Katie Hogan is struck by the disturbing and powerful symbolism that earned Ducournau a Palme D’Or

CN: violence, gory images, abortion

Julia Ducournau’s latest film is a hybrid story, meshed together with blood, sweat and oil. Ducournau drags you into the depths of a truly disturbed mind and makes you watch as everything descends into chaos around her. What an experience it is.

Shrouded in mystery before being revealed at Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme D’Or, the entire plot has been a well-kept secret – and for good reason. These days, it’s very rare for trailers to not spoil too much of the film. With Titane, it is clearly a sign that this film needs to be seen how it was meant to, on the big screen.

What’s so deliciously delightful about Ducournau’s creation is that this is not a straightforward genre film but one of many moving parts

After a series of strange, violent and unexplained crimes a young woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), finds herself desperate and on the run. To escape the police, she manipulates her looks and pretends to be a male child gone missing years before. She is reunited with the child’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon). But there are secrets concealed just below the surface that this newly reunited family won’t be able to keep hidden for long.

What’s so deliciously delightful about Ducournau’s creation is that this is not a straightforward genre film. It’s one of many moving parts, very much like the car that our infamous protagonist Alexia is seduced by. What begins as a thriller with an up-close and personal death, an oil-slicked rampant sex scene and sense of danger, rapidly morphs into a horror show with plenty of gore, whilst the latter part becomes a warped family drama with some of the best atmospheric mood lighting I’ve seen.

Purple and pink fluorescent lights frequently grace the screen, adding to the frenzy of the more action-packed scenes. Stereotypically viewed as feminine colours, but also nowadays referred to as “bisexual lighting”, they add to the film’s commentary about gender identity. Historically, they are also used to signify when a character is losing their grip on reality, or to represent passion. So when Vincent indulges too far into his addiction or a homoerotic display shows the firemen letting off steam partying in the bar, the mood is lit accordingly.

A sub-genre that is guaranteed to have an audience on the edge of their seat is body horror and, more specifically, self-mutilation, which Titane most certainly offers. Explicit sex scene aside, the real body horror comes from Alexia distorting her body against her will.

A woman who has to help herself is seen as a dangerous thing

She tries to hide in the most horrendous ways, including breaking her own nose. To a point, these acts are more abhorrent than the gruesome murders she performs. Although the nose breaking scene is difficult to watch, her first attack on herself happens earlier, when she tries to abort the creature growing inside her by inserting a pointy spike up her vaginal opening. If we were to watch someone else perform such an act on her, it could be tolerated, despite the fact that the spike would be dangerous in anyone’s hands with the same intent. But a woman who has to help herself is seen as a dangerous thing.

The same can be said about Vincent, the father reunited with his lost child. He abuses his own body with needles, pumping iron to make himself feel and look like the hero he thinks he has to be, but inside he is falling apart. Every time he sticks a needle in his buttock there is a twinge of disgust and pain. Thanks to the most effective lighting, we see every bead of sweat, every bruise.

At the core of the film is a bizarre father-child relationship that is stretched to codependency, something that neither character wants but so desperately needs. But while we see Vincent for mostly who he is and wants to be, Alexia is an enigma. She is introduced to us as a dancer but she quickly becomes this quick-as-lightning assassin. We struggle to place her. Is she our heroine or just the protagonist? If she was the former, she should be someone you cheer for. The latter is someone you can appreciate as a character. She barely utters a word throughout the movie. The constant silence creates an inscrutable persona that we can’t help but follow even if we don’t fully understand or agree with her actions. Underneath it all is a shiny metal layer that no one can penetrate. From the very beginning, we are left to make our own conclusions as to why Alexia behaves the way she does.

Titane is a film that lends itself to a multitude of interpretations thanks to its rich symbolism, and different people will experience it in different ways. It seems more natural to absorb yourself into Ducournau’s mind and go along for the hell-bent ride.

Titane is currently screening in UK cinemas.

Images courtesy of Wild Bunch and Carole Bethuel.

Image description:
1. Alexia lies over the boot of a car designed to look like it’s on fire. She strikes a seducing pose and wears a performance outfit of neon fishnets and a golden top. She has medium-length blonde hair.
2. Alexia, now with a buzzcut and uniform, stares into the camera while sitting on the floor of a pink bathroom. She holds a passed-out Vincent in her arms.