Julia Ducournau’s ‘Titane’: Influence, (Sur)Realism and the Avant-Garde

Titane Review - 2021 Movie

Warning — spoilers below for the 2021 film Titane.

Released in 2016, Julia Ducournau’s Raw was marketed as a coming-of-age horror film: a description that barely pins down one of the strangest and least categorizable independent films of the year, one in which Barry Jenkins carved a path for small films by making history at the Academy Awards with Moonlight. In 2020, Ducournau herself made history at the Cannes Film Festival upon winning the Palme d’Or (inexcusably) for Titane, making her only the second woman ever to win the coveted honor. Perhaps predictably, the filmmaker’s second feature is even weirder, wilder and more indeterminable than Raw. If Ducournau’s first film established a familiar coming-of-age storytelling framework only to transform its mundanity into something fucked up and depraved (Garance Marillier’s Justine is a first-year veterinary student who gradually turns to cannibalism), Titane inverts this trajectory, beginning as an arthouse serial killer romp in medias res but u-turning in its second half and becoming a surprisingly moving parental drama.

Ducournau’s tapestry of influences is notable (Leos Carax, Claire Denis, David Cronenberg, David Lynch), but it’s the added J. G. Ballard overtones (particularly the English novelist’s 70s works Concrete Island and Crash), the inescapable Fast & Furious vibes and the application of all of these to realist storytelling that elevate Titane to singularly bizarre territory. When talking about the subject of literary influence in The Anxiety of Influence in 1973, Harold Bloom famously declared that “Poetic influence is thus a disease of self-consciousness” while simultaneously claiming that this natural component of the creative process can ultimately lead to works that are “more original.” This would appear to also be the case with cinema and specifically Titane, which takes pleasure in drawing from the film canon and allowing its viewer to play spot the influence, but does so only to then sweep these allusions and references away and become something so strange and rarely seen that it is worth walking through.

Titane Review - 2021 Movie

In Titane, protagonist Alexia (played by Agathe Rousselle in her feature film debut) ends a killing spree by locking her parents in their bedroom and burning the house down, then assumes the identity of Adrien (a boy who has been missing for 10 years, since age seven) and becomes attached to the new father she is deceiving after he starts taking her to work with him as a firefighter. Despite finding out that she is not his son but a woman masquerading as him — a disguise Alexia achieves by cutting her hair, taping her breasts down and (in one of the film’s most difficult-to-watch scenes) breaking her own nose — Vincent (Vincent Lindon) vows to keep caring for Alexia. Throughout this time, Alexia carries a baby after being impregnated by a car, which is anticipated by a life defined by the significance of automobiles, from working as a showgirl at motor shows to being in a bad car accident as a child, which resulted in her skull being fitted with a titanium plate during the prologue. Titane ends with Vincent becoming a father for the third time, after Alexia dies giving birth to a baby with a titanium spine and motor oil for blood… but it is fine, because as Vincent tells the baby, Alexia’s corpse and Ducournau’s viewer: “I’m here.”

Ducournau allows Titane to play out in an oddly straight-forward, matter-of-fact manner with narrative patience and structural linearity. She relies on Cronenbergian body horror and Lynchian surrealism, complete with a mutant baby that holds a candle to Henry Spencer’s in Eraserhead (1977); however, Titane often limits these components to stylistic scaffolding rather than overriding aesthetics. Unlike Cronenberg, the manipulations of skulls and chests do not come with supplementary contortions of the film’s realism, like the hallucinatory instability of Videodrome (1983) and Naked Lunch (1991), for example. And unlike Lynch, the centrality of a mutant baby does not open the floodgates for ladies in radiators stomping on miniature versions of that baby, nor does it contextualize the parental responsibility with the setting of a vague, possibly post-apocalyptic industrial cityscape (as in Eraserhead). Titane restricts the abstract potential of its nightmarish mutant baby and body horror, reducing each to the status of narrative objects that does not hinder the equal attention Ducournau’s film pays to realism. Titane’s relatability is key to its moving second half, because the blossoming Alexia-Vincent relationship could almost be lifted from the film and placed in a sobering domestic drama that occupies the opposite end of the generic spectrum to a designation like “experimental” or “arthouse” or “avant-garde.”

