, the son of a beefy fire chief who ran away as a child.

At times, this is a film about how excited we get around new cars, the opening shots glancing longingly at the sleek curves of a vehicle’s underside, not the last time we’ll see a chassis dripping with oil. Titane also explores how grief – and perhaps guilt – can override rational thought, and acts out a case study of how a leader of a close-knit team can try to constrain challenge and make everyone play along with their somewhat knowing misapprehension. Mixing unconditional love with denial is shown to be unhealthy.

The film also looks at ways in which our body shape changes and is changed: naturally, unnaturally, and everything in-between. The plot’s deliberate mirroring of father and son is quite calculated, as is the regular return to the cleansing effect of fire, and demonstrations of the wanton freedom that can be offered by dance. Key moments of the film are either marked by indistinct choral singing (including Back’s St Matthew’s Passion) or musical choices with rich lyrics (The Zombies’ She’s Not There and Lisa Abbott’s version of Wayfaring Stranger).

Agathe Rousselle makes a strong impression in her debut feature, shifting from being a model acting on the catwalk, to acting on set full of stunts, prosthetics, and an ever-changing body shape. Her ability to communicate dialogue without speaking is remarkable: at times, there are so few subtitles, you forget that the film is French. Vincent Lindon is the rugged father figure, nearly as broken and bruised as his reemergent prodigal son, and struggling to keep his figure and his authority as the year’s progress.

It’s no Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! The high degree of nudity early on in the film is strong – sexual but never sexy – yet as the plot continues, it’s soon impossible to tell where reality stopped and the remarkable prosthetics began … perhaps much earlier than we imagine. It’s just another layer in Ducournau’s tale of disguise and surprise.

If the purpose of cinema is to challenge and disturb, Titane scores highly and is both horrific and horrifying. This is not a comfortable watch, and together with the rest of the cinema audience, you’ll flinch and wince at some of Alexia’s self-inflicted injuries and extreme medical interventions.

Titane won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year, but isn’t for the feint-hearted or anyone who is easily shocked. You can catch Titane – the coupling of unconditional love and a revving, twerking, killing machine – at Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 31 December until Tuesday 6 January. Whether it is a triumph or a turkey, Julia Ducournau is definitely a directing talent to watch. Her next film is unlikely to be any more comfortable to watch that Titane, yet it will be unmissable due to the wholehearted way she explores the body horror genre.

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