Queen knew it in 1975, singing to car fanatics the world over: There’s something about an automobile. “The machine of a dream / Such a clean machine / With the pistons a pumpin’ / Аnd the hubcaps all gleam — that might just have you falling in love.”
Or, in the case of Alexia (Agathe Rousselle, “Loving”), you might have sex with an old Cadillac and end up carrying its child. I don’t think Queen could have foreseen that one, but that is where filmmaker Julia Ducournau (“Raw”) begins the wild ride of “Titane.”
Alexia works as a dancer at car shows where men take pictures of women in fishnets who roll around on the hoods of hot rods and sports cars. However, we first meet Alexia as a child already enamored by the dulcet tones of a roaring engine. When a bad car accident leads to brain surgery, titanium (or, in French, titane) plates are screwed into her skull and a gnarly scar develops above her right ear.
Perhaps it was the force of the accident, or Alexia’s bionic skull, that causes her to develop a violent streak, but “Titane” really picks up after a burst of gruesome attacks set Alexia on the run. Led to disguise herself as a boy named Adrien, she finds herself basked in the love of an emotionally battered father figure named Vincent (Vincent London, “The Measure of a Man”).
The absurdity of the plot is marvelous and keeps the viewers on their toes. Ducournau gives French absurdist director Gaspar Noé a run for his money with “Titane,” and far exceeds the typical Noé film when it comes to emotional warmth. Despite Alexia’s violence and uniquely unsettling physical symptoms of being pregnant with a car’s baby, “Titane” has a tender side.
The movie is ridiculous, in the way that French cinema has long challenged viewers’ expectations. There is nothing derivative about the plot of “Titane,” which blooms around the love between Vincent and Alexia, two broken and afflicted people who find themselves unable to turn away from this newfound sense of a more complete home.
It goes without saying that this film is beautiful. The director of photography is Ruben Impens, who also shot “Raw,” and lives up to that standard with creative perspectives and compositions. A richly textural visual experience, the viewer is pulled into Alexia and Victor’s colorful atmosphere by a tactile longing; surfaces and scars beg to be felt, as the human body is the basis for most of what might disturb the audience.
In comparison with “Raw,” “Titane” is much less of a scary movie. Pushing the body past its expected bounds is different from the way bodies are violated in “Raw.” That’s not to say that “Titane” wouldn’t fall into the body horror genre; rather, one has to contemplate the unseen ways in which violation of the body takes a toll on the mind. This is a cerebral film, and those expecting a straightforward story should look elsewhere.
The effort asked of the viewer makes the film slow in some parts — when the film’s loud and brutal development gives way to a slow-burning emotional plateau, and Alexia encroaches on Vincent’s pain, the change of pace and increased sentimentality catch you off guard. Keeping up with character evolution means slowing yourself down too. You need to be in tune with the film’s unique pace to appreciate the nuanced portraits Ducournau paints.
That said, the reward for doing the mental exercise is great. With such luscious imagery, real chemistry between Rousselle and Lindon, a percussive score by Jim Williams (“Raw”) and an exciting soundtrack, “Titane” is a sensory playground for the moviegoer. If you’re willing to invest the energy and treat “Titane” as a pair of character studies, the experience becomes all the more rewarding.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.