Revue Titane – Agathe Rousselle is extraordinary in body horror, awarded the Palme d’Or | Movie
Back in the mid-90s, David Cronenberg crash – an auto-erotic film adapted from JG Ballard’s 1973 novel – became a scandalous cause at the Cannes film festival when the president of the jury, Francis Ford Coppola, allegedly campaigned against him by winning the Palme d’Or ( instead, he received a “special jury prize”). Here in the UK, the Standard Evening labeled crash “Beyond the limits of depravity”, while the Daily mail called for a ban – a call answered in the Holy Quarter of Westminster. How delicious, then, that a quarter of a century later, the French filmmaker Julia Ducournau – who caused a sensation in Cannes with her first feature film in 2016, Raw – is expected to win the Palme d’Or with a film that owes a striking debt to Cronenberg’s catalog of body horror in general, and crash specifically.
As with all full-fledged genre films, there are few kilometers to describe Titanium in terms of plot. Like Cronenberg’s the brood, this is an adult fairy tale (rated 18 for “strong violence, horror, sex”) about love, rage and loneliness, which operates on a visceral level, using eerie physical metaphors to describe down-to-earth emotional truths. Suffice to say that the story centers on Alexia (the remarkable Agathe Rousselle), a young woman with titanium plates in her head after a car accident when she was a child. It’s a trauma (her father’s fault?) To which she compulsively returns, earning her living as an exotic dancer in car shows, simulating erotic encounters with metal and glass.
There’s a car crash quality to her relationships too – supercharged encounters with men and women who breathe new meaning into the phrase. the little death. Only a fantastic bump-and-grind with an automobile delivers emotional shifting, reaching ecstatic heights that Alexia lacks elsewhere.
So far so crooked. But after an orgy of carnage, Alexia must disappear. So she cuts her hair, breaks her nose, bandages her breasts and her strangely distended belly, sets fire to her house and adopts the identity of Adrien, who died in her childhood many years ago. There are narrative echoes of films like that of Daniel Vigne The return of Martin Guerre (1982) or that of Clint Eastwood Changeling (2008) In the following, as a grieving fire chief, Vincent (a transformative turn of Vincent Lindon) simply accepts this stranger without speaking as his son and insists his colleagues do the same. “Someone hurt you, I’ll kill them,” he said to “Adrien.” “Even if it’s me. I would kill myself, I swear.
Ducournau described Titanium as an attempt to talk about love without words, so it is significant that dance plays an important role. From the merchant display of Alexia’s auto show routine to the tragicomic sight of Vincent trying to gain Adrien’s trust by fidgeting to the hit Zombies She’s Not There (pun on the title), movement and physicality speak volumes.
Indeed, despite all of her on-screen metamorphoses and extreme cinema revelations, it’s the sight of Rousselle turning androgynously towards Wayfaring Stranger that offers the film’s most surprising moment – bringing us straight back to the scene of opening, reminding us how far we’ve come.
There is a clear symmetry between the changing bodies of Alexia and Vincent, both of whom usually watch their own reflections as they struggle to control their bodily selves. While Alexia wraps her rebellious flesh in bandages, Vincent self-heals with injections, raging against old age. Both inhabit bodies that refuse to behave; both have intense emotional needs that they cannot contain.
It’s easy to be blown away by the centerpieces of car sex and Tetsuo-flesh and metal style mutations of Titanium. However, unlike Zoe Wittock’s 2020 jewel Giant, for example, in which Noémie Merlant has a passionate relationship with a fairground ride, it is not a film on “mechanophilia”. Rather, it’s a fable that uses the lexicon of horror (serial assassinations, bodily eruptions, transposed identities) to get under the skin of unconditional love – just like Raw used cannibalism to discuss family ties and trauma of coming of age.
Some will be repelled, many will be duped. But for those with an appetite for cinema that puts you in the guts, Ducournau delivers the goods, superbly helped by Raw The brilliant visuals of cinematographer Ruben Impens, all supported by a soundscape that pulsates and moans like a beating celluloid heart.