In an age where Saw has spiraled into Spiral, body horror has lost a lot of its bite. What happens on screen in these films may make you squirm, but rarely is there something new to engage with. In other words, what was created as the most shocking horror subgenre can barely produce a spark these days. Enter French director Julia Ducournau’s Titane. It bites. It shocks. It bruises. It blisters. It screams. Its energy can only illicit a response akin to “excuse me, what’s this now?” between winces and moments that are impossible to look at.
As a young girl, a severe car accident requires Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) to have a titanium plate screwed into her head. As an adult, she’s now a serial killer, and her flirtation with automobiles makes Cameron Diaz’s turn in The Counselor look downright prude. Wanted for many murders and recently impregnated by a sports car (Ducournau quite possibly shot the most artfully brazen sex scene of the year, smartly doubling it as a metaphor for unattainable masculinity), she cuts her hair and goes on the run disguised as a man.
Everything that happens after is, well, really something. While the first half of the film excitedly and gorgeously introduces us to Alexia’s violent existence, the second half pulls us into a complicated, challenging melodrama as she starts posing as a father’s long lost son. While not traditionally resonant, Titane finds a distinct place of human vulnerability as two souls try to find fulfillment totally outside of societal norms.
Rousselle is fierce as all hell as Alexia, later going by Adrien, the name of the son of her new protector, Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Her performance finds a smart middle point between horrific and comical reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell’s turn in A Clockwork Orange, albeit with the gender switch naturally allowing for a great many subtle oddities and micro-investigations. The film thankfully doesn’t do a 180 on how we feel about her from start to finish, but it does illustrate the possibility of humanity beneath all her seemingly inherent darkness.
Just as effective is Lindon, giving Vincent, an aging fire chief who continually injects himself with hormones to stay fit, an unbridled pathos through his quite literally toxic masculinity. He is the strange heart of this very dark, grisly film. Yet, he pulls the second half together as his bizarre chemistry with Rousselle shifts the body horror into sheer social ineptness, even as Alexia puts herself through the ringer throughout her incredibly surreal last trimester.
Though Titane’s commitment to everything it’s trying to do is one of its greatest assets, the pacing and doling out of grotesque developments grows ever so slightly stale before the resolution combines such horror with the unexpected emotions the script stirs up by the end. The film simply isn’t as tight as it could be and moves toward disrupting the bloody spell of its meaningful body horror before course correcting for the resolution.
But even when the film’s genre thrills overstay their welcome, Titane only grows more thematically exciting as it goes on. This is a purposeful exploration of the weakness of our species, as it relates to the joining of the mind and body. The chance to create and build something truly strong only comes once Alexia and Vincent learn to give in to the comforts of one another. This is as clever and as thoughtful as body horror has ever been on the big screen. For this ridiculous, bombastic, sometimes pretentious black horror comedy boasts a quiet tenderness that is alarmingly difficult to shake.