For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Julia Ducournau’s Titane, a distinctly macho, thematically elusive nightmare about a serial killer who learns how to love a fellow human being as much as she loves cars.
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.
2017 is turning out to be a banner year for horror. After the absolutely stunning Get Out, which was so richly steeped in both metaphor and lived experience, Julia Ducournau’s beautiful and haunting Raw has just hit American audiences like a ton of bricks, or buckets of grue dropped from a great height. It’s a well-worn topic of discussion within the intersection of horror fandom and social criticism that the monsters that we create are reflective of our political climate: zombie movies are more popular during republican presidencies, while vampire films abound during democratic ones. The conclusions drawn from this generally tend to focus on how zombies (rampantly consumerist, at least in Romero’s films; horde-like; unthinking in their consumption; mindless and easily led) represent progressive view of conservatives, while vampires (often foreign, sexually deviant, parasitic) represent the conservative view of progressives. It annoys me that Raw is already identified as a “cannibal movie” in much of the press since that spoils so much of the surprise, but the cat’s out of the bag now; on this political spectrum, I’m not sure where films about cannibalism lie, especially when we’re seeing great zombie flicks coming out of Asia (like Train to Busan) and Raw itself is a Belgian/French co-production.
Raw follows the arrival of new vet student Justine (Garance Marillier) at her parents’ alma mater, where her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is already an upperclassman. Awoken on her first night by gay roommate Adrien (Raba Nait Oufella), Justine is taken through the first in a series of hazing rituals, which ends with the lifelong vegetarian being forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Unexpectedly, this awakens a ravenous hunger in her for meat, of increasingly exotic kinds. This is all paired with the other things that young women often go through: sexual lusts, falling for a gay best friend, and finding out more about yourself than you ever really wanted.
To say more would give away too much of what makes this film such a delightful (if stomach-churning) experience, but I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called the film “Suspiria meets Ginger Snaps,” which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.
I’m not usually averse to spoiling the films that I review, but I’ll say no more about Raw, because this film demands to be seen, especially on the big screen. If you’re fortunate enough to have a screening near you, waste not a minute more: go see this movie tonight before someone spoils it for you. In my review of my favorite films of 2016, I mentioned that I was left unsatisfied by TheNeon Demon; this is the film I wanted The Neon Demon to be. Go see it. Go now!