Titane Review - 2021 Movie

As Adrien, Alexia fills the void left by Vincent’s presumably dead son; as a parent, Vincent gives Alexia everything her own never did, which — as implied in the prologue — might stem from a lack of patience for a problem child (a fraught dynamic of annoying behavior and emotional combustibility is what causes the car crash). Alexia’s inadvertent discovery of this love and security derails an extension of the nihilistic serial killer story that Titane’s first half misleadingly sets up. Instead, Alexia’s urge to kill vanishes completely, and she even competes with the avant-garde components that, as discussed, normally dominate and determine the film surrounding them. For example, in another standout gruesome scene, Alexia tries to abort the baby growing inside her with a hairpin, but fails. This resistance speaks for the broader struggle with cinematic expectations of surrealism and body horror being staged by Ducournau, who paradoxically relies on the influence of these devices and shows that they can convincingly occupy a film devoting as much energy to naturalism as to the logics of the avant-garde.

It is during the second half of Titane that its shades of Denis come out, whereas the ostensible nod to Carax, like the Cronenberg and Lynch influences, is shaken off as the possibilities of Ducournau’s first half are replaced with the realities of her second. Also a Palme d’Or contender, Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) stars Denis Lavant as the elusive Mr. Oscar: a man who drives around Paris all day in a stretch limousine carrying out different “appointments” as a cast of different characters in a variety of settings. Carax’s film invites viewers to assume that Mr. Oscar is an actor, but the lack of cameras or crews or audiences establishes a surrealistic angle to this premise. Mr. Oscar simply becomes these characters — he wears a motion capture suit for an action scene and becomes an eccentric and violent red-haired man who lives in the sewers and kidnaps a model at Père Lachaise cemetery. Mr. Oscar also plays a gangster assigned to murder his own doppelgänger. The film’s surreal logic is consolidated during the climax with the limousine being parked in the “Holy Motors” garage, at which point the collective vehicles all begin talking to each other through different light flashing combinations, which the film translates in subtitles. The abstract capabilities of Ducournau’s automobiles — which can have sex with human beings and impregnate them — recall Holy Motors. But like the way Ducournau leaves Cronenberg’s body horror and Lynch’s malformations behind as Titane moulds itself into a parental drama, she also resists the temptation to conceptually develop her automobile surrealism and let it dominate her runtime. Titane is the antithesis of Holy Motors because it would rather let its single circumstance of a car defying what is possible in the real world become a condition of that real world, which the majority of the film prefers to explore and mine for its affect and empathy.

Titane Review - 2021 Movie

Titane’s thematic connection to Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) is discernible during a second half break from the opening surrealism and as the film calms down and settles into a drama. As Vincent and Alexia’s surrogate father-daughter dynamic develops into one defined by genuine love and affection, Rousselle’s character becomes increasingly alienated by the rest of the world around her, particularly as she becomes accustomed to living and interacting as Adrien. During work scenes, her treatment by firefighters — particularly the younger ones — implies a less hopeful new life for her in the second half of Ducournau’s film. This community of firefighters feels reminiscent of the characterological landscape of Beau Travail, with the pent-up testosterone of the exclusively male workforce creating a disconnect between Alexia and the possibility of identifying with the other firefighters. There is even a memorably hypnotic dance scene during this section of Titane, with Denis overtones: after a shift, Alexia drinks with the firefighters as they party to music, eventually being the only one still dancing while stood on top of a fire engine, moving as she used to at the car shows as glimpsed at the beginning of Titane. The men find her departure from the choreographed masculine mosh pits bewildering, but Alexia continues in a trance until her father comes back to the party and sees both her and the men staring at her. The Denis influence therefore differs from Carax, Cronenberg and Lynch and connections, which all underpin the first half of Ducournau’s film, due to its centrality to the second. But it also separates itself from these cinematic connections (after it has established them) through the understanding that the language of male bodies is both Alexia and the film’s new reality, which (as in Beau Travail) must come to terms with a recognizably real world.

So, Ducournau’s approach to cinematic lineage and influence in Titane is a complicated one, as she develops her singular filmmaking style into something even more evasive and intricate than in Raw. Complementing the meticulous writing and the rich characterizations of her second feature, elaborate stylistic and narrative mechanics elevate the film to essential cinema. Due to this difficult and unusual year for film, the reputation of Titane will likely not have wavered in five years’ time, as has been the case with Raw. But hopefully the wait for a third Julia Ducournau film will not be this long again, because — at the risk of hyperbole — she is already a complete force to be reckoned with, making the kind of films that are probably why most people turn to cinema in the first place — for an abundance of ideas, for an absolute command of the form; to be reminded of meaningful films, to be moved by a filmmaker’s ability to blend style and aesthetics with the relatable aspects of the human experience.

George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a published short fiction and freelance film writer. He is also a PhD candidate at King’s College London. Recent and upcoming film publications include Bright Lights, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Luma Quarterly, and Off Screen.