BFI London Film Festival 2021: Titane

Julia Ducournau’s anticipated second feature expands on her earlier themes, taking them in weird, uncomfortable but compelling directions.

Synopsis: Titane : A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys.

Sometimes there are multiple synopsis’ offered for a film, some run a little long or give too much away – and while the same can’t be said for Titane‘s very light on detail description, I’m also not entirely sure you could really sum up the events of this film within such a short format. Normally, I’d try and give a breakdown of some events, but Titane is one of those films that benefits from knowing as little as possible beforehand, allowing the film to unfold. As a result, this review will try to avoid discussion of many plot details to allow the experience to be as unspoiled as possible in advance.

When the original buzz around Ducournau’s first feature Raw appeared, it seemed that this was to be an extreme film and while there was certainly gory imagery that went further than much more mainstream fare, for me, it had more in common with the likes of Ginger Snaps as a weird, but kind of touching, female-focused coming-of-age tale than some of the European ordeal cinema it found itself mentioned in the same breath as. Raw‘s handling of a young woman forced to deal with a dark family secret as she tries to move through veterinary school probed the nature of close bonds and the kind of treatment that will allow you to overlook. In that sense, Raw sets the stage for Titane‘s rather more sustained and provocative exploration of those dynamics, marking a growth in the director’s confidence and vision.

Ducournau’s strengths lie in the cultivation of moments that are constantly on the edge of going too far, teasing the worst of the imagery, that teasing that leads to the dark comedy which is ever present throughout Titane. The more intricate details of injuries have an impact (heard plenty of uncomfortable reactions during the screening and for good reason) and are allowed to go to more uncomfortable places, while allowing that wry smile to emerge from underneath. Similarly, although this is, in terms of structure, a standard narrative piece, much of the film feels like a series of vignettes – Ducournau completely in control and out of control simultaneously, touring fantastical and distressing ponderings. This, understandably, won’t be for everyone, especially when gruesome set pieces take centre stage and the absence of a consistent tone to rest on may present issues for others. Some will find the dialling up of pitch-black comedy a difficult sell and honestly, if the phrase cringe-comedy could apply to anything perfectly, it is Titane.

However, among the noisy, raucous, awkward and unsettling elements there are moments of deep humanity straining at the sides. This is a film consumed with ideas of transformation, belonging and the things we do to be comforted when confronted with the ugly realities of life. These vastly different tonal elements at times would threaten to overwhelm many films but it is the fluidity with which it moves through its ideas that saves it. You almost don’t realise the departure you have taken until you’re in the thick of the next one, with secrets and questions left hanging in the air while new ones flurry around it. Everything about Titane is overindulgent, dripping with style, flair and meaning, even if that meaning is, by design, open to interpretation and likely to be the subject of multiple essays once the film has had time to bed in with audiences.

For all the wild ideas, effects brilliance and stunning photography, it is still the performances that lend so much to this. Agathe Rousselle as Alexia is an incredible find – this is her first feature film performance and it is a staggering one, especially when there is so much physicality involved. Alexia is unknowable – able to lean into or divert sharply away from societal demands about who she is or should be. Having an unknown performer in the lead role works so well for this and the opening sequence features a near seamless, fluid transition that lays bare how flexible her presentation is. It is, considering the rest of the subject matter, a remarkably subtle touch that instantly adds meaning and a mission statement. Vincent Lindon also delivers on an arresting and incredibly game performance – embodying a discomfort in traditional masculinity while craving it and aspiring towards it.

Titane will undoubtedly divide viewers and I believe that divide will be sharp between those who love it for the swerving, off the wall collage it is and those who can’t find an entry point to it. Both positions are, of course, entirely valid but either way this is immensely exciting cinema that cements Julia Ducournau as a directorial force to be reckoned with.

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars

Titane played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. The film will also play at Celluloid Screams and Abertoir Horror Festivals.