The Cinematic Shock of “Titane” Arrives in New York

At the Cannes Film Festival this year, the winner of the Palme d’Or was “Titane,” directed by Julia Ducournau. It opens in New York on October 1st, and fans of Ducournau will be bracing themselves for the impact. Her previous work was “Raw” (2017), whose heroine began as a vegetarian and developed a hunger for human meat; many viewers were repelled by the movie, though the more disturbing question was whether or not it should be listed in the Guide Michelin.

I can now reveal that “Titane” makes “Raw” look like the mildest of amuse-gueules. The new film is beefy with belligerence, and blood, though plentifully distributed, is by no means the dominant liquid; this may be your first and only chance to watch a young woman lactate black oil. As if you were playing an R-rated version of “Clue,” you will also be presented with a choice of murder weapons, including a metal hair stick—good for punching through ear holes—and, somewhat less precise, the leg of a stool. (Insert in the mouth of your sprawling victim, and push down hard.) The difference is that, unlike the board game, “Titane” keeps nothing hidden, and makes no bones about the identity of the killer.

Her name is Alexia, and we see her first as a child (Adèle Guigue), aged seven. She is badly injured in a car accident, and a titanium plate is fixed to the side of her skull. She emerges from the hospital and, rather than flinching in horror from her parents’ automobile, draws near and embraces it, as though it were a source of comfort and strength to her. This image, the most potent in the film, is more alarming than any of the grosser sights to which we are subsequently treated.

It’s evident that this power of auto-suggestion endures, because, when we next meet Alexia, she is an adult (Agathe Rousselle), and she is still caressing cars. In fact, she does so for a living—marching into gatherings of hot rods, where she bumps and grinds against or atop the souped-up vehicles. Men cluster round and stare, though they are forbidden to get too close; in the words of one security guy, who is clearly well versed in theories of heteronormative scopophilia, “Touch with your eyes.” The real fun starts after the show, when Alexia, scrubbing off the male gaze in the shower, is disturbed by a loud banging. There at the door is a Cadillac, which wants her to come out and play. Which she does.

The Cinematic Shock of “Titane” Arrives in New York

To have sex with an automobile, if this film is to be trusted, all you need is a clean driving license and a dirty mind. Alexia takes plum position inside the vehicle, bang in the middle, and holds on tight to a couple of scarlet seat belts, for better purchase. Not to be outdone, the Caddy bounces up and down of its own free will and lurches from side to side. I haven’t seen a car enjoying itself so much since “Herbie Goes Bananas” (1980).

The marrying of metal and flesh is an old favorite among filmmakers, and nobody who recalls Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991), calmly examining the sliding shafts inside his own forearm, where the ulna and radius should be, will be taken aback by the shenanigans in “Titane.” What’s novel about Alexia is that, after her tryst with the hot rod, she discovers that she’s pregnant. Naughty Herbie has gone way beyond bananas. You may regard this turn of events—a maculate conception, so to speak—as one of several provocations, tricked out with deliberate blasphemy, on the part of Ducournau. Or you may simply place bets as to whether our heroine will give birth to a two-door Mini or a Chevrolet Spark.

The narrative of “Titane” is a tangle of many strands. It’s not enough that Alexia should be a mater machinata. She must also be a serial killer. Gleefully, with or without good cause, she dispatches pretty much anyone, male or female, who threatens her, befriends her, or blocks her path. Only a movie as willfully weird as this one could treat multiple homicides as a subplot; and if, like me, you’re hoping for a police procedural, with eager gendarmes on Alexia’s oily trail, then that, I am afraid, merely demonstrates the poverty of our bourgeois expectations. Ducournau has other plans for us. Here goes.

Alexia, needing urgently to hide after her slaying spree, spies a poster. It shows a boy named Adrien, who disappeared as a child and has been missing ever since. Eureka! Alexia will become the adult Adrien, miraculously returned: problem solved! To this end, she cuts her hair, straps down her breasts and her already swelling belly, and, as a finishing touch, breaks her own nose against a sink—one of those scenes, reminiscent of a school playground, in which a combative director dares us to watch and, by implication, damns us for failing the challenge and looking away. In this instance, the challenge is a dud, because Alexia remains, unmistakably, a young woman. Whom is she trying to fool?

The answer is Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fire chief. He takes Alexia in, scorning the offer of a DNA test—yeah, right—and declaring stoutly that of course he knows his own son. He introduces the newcomer to his crew, comparing himself to God and Alexia—or “Adrien”—to Jesus. (There we go again.) If the firemen, by and large, accept this oddball, it may be because the atmosphere in which they dwell is decidedly odd: more than once, we see them dance in a trance, curving to and fro in a half-erotic haze. Rapturous stuff, though you wonder what would happen if they suddenly had to snap out of it and rescue a cat from a tree.

It could be argued, with some justice, that none of this makes any practical sense, and that the various themes of the movie—the hint of cyborg, the casual butchery, the gender-switching, and the parable of the prodigal child—are never stitched together in any credible or satisfying way. The response to that charge, I guess, would be that “Titane” is a fairy tale, and that the melding of the cruel and the near-magical is a long-standing tactic of the genre. Fans of Ducournau would add that the ferocity of her approach is liberating, fuelled by a transgressive energy. But what, exactly, is being transgressed? It’s not as if “Titane” is rich in regular lives, with their litany of social codes, so who can tell if those codes are being disrupted or disobeyed? Beneath the gruesome violence there’s a silly streak: rules are smashed like noses, just for kicks.

Some people, understandably, have linked “Titane” to David Cronenberg’s “Crash” (1996). I found myself reaching further back, to John Carpenter’s “Christine” (1983)—his fable about a haunted Plymouth Fury, adapted from Stephen King and echoed, consciously or otherwise, by Ducournau, when she delivers a head-on shot of the car that shines its headlights at Alexia and summons her to turbocharged coitus. Initially, “Christine” seems like a standard revenge-of-the-nerd flick, as a school dork feels encouraged, at the wheel of the Plymouth, to outsmart the bullies who used to plague him; yet it changes gear into something more seditious. The proud hero becomes actively unpleasant, especially to women, as if he’s been misogynized by his ownership of a classic car, and by the customized culture from which it springs. The final words of the movie, uttered by his former girlfriend, are “I hate rock and roll.” Now, that’s transgressive.