An audacious body horror thrill ride with loneliness and need

Critics have heralded Ducournau's late-coming sophomore shocker and, according to the review aggregators rotten tomatoes and Metacritic, like it considerably less well than her 2016 debut Raw (R-V 2017), even though it got the Palme d'Or at Cannes (only the second woman in Cannes history - after Jane Campion - ever to do so); but I differ from most critics and the public in liking this one better. The reason is simple: Vincent Lindon. He doesn't appear in the film till half way through, but when he does, the film develops a human pulse. Lindon's bereft dad and fire chief makes all the difference. The tall former model Agathe Rousselle, who plays the adult Alexia, the crazy metal-impregnated lesbian tomboy-flirt, a hood-top erotic dancer at car shows, who then becomes a serial killer, would not own the audience's affections were it not for Lindon and the bond that develops between them. It's a touching and pathetic one that we can't scoff at, no matter how much body horror stuff there is here and sheer absurdity and shifting of plot focus. Ducournau seems more enthusiastic than competent as a director. But she's dementedly wound up in what she's doing, and the simple but effective thing she does do here as in Raw is ramp up the volume and keep it that way.

We have seen seven-year-old Alexia (Adèle Guigue) get titanium in her head after a car crash (the no-nonsense dad driver a cameo by director Bertrand Bonello), then kiss the restored car on the way out of the hospital, then, two decades later, turn into the bizarre erotic dancer-cum-serial killer who has sex with a Cadillac and gets dangerously pregnant with a growing critter in an amniotic fluid of motor oil. As time goes on, the masochism and the body horror keep ramping up. Seeing a computer-aged picture of Vincent's lost boy that shows he'd be about her age now, she binds her breasts and stomach, chops off her hair and eyebrows, gives herself a hard-t0-watch beating and breaks her own nose, and turns up as the fire chief's lost son, Adrien.

It's touching the way both father and fake "son" struggle to maintain this illusion. One of the fresh young hunk firemen (who're continually doing slo-mo nude torso erotic dancing together that blatantly evokes Claire Denis' Beau Travail) groks that Adrien is Alexia, and Adrien's mother (Myriem Akheddiou) knows there's a scam here, but solemnly commands Alexia not to hurt the man. Vincent, the actor stripped to show a bulk he worked for a year to build up, and, in character, giving himself painful steroid butt injections: his own body discomfort. He tells "Adrien" the shots aren't because he's sick but because he's "old." Why some critics think there are more ideas in Raw puzzles me; there seem to be quite a lot more roiling around in Titane, though the way Ducournau gets to this complicated, absurd, thought-provoking situation is more confused and messy than Raw's clear, well-focused trajectory.

Ducournau is easy about plunging into horror, midnight-mayhem genre, and the action here is too freaky and odd to seem affectedly arthouse. Yet there is something unpredictable all the way through that keeps you guessing, and that's something everybody can like, an adrenalin injection for the jaded cinephile.

The use of music by Jim Williams (who's also known for working with Cronenberg and Ben Wheatley) is vibrant and rich, and songs and dancing are incorporated in powerful ways that grab you and counteract the body horror with an attractive, universal physicality. It's been reported that Vincent Lindon never dances, and doing so as freely and unguardedly as he does here was extremely hard for him. But he's out of his comfort zone here throughout - layered on his usual rock-solid, true-blue working class guy he is playing a weird, tormented man so lonely and bereft he'd be willing to accept a pregnant young woman as his lost son. Of course sexuality analysts have a lot to play around with, with the macho young firemen dancing around in the background as loud static.

When it's all over, you may feel disappointed, because it hasn't pushed the horror far enough (as with, say, Cronenberg's Dead Ringers), or because it just hasn't pulled together its plot line tightly enough, for all the throbbing music, flaming fires, glowing red light, and sexy dancing. But as Peter Debruge wrote in his Cannes Variety review, with Titane we sometimes just have to give ourselves over "to the movie’s demented momentum" and take "whatever perverse pleasure" we can in the director's "willingness to push the boundaries." It's all we get, but it's enough sometimes to make you giddy with excitement and that may be what mesmerized the Cannes jury into choosing what wasn't the best film but a loopily out-there one that sustains its level of excitement and makes you think and remember what you've seen later.

Titane, 108 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes July 2021, where it won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, and was featured in about two dozen other international festivals, including Toronto and, Sept. 22, the NYFF. US theatrical release Oct. 1, 2021. Metascore 73% (Raw's was 81%). AlloCiné press rating: 3.5 (70%); that of Raw (Grave) was 4.0 (80%).

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