TITANE (Movie Review)

Winner of the Palme d’Or, TITANE has been hailed among the year’s best. From where I sat, it’s the worst.

0 out of ****
Rated R
(for strong violence and disturbing material, graphic nudity, sexual content, and strong language)
Released: October 1, 2021
Runtime: 108 minutes
Directed by: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent London, Adele Guigue, Garance Marillier, Jean-Christophe Reymond

Imagine if the devil made a modern Nativity parable.

And in it, he used the Incarnation to deconstruct human ontology rather than redeem it. Furthermore, at the center of this tale, he fused archetypes of the Virgin Mary and adult-Christ into one central homicidal antihero. The end result? An abomination of those sacred things, yet sincerely presented as something beautiful.

If he did, that movie would look a lot like Titane.

“Pushing boundaries” is an overrated cinematic virtue (so-called), especially when it comes to sexuality, but darned if it isn’t one of the more reliable pieces of critic bait. Titane came out of the Cannes Film Festival as winner of the Palme d’Or (the fest’s top prize) and a tidal wave of plaudits that are sure to land it on numerous year-end Top Ten lists.

Well-crafted though it may be by French writer/director Julia Ducournau, Titane is an unpleasant, sickening experience for no meaningful reason.

If anything, its sole purpose is to do something else that critics can’t seem to resist: subvert everything, especially what it means to be human.

To wit, the opening act, er, climaxes with Alexia (the traumatized heroine) having sex with a car…and becoming pregnant with its child. And that’s just for starters.

What unfolds from there is a sordid tale (including a series of gruesome, mostly-unprovoked murders by Alexia) that plays like an affront to humanity, one that deconstructs, defiles, and degrades the very essence of the human condition — its virtues, its decency, and even its biology.

These deconstructions have profound implications, too, both philosophical and spiritual, and none of them good. It’s disgusting. 

As with Ducournau’s debut movie Raw, Titane is an entry into the trending sub-genre known as Body Horror. This film’s “vehicular conception” is enough to establish those bona fides, but that’s just a jumping-off point for Titane‘s deeper raison d’être: to work as a metaphoric construct that blurs and, ultimately, destroys the very essence of what it means to be human, and at the most innate, fundamental levels. 

This reflects a growing progressive metaphysic but in its most desolate form, one that sees any fixed definition (even biological) as being inherently oppressive. More troubling still, Titane’s ideas and subversions aren’t merely fluid, they’re anarchistic, but fashioned in such a world-hating way that we are to have empathy for these subversions — and even embrace them.

Alexia (played with absolute commitment and integrity by Agathe Rousselle, so much so that I worried for her psyche) isn’t so much a tortured soul as a feral beast. There are tragic reasons for that, which make her sympathetic, but as she becomes a danger to herself and to others (even lethally), Ducournau continues to present Alexia only through a sympathetic lens. She isn’t a danger, despite her actions; it’s the world that is a danger to her, particularly in its patriarchal subjugations. Alexia is only a victim, even when she’s victimizing.

For something that fronts as complex and challenging, it’s simplistic at its root.

Enter Alexia’s father Vincent, a man with demons of his own (including his responsibility for Alexia’s childhood trauma). Now, however, Vincent is penitent to the extreme, helping his now-fugitive daughter remain on the lam. Here, the bizarre Nativity metaphor expands to that of a warped God-the-Father and Son paradigm, including how Alexia poses as Vincent’s son, Adrien (with Vincent’s help). 

In one particularly telling reference, Vincent even refers to his daughter/son as Jesus. This symbolism continues and crescendos, rising to a finale that intentionally debases these sacred religious archetypes — even intimately — perverting them into pagan iconography.

When a movie promises to deliver “body horror,” consider yourself warned. Titane delivers body horror. You’ve been warned. Many may hail it as art, but it’s not. Titane is simply vile.

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