A surreal nightmare, Titane pushes the boundaries of taste. Still, it’s intriguing throughout and doesn’t let up for its entire 100 minutes plus.
A father (Bertrand Bonello), who turns out to be a doctor, is having trouble controlling his seven-year-old daughter Alexia (Adele Guigue) in the back seat of their car while driving. She makes loud engine sounds and when her father turns up the music to try to drown him out, she ups her volume. Then, Alexia starts kicking his seat from directly behind him. He calls on her to stop that. Instead, she removes her seatbelt. Fed up, her father turns around for a couple of seconds, leading to an accident, in which Alexia is badly injured.
Next, we cut to about 25 years later and a heavily tattooed Alexia (now played by Agathe Rousselle) is working as an exotic dancer. Fans approach her for autographs, but she is barely interested. With a big chip on her shoulders, she seems quite comfortable in violent situations. She is a loner, an outlier – seemingly perpetually angry and disenchanted. When one fan gets too close after a shift, Alexia takes matters into her own hands. So, too, when she makes out with another girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), who’s working at the same club.
Despite living in a beautiful home with her parents, Alexia’s relationship with her father, in particular, appears dysfunctional. More violent acts ensue. Then Alexia takes off. She spots a photograph of a what a boy who disappeared 10 years ago – Adrien –would look like now and decides to assume his identity. That’s how Alexia (masquerading as Adrien) is “reunited” with the boy’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fire chief, who is ecstatic to have his son back. Alexia initially refuses to speak with him, looking to “escape” again at the first opportunity. The fire chief, who has his own issues, brings Alexia into the fold, alongside other firefighters, who are less than keen on “him”. Gradually, Alexia let’s down at least part of his guard with Vincent. But she remains on edge and is holding on to a big secret.
The title, Titane, comes from titanium, a metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion. After her childhood accident, Alexia had a titanium plate inserted into her head. She wanders through life as if she can set her own rules, without caring about others.
Titane is the work of writer and director Julia Ducournau (Raw). Clearly, she was out to push buttons and that she does with this science fiction drama horror. She provokes and inflates. There are moments I wanted to look away or cover my eyes. The film has a rawness and a demented element that there’s no hiding from. The pulsating, grungy soundtrack is appropriate for the material.
Alexia is a thoroughly unlikeable character, who Rousselle does a fine job inhabiting her. She paints her as a woman who continually pushes through the pain barrier … as deeply damaged goods. I was continually asking what, if anything, would make Alexia happy? Does happiness even exist in her world? Lindon is memorable too as an alpha male who – like Alexia – has more going on in his life than he would let on. Part of the “joy” in this picture is seeing Alexia and Vincent dancing around each other, both figuratively and literally.
Titane is certainly not for everyone, but the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes has massive impact. I was drawn into the mire.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.