Julia Ducournau's continues evolving her bold and disturbing style
Creating provocative and shocking art is something that has slowly bled away from the film industry. With more blockbusters and less indies, the bold and crazy filmmaking of yore has disappeared, everyone wishes to play it safe and not offend anyone. There are still stalwarts that will always look to push viewers into new levels of discomfort, from Gaspar Noé to Paul Verhoeven. But the new kid on the block that has viewers squirming and literally fainting in theaters is Julia Ducournau.
I’m sad that I must give away certain portions of the plot, because I went into Titane without knowing anything, only the director’s previous work and the fact that it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year. This ignorance enhanced the shocks and enjoyment of Titane, and I recommend viewers that want to go raw into the film to skip the next paragraph.
Titane (2021) is the story of a dancer named Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) who is impregnated by a car (yes, you read that correctly) and starts murdering people. On the run, she changes her identity and is taken in by an unwitting fireman (Vincent Lindon), who thinks she’s his long-lost son.
Ducournau first shocked and disturbed audiences with her cannibalistic Raw (2016), which showcased the director’s ability to immerse viewers and truly manipulate them with her use of sound and visuals. She uses these same skills again, focusing on gore and violence to push viewers to their limit in Titane. The stabbing of a character with a chopstick through their ear is made more painful and real by an effective use of muting sound, so that viewers think they themselves have been stabbed (I couldn’t stop touching my ear gingerly after that scene, even until after I got home). However, Ducournau switches the rhythm of her film from this unrelenting violence at the halfway point, to a rather sweet love story between a father and son.
Ducournau’s bravery in this film is not so much in her showcasing of violence and horrible scenes, but rather in risking her narrative with such a character journey. Ducournau chooses to have her protagonist in Titane be incredibly unlikeable and irredeemable at the beginning, and yet somehow turns her character around and makes us incredibly invested in her wellbeing. It’s a feat of true cinematic writing and directing, choosing to chip away at our initial thoughts and to see Alexia as human in the end.
Titane also follows Ducournau’s fascination with the human body, be it through the literal body horror scenes, but also with the fragility and exploitation of them. This follows along the same line as Raw, however, the core of Titane is an exploration of a lost morality and humanity within such a harsh and objectifying world. This conclusion took me a while to reach, as initially Titane can seem to be all over the place, and yet with careful piecing and clues (one should look up the qualities of the metal titanium, from which the film takes its name) the bigger picture can come to the fore.
Perhaps it is here that Ducournau loses some of her grasp on Titane. While Raw kept to a compact story of a coming-of-age drama with a cannibalistic student, Titane can feel distracting and overstuffed, leaving viewers little time to breathe and digest scenes. Ducournau also leans too heavily on disturbing viewers, wanting to push the limits and be provocative for the sake of it rather than in service of her narrative. This can make an initial viewing of Titane feel like a badly shuffled deck of cards, that refuse to fit nicely in the palm of your hand. However, being provocative and distracting is completely in Ducournau’s right, as her desire to give viewers and their expectations the finger is precisely what she may have wanted all along.
Titane is the kind of disturbing and bold filmmaking that many studios and filmmakers don’t have the courage to make anymore. For its bold leaps and refusal to blink I commend Ducournau, but perhaps this intent can overtake her film at times, weakening the character and thematic elements. Titane is not a film for everyone (there were multiple walkouts in my screening), yet if you wish to see something truly new, unexpected, and brave Ducournau has surprise for you.