BFI London Film Festival presents Titane; in cinemas December 31st.
Female horror filmmakers are finally getting the spotlight they deserve, and that’s in no small part thanks to Julia Ducournau. Propelling herself onto the scene with her viscerally tender coming-of-age horror Raw, Ducournau left a startlingly strong imprint in everyone’s minds. Such a powerful and self-assured debut was bolstered by interviews with the director herself, creating the profile of a ferocious creative tired of the stereotypical label of female directors as ‘soft.’ As Ducournau puts it, “toilet paper is soft. I am not soft.” Initially, I had understood Titane to be the main banquet of Julia Ducournau’s body horror feast, with Raw the entrée. After reflecting for a long time, I’ve come to realise: Titane is not only one of the greatest modern films, but also one of the most beautiful love stories ever told.
Describing Titane’s plot succinctly is not something that comes easy. Nothing in Titane is singular, and that includes the story itself. Therefore, It’s best to start at the beginning and leave you to discover the rest. Agathe Rousselle’s Alexia is a showgirl working at a motor show, with a penchant for the phallic metallic and a disdain for flesh and blood. When an obsessive fan oversteps his boundaries, Alexia invites us into a journey of murder, malice and mistaken identity. However, eventually, Alexia and grieving firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon) tenderly collide.
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It’s immediately clear that Ducournau is challenging herself more than she did on Raw – Alexia is densely inaccessible, intentionally so. We learn little to nothing about her, barring a car accident in her adolescence that may have sparked her motor-sexual desire. The psychopathy, however, might have been in there all along. We learn less and less about Alexia as Titane unravels, to the point where she becomes entirely mute and, in a way, no longer exists on our screen.
Agathe Rousselle’s performance is extraordinarily layered, shifting and warping the physicality of Alexia to make her disappear before our very eyes. It feels like an incredible magic trick, but the truth is, Agathe is just an exceptionally marvellous actor. To me, Agathe’s performance is one of the most intelligent and eruditely complex ever recorded onto film. To translate pure psychopathy and abjectness into such a pure, unadulterated form whilst maintaining a bodily fluidity is supremely astonishing. It is simply unrepeatable.
Despite this rigid inaccessibility, there’s something about Alexia that keeps us entranced. Perhaps it’s the very urge to understand her in the hopes of making rhyme or reason of what she does. But, Ducournau conceals any kind of authorial answer, instead allowing us to deconstruct this walking enigma for ourselves. To create a monster purely for it to exist as a monster can be a fascinating experiment in itself, and Ducournau has created that challenge not for herself but for us.
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Speaking with her on the red carpet, Ducournau explained that “monstrousness obviously has a beauty to it because it defies the norm. I find a lot of beauty in that freedom.” Some may walk away from Titane bored or even disgusted, having refused to rise to the gauntlet Ducournau throws down in front of us. But, this bold declaration to release yourself from the rigidities of our known humanity displays Ducournau’s unique creative brilliance.
There’s a knee-jerk response to write Alexia off as an inhuman monster. We judge her actions against these iron-clad rigid structures and beliefs, which is how we can label her actions as monstrous and abhorrent. Our belief is that these protect us as a society, but from another perspective, their immovable rigidity confines us. We reject those radically different from us, assuming that as they have shed themselves of these confines, they are undeserving of the rewards of love, comfort and safety. Ducournau observes the ugly lie of these confines and constructs someone entirely free, unfazed by the moral and ego-driven bonds that form the bedrock of our personalities. We are terrified of Alexia’s behaviour not because it is inhuman or incomprehensible – it terrifies us because she is us, unbound and completely, utterly free. She is fluidly human.
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Titane feels so wild and unrelenting because it is the depiction of utterly wild and free humanity. That sharp, visceral bodily reaction comes from our inability to comprehend such an existential freedom. It’s terrifying because the violence of Alexia is us at our most human, whether we believe it or not. Through Alexia, Titane does not just transgress, but tears through moral, sexual, societal and human boundaries with a power rarely felt in cinema.
Titane is, at times, unbearably visceral as it takes hold of you, possessing every fibre of your being, separating your very mind from the inessential confines of your fleshy body. It feels like a religious experience. You are overwhelmed but somehow not scared, as you find glimpses of yourself in Alexia, if only for a moment. All of a sudden, before your very eyes, Titane shapeshifts in front of you, and without realising, you begin to change with it. This change is the violent collision of one terrified of death and another terrified of life itself. What Alexia and Vincent share is an intimately tender connection, failed by words yet spoken so vocally by one’s own emotions. As Vincent Lindon told me, “It’s a free love – they’re not obliged to love each other, and that’s very important.”
Titane feels like a meditation on the isolation between body and mind, and their love is the heart of that – you cannot describe how it feels to have come home or the comfort of someone who understands you. You can merely feel it, with such a burning intensity it may consume you whole. Fire unites Alexia and Vincent, as it both eradicates all in its way and yet gives birth to something new at the same time. It’s a love that transcends the physical barriers of bodies and transgresses the norms of society because it is so purely unique.
Titane is not a film you can understand in one viewing. Its sharp fractals reflect a thousand different significances and meanings, and you can only glimpse so many to the uninitiated eye. One may interpret Titane as is a viscerally intimate dissection of the human condition. It strips away our flesh and blood to lay our humanity naked upon the screen in its truest form, something we’ve only ever come to understand through the restrictions we place upon it. Ducournau explodes these, making the indescribable somehow appear with her exclusive visual and thematic grammar.
Titane is at once nothing you’ve ever seen before and yet feels lovingly familiar. It is a cinematic call-out to return to this comforting fluidity, intangible in words but innately understood. Through Titane, Julia Ducournau releases your humanity from its shackles, if only for a few hours – it’s why so many can’t put Titane into words and yet be so absolute in their feelings toward it. It is a love story dedicated to the completeness of humanity, darkness and light coming together to create a radically new soul. That soul is Titane.