Titane: High Gear, by Scott Nye
I could describe for you the first half-hour or so of this movie, you know. It wouldn’t be unexpected in a review – reviews tend to discuss a film’s premise – nor, probably, entirely unwelcome if you’ve heard of it. Some grotesque transgressive French film about sex and cars that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, making Julia Ducournau only the second female filmmaker to win the award, and one of only a handful of any gender to win for their second feature. But I digress. The point is if you’ve heard of the film, you know it’s weird as hell, and more than a little freaky. And so you open up a review maybe trying to figure out how freaky.
And I could tell you. And it’s not that I’m so concerned with ruining the surprise or whatever, because who cares, you’re here, you’re reading. And it’s not that I don’t think you’d believe me. It’s that I’d have a hard time believing myself. The first act of the film is so absurd, so persistently surprising, and – yes – so frequently discussing that I had a big grin on my face at each new turn it took. I was almost disappointed when it settled down and started to be about something. Almost.
I suppose it’s worth saying there’s a woman named Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) who, as a child, was in a terrible car accident who now has a certain…fixation, let’s say, on cars. So she works as a showgirl at semi-grungy auto shows, dancing not-quite-nude to draw men towards a parade of already-alluring cars. In a neon-soaked tracking shot that follows her through the club, Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens perform the first of several feats that will upend the aesthetic tempo of the film, setting the stage for something grander and stranger than only moments ago seemed possible. And then lighting the stage on fire.
Titane undergoes so many transformations so quickly that it requires Alexia to completely alter her identity, and an actress who could do so. To say Rousselle archives this “believably” actually ignores the point, which is very much built around how whatever we want from our lives comes to not only color our perceptions of it, but, occasionally, completely overwrite it. Titane’s tenderness could easily be put to the fore by anyone trying to make the film seem more palatable to an audience that isn’t immediately drawn in by the “it’s-the-most-fucked-movie-you’ve-ever-seen” advertising, an effort that will probably not do any wider audience any great service (I certainly don’t need angry friends and relatives coming for me, they can make their own bad choices), but it’s also not like it’s not a tender movie about found families and loss and regaining one’s sense of self through the love of another. It’s just that it’s also a movie about a woman who’s about to give birth to a machine.
This is, astonishingly, Rousselle’s first feature film, a surprise that comes not only because of her boldness but the skill with which she draws the film’s attention, especially after Ducournau deprives her both beauty and voice and slides her alongside Vincent Lindon, one of contemporary French cinema’s more accomplished and prolific actors (and it’s not as though France is in short supply of accomplished and prolific actors). They are an odd pair, Rousselle arriving to him slightly mangled and mute, quite fragile, increasingly mechanical, Lindon this lumbering mass of flesh and muscle, his character (also named Vincent, stay with us here) going to extreme ends to aid his physical fitness, or at least aid his perception of his physical fitness. Vincent guides the delusion Alexia falls into, which first becomes a mere fact of survival for her and increasingly becomes a need they both share.
Unlike so many young filmmakers, Ducournau understands both the value of a good-looking image as well as the need for serviceable ones to convey what her scene is trying to accomplish. She gets her bravura moments in early, the ideal time to hook the viewer and to not let such relative extravagances get in the way of concrete character work, which drives the bulk of the film. She takes her cues from Rousselle and Lindon as much as they do from her, a transference of energy that leaves neither the camera nor the performers purely at the service of the other, the easiest trap for emerging filmmakers to fall into.
Like most awards, the Palme d’Or is fiercely debated for a brief period of time, then gradually footnoted into history; it is no better a marker of lasting import than an Oscar (though might arguably make for a more exciting series of films to view), and indeed the festival seemed to enter a slumber for much of the 2010s in selecting their favorites. Lately, though, the festival has gradually turned towards fresher perspectives, films engaged in both the aesthetics and the thematic concerns of the present. Even coming off of their award for Parasite, though, Titane is easily the most radical film the take the spotlight since it found cause to award Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and this is all the more notable for its potential crossover appeal to a crowd outside of festival fervor. At a time when cinema is closing in, pleading with audiences in every way it can, here is a film that explodes outward and invites you to share in its madness.