Review: ‘Titane,’ starring Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon

September 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)

Titane” 

Directed by Julia Ducournau

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the horror film “Titane” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After getting into a car accident as a child and undergoing a mysterious surgical operation, a woman becomes a serial killer who has a sexual obsession with automobiles.

Culture Audience: “Titane” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching offbeat, artsy horror movies.

Vincent Lindon in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)

Disturbing, compelling and occasionally comedic, the deliberately perplexing “Titane” wraps an unorthodox love story in the cloak of a grisly horror movie. “Titane” leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it’s never boring. The emotionally damaged performances by “Titane” co-stars Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon make the film worth watching for people who are open to unconventional horror movies. Everyone else will probably be turned off by “Titane” because it has a plethora of content that’s intended to make people nauseous or queasy.

“Titane” is the second feature film from French writer/director Julia Ducournau, who clearly wants to be in the same league as well-known film provocateurs who are celebrated for making artsy movies that revel in the gruesome. Her feature-film debut was 2017’s “Raw,” a horror movie about young female cannibals who not only crave human flesh but are sexually aroused by this craving. “Titane” also interwines death and sex with an unusual obsession: the female protagonist, who is a serial killer, gets sexually aroused by automobiles.

Viewer expectations might be high for “Titane,” since the movie won the 2021 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’or, the festival’s highest prize. Ducournau is only the second female director to win this award since the festival launched in 1946. Jane Campion was the first female director to win the Palme d’Or, for her 1993 film “The Piano,” which went on to win three Oscars (including Best Original Screenplay for Campion) out of its eight Oscar nominations.

“The Piano” is the type of movie that is traditional Oscar bait. “Titane” is too much of an avant-garde film to get the type of Academy Award accolades that “The Piano” received. For all of its artsy characteristics, “Titane” is essentially a horror movie, so it’ll probably be too much of a turn-off to film snobs who hate horror movies. Even people who like horror movies might feel a little alienated by how baffling and frustrating “Titane” can be in making characters too mysterious for viewers to feel some kind of emotional connection.

“Titane” opens with a 7-year-old girl named Alexia (played by Adèle Guigue), who’s seated in the back of a car that’s being driven by her unnamed father (played by Bertrand Bonello) while cruising on a highway. Alexia is making a loud humming sound that’s similar to the sound of a revving engine. The noise is irritating to her father, who turns up the volume on the car radio. Alexia just hums louder in response.

Alexia’s father tell Alexia to stop making this noise, but she ignores him. As she gets up while the car is in motion, he reaches behind him to scold her for not wearing a seat belt. He loses control of the car, which crashes on a highway divider.

The next scene shows Alexia in a medical exam room, after she’s had a mysterious surgical operation, which is not shown in the movie. What is shown is that she now has something metallic implanted in her skull. The implant scar on the right side of the head is prominently featured in the movie as constant reminder.

Alexia is also wearing a metal plate headset, whose purpose remains a mystery, but when she wears the headset it’s nearly impossible to move her head. The doctor in the exam room tells Alexia’s father: “Watch for any neurological signs. Motor function, coordination, diction.”

When Alexia and her father leave the hospital, she’s no longer wearing the metal plate headset. As they go outside, Alexia sees her father’s car, which is the same car that was in the accident. And she does something strange: She runs up to the car and hugs it.

The movie then fast-forwards to when Alexia is 32 years old (played by Agathe Rousselle) and working as an exotic dancer. She’s not a stripper, but she’s hired to do things like dancing sexually at parties while she wears revealing clothing. It’s at one of these parties (which takes place inside a warehouse) that viewers first see the adult Alexia, who is tall, lanky and bristling with a “don’t mess with me” energy. She’s slightly androgynous and wears her hair up in a disheveled bun that’s held by a long black hair pin that’s about the size of a chopstick.

