‘Titane’ review: horrifying, traumatic and groundbreaking

Arts editor Jack Harris ’22 reviews the 2021 Palme D’Or winner “Titane”. (Includes minor spoilers)

Artwork+made+for+the+film.+Credit%3A+Neon+Studios+%2F+2021

Artwork made for the film. Credit: Neon Studios / 2021

There is everything that has come before, and then there is “Titane;” a film so drenched in motor oil, trauma, meaning and uniqueness, that there is no possible way to prepare oneself for the otherworldly experience of watching this film. 

The French director Julia Ducournau won the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival for what is her second-ever feature film. It’s easy to see why voters would’ve bestowed such a high honor upon “Titane,” as every single detail of the film is paid attention to and woven together in a cohesive manner. The cinematography is spectacular, with long takes and framing that allow the camera, not the script, to lead the story. The music is haunting, with the sparing use making it that much more impactful whenever it does appear. The performances stand out most of all, with Agathe Rousselle (Titane) and Vincent Lindon (Vincent) both acting as if they were playing themselves.

Beneath the outer veneer of technical perfection, “Titane” has even more to offer, as the psyches of the main characters are compared and contrasted, and the relationship between the feminine and the masculine is blurred. 

Every single detail of the film is paid attention to and woven together in a cohesive manner.”

This androgyny is present from the first scene of the movie, where we see a child of indeterminate gender involved in a horrific car accident. The child angers their father by humming loudly along to the radio, and he then turns around to yell at them in anger, taking his eyes off the road and crashing into the divider. The child then undergoes an emergency brain surgery, where a titanium plate is used to repair their skull. Following the surgery, something about the child is clearly different, but before long we cut to several decades later, and it is revealed that the child was our titular character, Titane. Titane is now an exotic dancer at auto shows, dancing on top of luxurious cars to market towards an audience of horny young men. However, it is clear from Titane’s behavior that her brain never recovered from the accident. She is cold and detached from everyone, and before long becomes a serial murderer, killing no less than six people before the police begin to close in on her. This is where the film takes another major turn, as Titane goes into hiding, impersonating a child who has been missing for the past 10 years, and moving in with the distraught father, Vincent. The character of Vincent is much more relatable than Titane, but no less traumatized. He is an aging firefighter who has lost his entire family, and through an addiction to steroids is attempting to hold on to his lost masculinity. The return of his “son” rejuvenates him, and even though it is clear that all is not as it seems, he refuses to admit that Titane is not his real son. Since he is a fire chief, Vincent lives in a barracks with dozens of other firemen, all of them at least half his age, which only further highlights how past his prime Vincent is. Shockingly, Titane and Vincent do begin to grow a genuine connection, as they both realize that despite building their relationship entirely upon lies, they are the closest thing to family either has left.

But beneath the beautiful depravity of “Titane,” what is this film actually about? Is it the most messed up film ever made about finding your own family, or is it the sweetest film ever made about traumatized maniacs forming a co-dependence?

It is clear from Titane’s behavior that her brain never recovered from the accident”

First of all, “Titane” is intentionally ambiguous, leaving many of the most important scenes up to interpretation. That being said, there are similar themes present throughout the entire film, such as masculinity and femininity, trauma, sexuality, family, and hope. The conflict between masculinity and femininity is arguably most prevalent, being present from the first scene to the finale. This battle between gender is shown primarily through Titane’s pregnancy, the secondary conflict of the film. This is no normal pregnancy, as Titane is impregnated by not any sort of living creature, but by a muscle car with flames painted on the side. In one of the strangest acts ever filmed, Titane, in a trance-like state, walks from her shower to this car, which is turned on despite having no driver. She enters the car, and proceeds to have sex with and inside of the car. She wakes up in bed the next day, finding motor oil on her legs and underwear. There are several times when she attempts to abort her pregnancy, but to no avail. It becomes an even greater burden to her when she moves in with Vincent. Every day she has to dress up like a man and bind both her breasts and her baby, causing horrific damage and scarring to her body. In addition, dressing up like a man quite literally takes away her voice. She stays entirely mute when with the firemen so as to not give herself away. 

Vincent too is a victim of masculinity. He feels as if his manhood is lost, because his son went missing, his wife divorced him, he isn’t strong enough to be a firefighter anymore and he suffers from drug addiction, abusing both alcohol and steroids. Vincent also believes that he needs this manhood in order to be a good person. 

In some ways Titane’s character could be viewed as the epitome of masculinity. She is an unemotional killer, who is obsessed with cool cars, has sex often and only looks out for herself.”

Only once during her ordeal does Titane attempt to escape. She leaves the barracks and buys a bus ticket, intent on fleeing to some far off place, but while on the bus, still in disguise, she witnesses several young men harassing a woman on the bus, jokingly encouraging one another to rape her. This experience shakes her so much that she leaves the bus and goes back to living with Vincent.

Titane’s sharp critique is so over the top, that unlike previous films that attempt to parody masculinity such as “Fight Club,” it cannot be mistaken as an endorsement of testosterone-filled manliness. In some ways Titane’s character could be viewed as the epitome of masculinity. She is an unemotional killer, who is obsessed with cool cars, has sex often and only looks out for herself. Not only does this subvert the traditional image of what manhood “should” be, but when this lifestyle ends up ruining Titane, it is exposed for the facade that it is. Constantly throughout this film, the main character’s life is made worse and worse by the perniciousness of modern masculinity. The accident that starts the movie, the harassment from men, the psychopathy, the bullying from other firefighters, the bus incident, the loss of her voice and the attempting to make herself into a man, every incident only exacerbates her suffering.

As mentioned earlier, this film is not without its tender moments. The scenes where a heartfelt connection between Vincent and Titane shine through are when they both depart from the traditional masculine roles, dancing together and showing intimacy for one another. At the heart of the movie is the message that by leaving behind the oppressive traditions of masculinity, people will only grow closer together.

“Titane” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It’s the sort of film that contains so many bold new styles, that in 30 years it will likely be credited as one of the most influential films of its era. If you get the chance, make sure to see it.