Julia Ducournau’s coming-of-age cannibal horror, Raw, was a ferocious debut – one that was misinterpreted as a pure gross-out body horror when it’s actually something much slipperier and difficult to pin down. Beyond all Ducournau’s obvious strengths as a visual stylist & provocateur, I really loved how resistant that film was to being saddled with a 1:1 metaphor. In a time when so much modern horror functions as on-the-surface parables about hot topics like Trauma, Grief, and Gentrification, it’s refreshing to chow down on a movie that’s impossible to tether to a single, concise message. Raw is clearly about some kind of youthful, sinister awakening & appetite that extends beyond the literal consumption of human flesh, but any attempt to summarize its full meaning feels reductive & inadequate. I think that’s wonderful. And I’m even more impressed that Ducournau doubled down on that ambiguity in her follow-up to Raw, the same way that Jordan Peele left a lot more room for interpretation & discomfort in Us than he did the tightly written metaphor machine of his own debut, Get Out. Like Us, I suspect Titane will be more divisive than Raw precisely because it’s messier and more difficult to encapsulate in a single interpretation; also like Us, I think it’s an improvement from Ducournau’s debut for that exact reason. All I can really articulate myself is that I loved squirming my way through this distinctly macho, thematically elusive nightmare.
Titane follows a stone-cold serial killer’s journey from despising all of humanity to learning how to love & depend on at least one other human being. She starts off as a car-show stripper who shares more intimacy & eroticism with the machines she grinds on than with her fellow dancers or family at home. Her favorite ways to blow off steam are to murder strangers and have sex with hotrods. I will not recap the details of her fairy tale journey once her cover is blown and she’s left running from the law, but I will say that she does begrudgingly stumble into a genuine social connection with another emotionally steeled loner in her travels. There’s a pithy, reductive way to discuss Titane as a movie “about” found family, but that barely scrapes the surface flesh of this prickly beast. If there’s any thematic organization to the dark fairy tale realm Ducorneau explores here, it’s in her antiheroine’s immersion in a world of pure machismo. Strippers, flames, fistfights, car engines, and steroid-injected muscle brutes carve out the film’s aggressively macho hellscape, while all the Cronenergian body horror that unfolds within is a hardening & a grotesque mutation of AFAB bodily functions. As with the perpetually underseen & underappreciated The Wild Boys (the very best movie of the 2010s), Titane is a nuclear gender meltdown with no clear sense to be made in its burnt-to-the-ground wreckage. It’s a thrilling experience in both cases, both of which find unlikely refuge in the violence of pure-masc camaraderie & social ritual.
Titane directly calls back to distinct images & motifs from Raw that reinforce Ducorneau’s voice as a fully formed, new-to-the-scene auteur: under-the-sheets writhing, silently suffering fathers, itchy skin, and even a small role for Raw‘s central anti-heroine, Garance Marillier as Justine. It’s her films’ discomforting ambiguity that really excites me about what’s she’s capable of, though. When she wants to convey the excruciating experience of relating to a fellow human being, she doesn’t externalize that social dysfunction as a metaphorical monster; she instead contrasts how disgusting & pathetic our bodies are against the slick efficiency of shiny chrome car parts – framing the machines with a fetishistic beauty rarely seen outside of a Russ Meyer or Kenneth Anger film. So, what does it mean within that thematic paradigm when the human body starts gushing motor oil? Your guess is as good as anyone’s, which is exactly why this is great cinema.