The biggest problem posed when settling down to write the review of Julia Ducournau’s Titane is trying to figure out exactly what to say and not say. Ducournau’s follow-up to Raw is one of those glorious, rare examples of a film that is so unique that it defies easy classification. The plot races around, never sticking on one track for too long; you may get whiplash trying to keep up. Titane shoots off into some unexpected directions and is the definition of wild ride. By the time that Ducournau’s latest film ends it is unrecognisable from its beginning. It’s an excellent stroke of ingenious storytelling to be able to keep the viewer on the back foot for so long. To share any iota of the story would taint the experience, but it focuses on Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a strong personality with one Hell of a tale to tell.
Although I am unable to share any of the finer details of the narrative, for those eager to know a little more, Titane investigates a range of topics. Not content to hone in on one or two themes and issues, Docournau uses this project to explore grief, body horror, trauma, gender identity, motherhood, transhumanism, and the power of rage. It’s a wide spectrum to explore, but Ducournau expertly weaves them all together to create a film that is rich in context, one whose layers will be analysed and discussed for many years to come.
Newcomer Agathe Rousselle is phenomenal as Alexia. The role is near mute; Alexia is a stoic character of few words, and yet the audience always knows where the character is at mentally and emotionally thanks to the incredibly astute and intricate physical performance given. Although early in their acting career, Rousselle’s turn here has assured them as an actor set for future international fame. To say that Alexia is a complex person would be an understatement, but Rousselle sells and communicates all the nuances that the part demands. It’s an intimate performance, one that draws the viewer in, and the best part of Alexia is how flawed and dangerous she is. Alexia is aggressive and prickly, a person hard to get close to or know, her standoffish nature is at odds with audience expectations and this is a solid plus for Titane. Alexia doesn’t conform to the traditional protagonist conventions. The subversions open up a whole new world of discovery and are a perfect example of why unconventional characters that deviate from established norms are far more compelling to watch on screen.
Rousselle may be making the first steps into the acting realm, but co-star Vincent Lindon has a strong CV working in French cinema that spans that last forty years. Lindon’s experience works into the fabric of the film and helps reinforce the age gap between his character, conveniently also named Vincent, and Alexia. The dynamic between the two sparks with a dangerous electricity, the viewer unclear as to who has the upper hand when. This charged atmosphere keeps the two on the threshold of the unknown, the pain and mistrust between them is constantly simmering and there’s a knowledge that violence could erupt at any moment. The cast also features the return of Raw star Garance Miller (once again playing a character called Justine), in a smaller supporting part, but one that helps propel the narrative into its first metamorphosis.
Early screenings of the film caused fainting, walkouts, and bouts of vomiting, all excellent tools to market a film off of. The reasons for these maladies aren’t necessarily linked to an uber violent or gory film, but rather the sound design (which is out of this world) and how Ducournau constructs shots. The anticipation and implication of certain moments grab the fewer on a higher level than merely throwing a load of blood onto the screen. Ducournau is so good at creating tension that there are instances where your skin begins to itch, the film so horribly uncomfortable. The body horror elements are particularly brutal and will resonate with those that have experienced the terror and transformations of pregnancy. As with Raw, Titane is a film that draws the viewer in before chewing them up and spitting them out. There was a trance-like sensation when watching Raw and Ducournau has intensified these feelings here, crafting an almost hallucinatory journey clouded in rage, fear, and horror that consumes the audience entirely.
Raw cinematographer Ruben Impens returns to once more collaborate with Ducournau and the pair have once more created a film that looks as vast and rich as the themes delved into. The imagery is a heady swirl of luminescent neons and dingy darkness, moving from the vibrant dance scenes, to hushed and shadowy rundown houses, an ideal for Alexia’s Hellish ordeal. Even if the ever evolving plot developments get tricky to comprehend, the visual language provides enough details to help push the lost back on track. Ducournau also reunites with composer Jim Williams, who has again produced an excellent aural accompaniment to both Impens visuals and Ducuournau’s ideas.
By keeping so many of the behind-the-scenes talents of Raw involved, Titane easily taps into that same magic that was created last time around, but it pushes and distorts in its own uniquely unusual way. In many ways Raw was about someone embracing their monstrous side, whereas Titane offers a journey of a monster finding their humanity. Ducournau has managed to capture lightning in a bottle once more with Titane, a truly beautiful and barbaric nightmare that won’t be shaken easily.
Titane is something really special. The sound design is incredible, the visuals startling, and it will take days, if not weeks, to fully unpack everything seen and experienced.
Titane is in select UK cinemas now.
This review first appeared on THN.