France (2021) Dir. Julia Ducournau

“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls

It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world”

So sang Ray Davies in 1970 and whilst things have changed regarding gender identity in the ensuing 50 years, there is still a portion of modern society struggling to understand or accept the nuance of this issue. I doubt this bonkers film will help though…

Following a car accident as a young girl, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has a titanium plate fitted to her skull. Working a dancer at a car show with a male following, she is pestered by a fan one night declaring his love for her, and responds by stabbing him with a large hairpin, killing him instantly. Taking a shower back at the car show, Alexia is compelled to climb into one of the cars and seemingly has sex with it.

Not long after, Alexia discovers she is pregnant whilst it is revealed she is the serial killer the police are searching for. Having struck again, Alexia goes on the run, undergoing a dramatic change in appearance to become someone else – a boy named Adrien who disappeared ten years earlier. Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon) picks up his son and takes home to rebuild their relationship.

Julia Ducournau caused a bit of a stir with her cannibalistic coming-of-age debut Raw in 2016, leaving many keen to see how she would follow it up. Titane is the result, and if you thought Raw was subversive, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Claiming the top prize at Cannes this year, this might be a controversial pick yet its boldness and originality needs to be celebrated, even if proves its undoing for many.

Aiming to shock on a par with the likes Miike, Tsukamoto, Cronenberg, or Lynch, Ducournau presents a unique look at gender identity, toxic masculinity, and paternal bonding via one of the more bizarre premises in cinema. There is no escaping this is an acquired taste, and possibly even fans of Raw may not be onboard with what Ducournau has done here.

Of the concessions the audience are required to make, suspension of disbelief is primary, which you may have already guessed given Alexia is impregnated by a car. The fact it is implausible since she was merely straddled on the back seat with no indication of how penetration occurred is ignored, but also allows for the scene to pass without being needlessly graphic. It’s still weird though.

Courtesy of the opening scene of the accident, Alexia’s love of cars is strongly delineated by her kissing the vehicle when fresh out of hospital, making her adult job as a raunchy dancer on car bonnets in front of horny petrol heads a possible (un)natural progression for her. Interestingly, none of the men appear phased by the huge unsightly scar on the side of Alexia’s head.

When Alexia kills her over ardent fan we are led to believe this is self-defence against a forced kiss, accentuating themes of sexual violence towards women, but a failed lesbian hook-up with another dancer Justine (Garance Marillier) at a sex party results in Alexia slaughtering a houseful of shaggers, revealing a cold, sociopathic side to her – not that the intimacy with car this makes any sense in light of this discovery.

Gore fans will enjoy this opening murderous stretch, concluding with Alexia’s desperate metamorphosis into Adrien, with shaved eyebrows, short hair, strapped up body, and a new nose via unpleasant means. A complete tonal shift arrives with Vincent – a burly alpha male, so sure about this waif being his son he refuse a DNA test – leaving the gnarly violence behind but introducing a creepy, homoerotic frisson instead.

Vincent is a single fire chief after his wife (Myriem Akheddiou) left him, commanding a group of male fire fighters, including Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who it is implied looks up to Vincent as a father. Adrien’s arrival sees this compromised whilst the rest of the crew resent the fact this taciturn prodigal son is admitted to the team with nary a qualification or any training to his name, but Vincent’s rule is absolute.

This dubious relationship built on a terrible lie creates a different kind of terror, since we know what Alexia is like, but what of Vincent? How can he be so sure he has his son back without proof? Losing Adrien clearly damaged Vincent emotionally and he found solace in steroids, which he still takes. Not all plasters heal wounds, and Vincent has effectively decided a placebo is better than nothing when it comes to his son.

Psychologically, the story is at its most compelling during this section, punctuated by the absurdity of Alexia’s pregnancy. Personally, I found it hard to accept how she could compress a huge baby bump and not cause irreparable damage to the baby and herself – if indeed there is a baby growing in there and not a Ford Escort, since she leaks and lactates oil not blood or milk.

Ducournau is insistent in not force feeding the audience regarding the veracity of the ersatz bond between Vincent and Alexia, but isn’t so ambiguous about it either, the only quibble being Vincent’s past is not explored to make sense of his decision, similar to how we don’t know why Alexia is a psychotic murderer. Conversely, whatever is going with getting pregnant by a car is anyone’s guess – if it was put there just to shock then mission accomplished.

Reliable as ever, Vincent Lindon delivers another commanding performance, ironically one of his most human essays, but making the deepest impression is first timer Agathe Rousselle, an astoundingly brave, committed, protean, and mesmeric performance. She literally entrusts herself to Ducournau and the result is beyond superlatives.

But is it art? Titane is going to be the polarising film of the year – a stupendous piece of filmmaking with the most obtuse premise. Love it or loathe it, you won’t forget it.

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