Alexia is one of several female dancers at this party, which has cars set up as props so that the dancers can gyrate on the hoods and roofs of the cars. A security guy is shown pulling a rowdy male partygoer off a dancer in the partygoer’s attempt to grope the dancer. The security guy gruffly reminds the partygoer that the party has a “look but don’t touch” policy for how party guests can interact with the dancers.

Alexia is apparently well-known among the many of the male partygoers, who gather around as she does a sensual dance on the hood of a car. After her dance, several of her admirers surround her and ask for her autograph. Alexia is accommodating but she seems emotionally detached from getting this attention.

After the party, Alexia and the other dancers are taking a group shower in the warehouse. A pretty young woman standing next to Alexia introduces herself as Justine (Garance Marillier), who seems to want to start a friendly conversation with Alexia. However, Alexia is standoffish and doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone.

An awkward moment comes when Alexia leans down and her hair accidentally gets caught in Justine’s nipple ring. After some uncomfortable moments when Alexia gently tries to untangle her hair from the ring, she loses patience and just yanks her hair out, which obviously causes some pain to Justine, who expresses irritation with Alexia for being so insensitive. Alexia just walks away.

Alexia clearly wants to be left alone. However, one of her male admirers has followed Alexia to her car, which is the only car that’s left in the dark parking lot. As she’s about to start the engine, he stops her and asks for her autograph, and she reluctantly obliges. This stalker, who is a total stranger to Alexia, then tells Alexia that he thinks he’s in love with her.

He asks Alexia to kiss him, and she gives him two friendly kisses on the cheek. But then, things get ugly when he forces her to kiss him on the mouth. At first she resists, but then she starts kissing him back, as she reaches for that long black hair pin. You can guess what happens next, because Alexia has a secret: She’s a serial killer.

Here’s a pattern that a lot of people won’t like about “Titane”: The movie tends to abruptly jump to a scene that will make viewers think that parts of the story are missing. After showing Justine and Alexia meeting for the first time under awkward circumstances, the next time Alexia and Justine are seen together is when they’re on a date, and they’re making out with each other like lovers. It’s an explicit scene with partial nudity. The movie never shows or tells what happened to cause Justine and Alexia to go on a date after Alexia made such a bad first impression on Justine.

The same thing happens again, when a scene abruptly shifts to Alexia in an amorous lip lock with Justine at someone else’s house. What are they doing there? How has their relationship progressed to this point? It turns out that this house is supposed to be the site of a sex party. There’s no orgy scene in the movie, but things get out of control very quickly when it comes to Alexia’s murderous impulses.

Alexia has been leading a double life where she lives at home with her parents, who don’t really ask about or meddle into whatever Alexia does in her own free time. Alexia’s father seems a little suspicious of Alexia’s secretive activities when she’s not in the house, but Alexia’s mother (played by Céline Carrère) is blissfully unaware. Alexia’s parents don’t get much screen time in the movie (less than 10 minutes), and they don’t say much (less than two minutes of dialogue), but it’s eventually revealed that Alexia has some disturbing control over them.

Through a series of circumstances that won’t be revealed in this review, Alexia disguises herself as a man for the majority of the story. She impulsively comes up with this idea while she made a hasty trip to an airport, where she goes in the bathroom to cut her hair and use medical bandages to bind her breasts. She also deliberately breaks her nose on the bathroom sink to change the appearance of her nose. Alexia’s trip to the airport was so last-minute that she only brought her backpack with her and no other luggage.

Observant viewers might ask, “Where did she find the time to get the medical bandages?” It’s a minor plot hole in the movie that could be explained by speculating that Alexia bought the bandages at the airport, although most airports don’t sell wrap-around bandages of the size that Alexia uses. Viewers of “Titane” will have to get used to scenes that have sudden shifts, with things taking place that have no previous context. For example, viewers never find out what Alexia’s life was like in the years between her car accident at 7 years old and her life at 32 years old.

