Winner of the “Palme d’or” at this years Cannes Film Festival, “Titane” arrives with a lot of notoriety and high expectations. From director/writer Julia Ducournau, in her sophomore effort, the film attempts to subvert genres, transcend expectations and shock audiences. As those are the intentions, you could say the film largely succeeds. Where it fails is in keeping us engaged. The stitching holding this Frankenstein’s monster of a film together is evident in most places, and the degree of willingness of the audience to allow themselves to be subdued by the director is in direct proportion to the degree that you will like the film.
The two ways you can commit to the film are either as an exploitation film, or as a piece of social polemic that targets gender, tradition, logic, and horror conventions. Since I had problems accepting either path, the movie does not do much for me, but why are those two trails unproductive? Let’s start first with the exploitation angle. We are not given any reason to care about characters in the story, so when something happens to them, our fears, hopes wishes don’t really matter. In a revenge film, we need to see why the offense was egregious, in a sex movie we want to be turned on by the characters, and in a horror film we need to be able to identify with the characters. This movie is not interested in those feelings. The closest we get to any of the traditional tropes of exploitation is a feeling of revulsion.
The movie is probably aiming at that social introspection approach, and in some ways it is successful in getting us to look at the situations from a different perspective. The idea that people are forced to adjust their expectations by switching gender roles is hinted at early on in the film, when we discover that the main character, a woman, is a serial killer. Although there are exceptions, the vast majority of these sorts of murders are committed by men. The motivations of female killers in this classification are usually monetary, and Ducournau hints that a sexual fetish is connected to the actions of our lead character, Alexia, but that connection is distant at best. There may be some underlying trust issue that fuels her rage at the victims, but it does not seem consistent and it is certainly not clear. When Alexia takes on the persona of a man, she ceases to murder, and we are asked to question whether the gender switch is cosmetic or emotional in it’s impact on her behavior.
About halfway through the film, our second major character arrives and he presents similar conundrums about sexuality. As an alpha male in a masculine dominated work culture, we would anticipate his use of power would come easily to him, it is instead a trial for him to impose his will on his “son”. Vincent is aging and his weaknesses are being masked by his use of steroids, so in a way he is modifying his appearance just as Alexia is doing, but using different means. None of the circumstances that take place when these two come together are meant to be believable, they are only moving the characters into positions from which the sly transgressive nature of the story can be played out. Every time one of those moments happened, it drew attention to the notion that “here is something we should be looking at.” I suppose one of the reasons that it doesn’t work for me is that I have rejected that sort of deconstruction since I was in college. It always feels like an affectation to me. Sometimes they can be intellectually valid, but often they seem like mental onanism.
The strengths of the film are not in the narrative, or the themes, or in the stupefaction of the things we see on screen. What merits the film has are in the visuals, the movie does have a hypnotic effect. The stylized camera movement in the introduction of the adult Alexia is a nice starting point to illustrate this. In one sequence of violence we see desperation, fury and humor and that all works. The moments between Vincent and Alexia, when they come together in the training bits or in dancing in his living room, are magnetic. The way the camera is used to display her body as it is morphing both under her control and out of her control, is the work of someone who knows what they want their film to look like, even if you can’t say why that is the choice being made. This is definitely a confident film maker.
I will come clean, I can’t recommend this film because it mostly irritated me in spite of the strong techniques. If you like being lectured at for your blindness to sexual stereotypes, then this could be something you would appreciate. I was hypnotized, but in a sense of somnolence rather that fascination.