Infamously, the first screening of Julia Ducournau’s cannibalism coming-of-age drama Raw had several audience members seeking medical attention afterwards. My advice to those moviegoers would be to book a sanitorium stay for her follow-up – just for the opening half hour alone. Titane’s first act is a full-bore blitzkrieg of savagery that should have cinemas thinking about flavouring their popcorn with smelling salts. Goreheads will love it but the squeamish should hang in there, because what follows is a dazzling, horrifying, tender, often brilliant, occasionally baffling and always wildly singular vision of lives and bodies in transition.
A car accident sets it in all motion: a testy young girl, Alexia, is grievously injured when her even testier dad loses control of their vehicle on a French highway. One entirely explicit scene of brain surgery later and Alexia has been left with a titanium plate in her head and a ridge line of scars behind her ear. Her cognitive function is intact but, as we soon discover when Titane picks up with her 12 or so years later (now played by newcomer Agathe Rousselle, astonishing in a shapeshifting, mostly wordless role), her psychological wellbeing is not in an especially brilliant state. She’s a star dancer at car shows, writhing on the bonnet of Cadillacs and having belligerent, Showgirls-like interactions with rival dancers (Raw’s Garance Marillier in a small role). Neither gives much clue of what’s about to follow for her: it involves a hairpin and the head of a male stalker, followed by a quickie with a car. Not in, with.
There are obvious similarities in the crime spree that follows with the no-fucks-given provocation of Gaspar Noé, the sleek visual sheen of Nicolas Winding Refn and the needle-drop violence of Tarantino (The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’ accompanies one funny-horrifying murder spree). There are also nods to gunkier end of the Cronenberg and HR Giger body horror spectrum (Titane is a hell of an application for a Ducournau Alien movie) as it becomes apparent that Alexia is carrying (yes) the car’s baby in her swelling belly and motor oil leaks from her breasts.
But the French filmmaker has her own thing going on, and like Raw, her preoccuptions spin the film off in unexpected directions. The violence is a means to an end – although one death scene involving a bar stool will have midnight screenings whelping for years to come – and the second half gear shifts into a searching investigation of identity that sticks two fingers up to gender binaries and forges a surprising and tender story of connection and healing. Yes, the events that lead to Alexia posing as the long-missing son of a steroidal fireman (a brawnily charismatic Vincent Lindon crammed into a fire captain’s uniform like Spam in a tin) belong to the 'just-go-with it' school of plot twists. But going with it brings plenty of dark laughs and a blossoming father-kinda-son relationship that washes away the sour tang of all that slaughter.
On this evidence, and Raw’s, Ducournau is going to be a just-go-with-it kinda filmmaker but she will always repay the trust. Does it all hang neatly together? No. Did I hide behind my fingers at times? Oh yes. Will it polarise moviegoers? Absolutely. But while it’s perhaps not as laser-focused as Raw, once seen Titane is impossible to dislodge – another gut punch from a director who will hopefully be unleashing her pulverising, punky visions on cinema screens for years to come. Strap in.