Alexia’s disguise as a man involves her stealing the identity of someone named Adrien Legrand. When she’s disguised as Adrien, Alexia pretends to be mute. This identity theft ends up fooling a family member of Adrien. The victim of this scam is named Vincent (played by Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged firefighter captain. Vincent is divorced, he lives alone, and he’s another lost and damaged soul.

Vincent abuses steroids and is haunted by a personal tragedy from his past. Disguised as Adrien, Alexia ends up living with Vincent. Their relationship is very rocky at first, with Alexia/Adrien being very hostile to Vincent from the beginning, but they end up getting to know each other better. “Titane” has scenes that are meant to show homoerotic and incestuous undertones of Vincent’s intimate touching of “Adrien,” with Victor being confused by his possible sexual attraction to a man whom he thinks is a close relative.

Alexia’s murderous rampage, sexual fascination with automobiles, and theft of someone else’s identity aren’t her only secrets. She has another big secret which results in scenes that will make viewers squirm the most. This secret is why people can describe “Titane” as being a “body horror” movie. Ducournau has an interesting directing style of blending scenes that are hypnotic and dreamlike with scenes that are stark and jolting in their realism.

At the fire station, Vincent has a young protégé named Rayane (played by Laïs Salameh), who has the nickname Conscience. Shortly after “Adrien” starts living with Vincent, “Adrien” is given a job at the same firefighter station where Vincent is the captain. “Adrien” then goes through training as a firefighter and paramedic, but “Adrien” encounters some obstacles that have to do with Rayane.

Rayane becomes jealous and insecure that “Adrien” might replace him as Vincent’s favorite employee. Rayane notices that “Adrien” looks androgynous, and he has doubts about the identity of “Adrien,” so he targets “Adrien” for some bullying. Rayane also wonders if “Adrien” could be Vincent’s secret gay lover, but when Rayane mentions this speculation to co-workers, Rayane’s thoughts are immediately ridiculed.

In addition to the horror aspects of the film, “Titane” also brings up a lot of incisive observations of gender roles in society, particularly what it means to be “masculine” and to be taken seriously as a man. These issues obviously come up with Alexia in disguise as Adrien, as she adjusts to working in an all-male environment. And viewers can see the obvious differences between how she is treated in life as a woman compared to how she is treated when she’s living her life as a man.

But gender issues are very much evident with Vincent, who abuses steroids (which he injects in his rear end, to hide the needle marks and bruises) because he confesses to someone that he’s afraid of looking old and weak. The drug abuse is also a manifestation of his emotional pain. Vincent is very much caught up in projecting a “macho” image to most people, so he hides his emotional pain behind this image. Over time, Alexia (as Adrien) and Vincent begin to understand that they have a lot more in common than they thought, because of their neuroses and emotional issues.

Because most of “Titane” is about the relationship between Alexia/”Adrien” and Vincent, there’s a great deal of the movie where Rousselle does not speak and has to use her facial expressions and body language to convey her character’s emotions. It’s a fascinating performance. Even in Alexia’s life under her true identity, Alexia wasn’t much of a talker.

Lindon is equally absorbing as an emotionally wounded man who has to pretend to the world that he’s strong and stable. There’s a well-acted scene soon after he meets “Adrien” where Vincent begins crying because he sees that “Adrien” can’t or won’t talk. It’s in this moment that Vincent, who is lonely and starving for human affection, begins to understand that the person who will be living with him probably won’t be talking to him at all.

It’s why “Titane” is more than a gory horror movie. Despite some flaws of abrupt shifts in the plot and not providing enough backstory for the protagonist, “Titane” is really a story about human connections and how people deal with their inner pain. With “Titane,” Ducournau has delivered a memorable film that can not only show humanity at its cruelest, but also how compassion can be found amongst the cruelty. “Titane” is also a movie where people’s reactions to it say more about the viewers than about the characters in the movie.

Neon will release “Titane” in select U.S. cinemas on October 1, 2021.