Titane hits theaters on Oct. 1.
Are you ready for a serial killer tale that is not just gory and vicious, but also wickedly funny and slyly sweet? Ready or not, Titane has arrived like a blow to the head, violent, nauseating, and deliriously dizzying. Fitting, since a blow to the head is the start of its anti-heroine’s tale, leaving her with the titular titanium plate embedded in her skull. But a warning to the faint of heart — or stomach — this is a supremely strange ride, and your mileage may vary.
Years after the formative car crash that made her part metal, 32-year-old go-go dancer Alexia (mesmerizing newcomer Agathe Rousselle) splits her time between twerking on hot rods at car shows and casually murdering anyone who dares come too close. With the law on her tail, she goes into hiding by binding her breasts, shaving off her hair, and posing as the long-lost son of a rugged firefighter named Vincent (Vincent Lindon). However, her true identity isn’t all she has to hide. A night of torrid car sex means her body is becoming a ticking timebomb, dripping with oil and dread.
“Hot femme fatale goes into hiding” might sound like a relatively simple crime-thriller setup, but on this framework, co-writer/director Julia Ducournau builds details that are savagely surreal and unapologetically transgressive. She welds the madness of midnight movies with the stranger-than-fiction details of a disturbing true-crime case, in which a French con man preyed on a grieving family desperate for hope. (Related: Watch Bart Layton’s documentary The Imposter). Together, these elements form a radical vehicle for exploring the terrain of broken souls and found families.
Within all this weirdness and violence, Ducournau works in a deranged sense of suspense and humor. A scene where Alexia purposely breaks her own nose is not only stomach-turning, it’s unnervingly funny. It’s not that violence is played for laughs. Instead, Ducournau sets up our expectation for the violence, and then slows the pace to make us twitch in anticipation of the impact. Laughter becomes our release valve. Alexia’s coolness in these moments is so shocking that it’s grimly hilarious, so much so that the impact of her blows need not even be onscreen to illicit cries, moans, or guffaws. A sound design rich with bone-crunching, flesh tearing, and organs squishing is powerful enough.
This sensational collision of body horror and comedy makes Titane a sensational follow-up to Raw, the cannibal coming-of-age film that first won Ducournau international acclaim. That menacing yet madcap movie also centered on an introverted antiheroine who had an irrepressible urge for violence. Here, however, Ducournau refuses to start off with a character who is sweet and meek, much less remotely affable. Alexia is hell on wheels from the first scene, revving her engines without a care to whom it might harm. Over the course of the film, she barely speaks. There are no monologues spelling out excuses for her bad behavior. No confidantes will display her softer side. Remarkably, this is Rousselle’s first feature film role, yet she scorches on screen. Alexia’s motivations are left unspoken, but her feelings are clear through every fearsome grimace, every hard stare, every slinky swivel of her hips, and even a stone face finally falling to softness. Rousselle is ruthlessly riveting, whether dancing, devastating, or crumbling.
Storied French actor Lindon proves her perfect match on screen. Playing an aging firefighter determined to be a protective and devoted dad, he’s got Big Christopher Meloni Energy. His burly muscles flex with a desperation to wrestle his world into order. His face clenches in efforts of patience. This projected toughness makes moments where he dances goofily or gently hugs all the more profound. The tension shifts from if he will find out who Alexia really is to the potential emotional fallout of that discovery. While Titane is full to the brim with jaw-dropping reveals, ghoulish gore, and twisted humor, it is plumbing the complexities of two characters who feel impossibly lost and unloved, so this mind-bending ride ultimately lingers in your heart.