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Agathe Rousselle in a scene from Titane.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

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  • Titane
  • Written and directed by Julia Ducournau
  • Starring Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon
  • Classification R; 108 minutes
  • Available in select theatres starting Oct. 1

Critic’s Pick

There are films that arrive with hysterical hyperbole and then there is Titane: an outre French whatchamacallit that, were the flabbergasted critics who caught its world premiere at Cannes to be trusted, is the most demented motion picture ever crafted. I mean, yes, director Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature is thoroughly bizarre. And perhaps it is the strangest film to ever be awarded Cannes’s Palme d’Or (though it was less than a decade ago that Jacques Audiard’s tonally bananas Dheepan snagged the prize, too). And yeah, at not one but two points in Titane, its main character has sex with cars. Not in cars, mind you. With.

Yet for all its promised outrageousness – a reputation understandably egged on by its indie-cool distributor Neon – Titane is not the shock-cinema sucker-punch that you might have been crossing your fingers for. Which is fine, even welcome. There are enough slippery and knotty ideas in Ducournau’s feature, along with two remarkable lead performances, to soothe the sickest filmgoer’s barf-bag expectations.

Sex, cars and the Macarena: How Titane’s Julia Ducournau made the most ‘shocking’ film of the year

A coming-of-rage story split in two, the first half of Titane follows the exploits of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a young woman who, thanks to a childhood car accident caused by both her and her father, walks through life proudly sporting a titanium plate in her skull, plus a fetish for vehicular carnality that gives new meaning to the word auto-eroticism. During the day, Alexia bumps and grinds against bumpers as a neon-lit car-show model. But at night, or whenever it suits her, Alexia is an icy, if not terribly efficient, murderer. She slays reprehensible men, and sensitive women. It’s all very egalitarian.

So far, so-so genre. But then Ducournau turns her narrative’s serial-killer trajectory not so much inside out as upside-huh, blasting Alexia off into the suburbs to pose as the long-lost son of the trauma-ridden firehouse captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon). Does Vincent buy this androgynously fashioned, largely mute stranger as his own flesh and blood? Will Alexia successfully reinvent herself as just another alpha-male finding purpose within Vincent’s firehouse crew? And what about all that motor oil bleeding out of Alexia’s increasingly bulging belly? Titane has questions that only David Cronenberg and Claire Denis can properly answer.

Yet as much as Ducournau brushes against the extreme – a few more degrees this way or that, and she’d have a new contender for champion of the New French Extremity Canon (a position currently strangle-held by Pascal Laugier’s 2008 chuckle-fest Martyrs) – the filmmaker’s heart is a big ol’ pile of family-dynamic mush. With the deeply troubled but affectionate Vincent, Alexia finds a facsimile of the father she was denied – or, as Ducournau implies, the father she deserved. And with her new firefighter colleagues, some of whom are more suspicious of her history than others, Alexia wriggles her way into a France-first fraternity that is as unsure of its bodily worth as she is. Rousselle and Lindon sell it all with unwavering seriousness, which is sorta necessary when you’re playing such a heightened game of house.

While the film has its share of peer-through-your-fingers moments – though its car-copulation (carpulation?) scenes shouldn’t scandalize anyone who’s seen Cronenberg’s Crash, or what Cameron Diaz does to a Ferrari windshield in Ridley Scott’s The CounselorTitane is not some body-horror dare. Like her first film, 2016′s fine-young cannibals tale Raw, Ducournau is tracing taboos to sketch a messy but compelling treatise on life’s endless growing pains. Ride or die.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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