“Titanium”, Review: The Body Horror of Family Life
The curse of the genre is that it encourages filmmakers to downplay causes in favor of effects. In the best genre films, the amount and potency of these effects serves as enough compensation for the thinned drama. Julia Ducournau’s new film “Titanium” is a genre film, a touch of horror with a family touch, like Ducournau’s first feature film, “Raw”. But “Titanium” is much stronger, much wilder, much stranger. The radical fantasy of its premise – a woman gets permeated by a car – tears the ensuing family drama out of the realm of the ordinary and becomes a speculative fantasy and imaginative wonder that demands a suspension of disbelief – which becomes the subject of the film.
The film’s protagonist, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), has an affinity for cars that equates to some sort of fate. As a child (played by Adèle Guigue), Alexia sits in the back seat of a car driven by her father (Bertrand Bonello, himself a notorious director), who broadcasts music on the radio. But Alexia growls instead at the sound of the engine. Moments later, she unbuckles her seat belt, distracting her father and causing him to lose control of the car. Alexia suffers from a serious head injury and has a titanium plate inserted into her skull. Coming out of the hospital, she lovingly strokes her parents’ car, especially the driver’s side window, an ingenious Freudian touch that will resonate powerfully throughout the drama.
Flash forward, and adult Alexia performs as an erotic dancer at auto shows. She saw dancing in a place similar to a shed where cars are fetish objects. (A woman lathered a car and rubs her breasts against a side window.) Men wander among the vehicles, taking selfies with the women. With her unabashed attraction to cars, Alexia is a star in the field, and, when she dances energetically and curvy on a classic Cadillac, Ducournau renders her in ecstatically soaring footage. But, when one of Alexia’s male fans follows her and forcibly kisses her, she kills him – gore, graphically – with a stick shaped like a knitting needle that holds her hair in place. Then, while spraying her brain with her body, she responds to a thud, metallic noise at the door. The vintage Cadillac she banged and crushed on her flashes her headlights, and she walks up to her, naked, then walks in for a sex scene, in her front seats. She and the car – displaying fun with its increasingly vehement movement and flashing lights – bounce up and down in rhythm until the climax of both.
It’s hard enough for Alexia to cope in a world that isn’t inclined to take her sexual preference seriously, let alone her reciprocity. (The mocking tone of some “Titanium” reviews confirms this.) She is testing herself in a lesbian affair but is no more satisfied with a human woman than with a human man. She discovers that the car has impregnated her; already a killer, she kills again (and again), runs away and – cutting her hair, and tying her breasts and her visibly pregnant belly – assumes the identity of a teenager named Adrien Legrand. He disappeared a decade earlier as a child, but his case is back in the news. Spotted at the airport by the police, Alexia, in the role of Adrien, is taken into custody and seen through a one-way mirror by Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who claims to recognize him and takes him to the fire station where Vincent is the captain.
Here, with astute art, Ducournau casually casts an extraordinary detail, to let viewers meditate and absorb its mystery. The police offer to do a DNA test to prove Adrien’s identity, but Vincent refuses, he would surely recognize his own son, he said. Some critics have complained that his upbeat self-confidence is implausible, a ridiculous convenience to push the plot forward. Yet the active and autonomous embrace of Vincent d’Adrien (now called Alexia in disguise) is not a simple story lever – it is a mark of what it means to be a father and have a child. Whether Adrien was Vincent’s biological son does not matter: Vincent had (along with Adrien’s mother, played by Myriem Akheddiou) raised their son until the age of seven, and no retrospective evidence nor no doubt about his biological paternity will have any effect on his sense of the paternal bond. (An alert viewer might even suspect that Vincent is refusing the test precisely because he might know what he will reveal.)
When Adrien and Vincent arrive at the fire station, the film changes gears and becomes a thriller. Adrien desperately tries to keep her identity a secret even as her relationship with Vincent inevitably escalates, the pregnancy countdown inexorably continues, and the police draw closer to the serial killer Alexia. More importantly, the film’s emotional and dramatic focus turns, definitely, to the intensity of Vincent’s willingness to connect with Adrien, and the pressure on Alexia to support the fiction for her own good.
These subtle psychological maneuvers unfold alongside the harsh physical realities upon which the whole story and its very concept of selfhood depend. “Titanium” is a body horror film that relentlessly shows the anatomical agonies endured by its characters. Alexia has a large scar above her right ear, due to her childhood accident and surgery, and other marks left by her self-bonding. Ducournau shows her having an abortion with the same hair needle she used as a murder weapon and later slashing the flesh of her belly to force her childbirth and baring not muscles but metal. . Elsewhere, she slams her nose with her fist and hits it on a metal sink to change her appearance. The film’s explanation of bodily fluids (including Alexia’s various dumps, which appear to be based not on water but on motor oil) and the fierce physics that is on-screen all long set the tone for the eventful intensity of the story. The commanding and combative Vincent, too, punishes himself in his quest for strength, submitting to nerve-racking injections into his bruised buttocks to overcome the ravages of age. (Lindon, both crumpled and buff, comes across as a non-ironic version of Bill Murray.) More than that, the details of extreme physicality turn out to be carrying elements in the drama, doing the job as dialogue and the backstory doesn’t.
The fire station is a greenhouse of male ties. The firefighters, all men, work together, face death together and celebrate together in frenzied scenes of improvised dance evenings that exude a furiously submerged eroticism. Vincent’s quasi-paternal role vis-à-vis the young men under his command is also ambiguous – one of them, behind his back, suggests that Vincent is homosexual – and Adrien’s arrival disrupts and reorients the entourage. One of the young firefighters, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), considers Vincent a mentor, and becomes jealous when Vincent displays his attachment to Adrien through a particular kind of nepotism – training Adrien in firefighting and allowing him to join a very small team of first responders. In the extreme idiosyncrasy of this scene – played with a seriousness that stifles all humor – Adrien must resuscitate a person who does not breathe, and Vincent sings “Macarena” to keep the rhythm. (French liability law must be very lenient.)
Ducournau boldly goes beyond the absurdities of the story with an overheated style, filled with reverse dives that exalt the fury, daring and heroism of his characters, notably Vincent and Alexia. Their heroism is not primarily in fighting fires; it is in the force of their passion, the carefree intensity with which they follow the demands of their emotions and seek an ecstatic and white-hot redemption in their mutual bond. The relationship between them is highly gendered, and Alexia’s impersonation of Vincent’s son requires constant effort on many levels. To keep her secrets (and perhaps to hide her voice), she maintains a monastic silence. She is in tremendous pain as she continues to bind her body. Yet it turns out (carefully avoiding spoilers here) that, despite appearances, Vincent must also work mightily, at least emotionally, to overcome his judgment on appearances, which leads to another level of complicity and conflict. between them. Adrien ends up being unleashed in a scene, giving in to the desire for cars and expressing it in a dance of firefighters which at the same time delights, amazes and disconcerts the assembled company. In another, Vincent casually but cruelly submits to a self-mortification of vast symbolic significance.