Despite their surface differences, there really couldn’t be a more perfect follow up to Raw for Julia Ducornau than her sophomore effort Titane. Here is another thrillingly grisly slice of sex, blood, and body horror that works in concert with Raw to get to the heart of what seems to fascinate Ducornau; humanity’s place in the evolutionary cycle. If Raw’s cannibal vets dragged humans back to their animal origins, all meat and viscera, then Titane pushes us forward into a dark future chapter, machines and chemicals twisting us and removing us from the natural order, ready for a terrifying new species to be born.
At the forefront of this union of man and machine is Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a car show ‘booth babe’ who makes a living writhing on the hoods of various tackily pimped-out vehicles, an act made all the more distinctive by a giant scar on her head that covers a titanium plate. Alexia’s a pretty nasty piece of work – even the car crash that earnt her the scar as a child is entirely her fault and she seems to delight in hurting her co-workers – but Ducornau is determined to not let silly questions of ‘likeability’ or ‘violent sociopathy’ get in the way of a constantly compelling story.
After Alexia stabs a would-be rapist in the brain (one of the only moments of uncomplicated catharsis in the entire film), Titane takes a tumble down a grotesque cyberpunk rabbit-hole. Her post-kill shower is interrupted by one of the cars from the show, and what follows is one of the oddest and funniest sex scenes of the year, leaving Alexia pregnant with a part-mechanical baby that has her constantly leaking motor oil from any and all orifices. If that sounds like too much for you, this is the point to jump out, as Titane pretty much only gets wilder and nastier from there.
There’s serial murder, identity theft, and steroid abuse to come, as Ducornau drills down into questions of what makes us human, and what makes us *us*, playing around with gender and transhumanist ideas. It can be a bit of a hodgepodge, but it’s pulled off with such verve and confidence that this can be easily forgiven – although there are some points in the third act that, even in this incredibly heightened world, stretch your suspension of disbelief just a little too far.
Rousselle has a hell of task to anchor such a batshit story, but manages it with a full-throttle, largely wordless performance that morphs and cracks as Alexia starts to lose sight of herself. It pairs well with the tragi-comedy that Vincent Lindon brings to his role as a bereaved, roided-out fireman who, rather foolishly, brings Alexia into his home and fire station, much to the confoundment and disappointment of his crew. Rousselle and Lindon’s markedly different physicalities – her lithe and androgynous, him hulking and stiff – give them a striking sort of silent chemistry, whilst also providing some of Titane’s most memorable visual gags – it’s a surprisingly funny film, all in all. The firefighting scenes themselves could have maybe done with being a little more exciting, but they do a good job of furthering Ducornau’s claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere.
There’s barely a sliver of natural light to be seen throughout Titane, Ducournau instead confining us to neon-soaked bathrooms and night-time exteriors illuminated by grimy streetlamps. The sun, and the beauty and comfort it provides, seems a distant memory for most of Titane’s characters, until the bravura ending forces a melding of the natural and the artificial, the pure and the tainted, bright light flooding in on a scene that otherwise portends a very dark future.
Titane has an awful lot on its mind and manages to blend its more essayistic concerns with its gory genre trappings for an entertaining balance of smart and dumb. Not everything works – one extended sequence in particular feels lifted out of a very different draft of the script, before a tone had been settled on – but when something is this vicious and original, not everything really has to. You’ll laugh a lot, and wince even more, at this stylish and delirious Cronenberg riff that made for one of the most unexpected Palme d’Or winners in recent memory.