There was a Q&A with director Julia Doucournau after my screening of Palme d’Or winner Titane and having just watched it there was only really one question I thought they could ask:
What the hell?
Titane is not a normal movie. In fact when Doucournau started talking, my overriding reaction was how surprisingly normal she seemed by comparison and how she wasn’t the type of person you’d expect to make a film this warped. To look at people like John Waters and David Lynch you’d think their sensibilities would be a little weird but Julia Doucournau doesn’t give you that impression at all.
This of course, is all something to be celebrated. How brilliant that this woman is challenging expectations and making people question their assumptions and the reasons for them (I’m checking myself as I write this). Also to be heralded is any film that brings something original in a world of cinema that is dominated by superheroes, fantasy, sci-fi, docudramas and the occasional adaptation of a pulp page-turner.
Titane is really odd though. I never found it anything less than fascinating but I also don’t think it reaches as high as to be anything as much as entertaining. The start is like a dark serial killer film and there is one scene in a shared house that has some effective gallows humour but then it goes off in a different direction that I’d have preferred it hadn’t.
Like Doucournau’s first film Raw, which was equally brutal but utterly brilliant, Titane examines notions of a woman becoming a monster and how this is exacerbated and dictated by the perceptions and assumptions of those around her. More than Raw though, Titane is all about how females are looked at and how and why they are seen or not seen. When we meet her as an adult, protagonist Alexia is an erotic dancer but when her aforementioned crimes require her to go into hiding she gets lost behind an entirely different, painfully constructed male persona. All the while though, her womanhood fights back; her being pregnant following a very irregular romantic dalliance from earlier in the film. Want to know where metal babies come from? Well, when a woman and a car love each other very much…
Alexis fights and rejects regular notions of gender and beauty to stay safe but it is an impossible battle. It is interesting how these ideas of safety play out too as the place she retreats to may actually present serious dangers of its own. In one scene where Alexia considers running from this fragile sanctuary, an interaction between some boorish men and another woman on a bus makes the statement that there are few safe places for females and any decisions around this have to be relative.
The feminist commentary continues into the idea that a woman can bring life to the lifeless as the titanium foetus grows inside her, but at what cost to her. The film is full of powerful but confused messages.
I do applaud Doucournau and I cannot criticise her for a film that clearly aims to be challenging and discomforting. This is a female director pushing the boundaries of film making in a way normally done by men and in doing so leaves most who have come before her behind. She claims many of the traits of male dominated genre cinema, such as excessive nudity and bloody horror, and sticks a distinctly female flag in them. I think something gets lost in the excess though.
I’m sure this director has great things in her future and will continue as a major voice in French and feminist cinema but for me, for now I’m sticking with Céline Sciamma.
Titane is released on Boxing Day in the UK and will certainly shake you out of your post Christmas funk. It may sit heavier than the turkey and sprouts though and could repeat on you in its own way.