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'Titane' review: Sex, cars and the most twisted gender reveal party ever

Eric Webb
Austin 360

This is just one long gasp. 

“Eraserhead” meets “Electra” meets Hyundai Elantra in filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s surreal, sublime “Titane,” which got its U.S. premiere on Sept. 23 at Alamo Drafthouse’s South Lamar theater, as part of Fantastic Fest. The movie came with cred: “Titane” won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in July. It's out in theaters on Friday.

“Certain stories are universal and should not be niche,” Ducournau told the festival audience late last week. “Genre is not niche.” 

That’s a direct challenge. 

The word I used to describe this movie to my editor after watching it can’t be reprinted here — it starts with “bug” and ends with a word that your phone autocorrects to “duck” — and Ducournau’s film doesn’t just zig when you expect it to zag. It so subverts any viewer expectation that it moves on a different plane entirely. Can something zog? 

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The guts it takes to transcend what’s normal pump the blood and oil into “Titane.”   

Agathe Rousselle stars in "Titane."

Newcomer Agathe Rousselle, as Alexia, a car show dancer with a titanium plate in her head and a thirst for violence, and Vincent Lindon, as a character also named Vincent who’s a fiercely protective fire captain searching for his missing son, anchor the film with such intensity that it’s easy to forget how far from center the film veers.  

Her, almost wordless and steely-sighted; him, hide-bound and wet-eyed. 

She’s divorced from humanity and finds erotic pleasure only in metal and pain. You know how the back seat of a car is the cliched home to sexual encounters? In “Titane,” the car is both the coital location and the coital partner. Whatever you think that means: yes. 

He’s too human, a mound of bruised and scarred flesh searching for warmth even though he lives among blazes and plenty of beefy firefighters. 

When Alexia’s brutal disgust for the carnal world around her leads down a bloody path, she disguises herself and enters Vincent’s life. They form a bond built on a lie, but which turns out to be more real than anything either of them has ever experienced. 

As you might have gathered by these obscure descriptions that seek to preserve the surprises, “Titane” is a film about tension. It’s also one of the most visually visceral movies I’ve ever seen. In its opening moments, the camera explores the greasy innards of a car, shifting and sliding more like organs than gears. So many frames are sopping wet — bodies in showers, foaming mouths of murder victims, Penzoil-soaked panties, the release of a syringe into a tired old butt. In the film’s catalyzing image, the headlights of a low-rider seem to ejaculate. 

Hey, I’m just a reporter here. 

"Titane” is the most spectacular and twisted gender reveal party, if M.C. Escher was a gender. Ducournau’s lens embarks with a particular view of the feminine and the masculine. Female flesh is regarded with frank coldness. Male desire is either obsessive and dangerous (as with a fan who preys on Alexia) or tortuously absent (as with her withholding father).  

Vincent Lindon is a fire captain in mourning in "Titane."

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But over the course of the ride, the lines between what’s expected of a man and a woman blur. Possibility opens up. Alexia, looking to hide from the consequences of her own violence, transforms herself with that same tool. She breaks her nose on a bathroom sink, and through a razor and lacerating bandages, rids herself of all signs of femininity. She escapes into mute masculinity. 

Vincent takes her into his world, where the performance of gender has reached its breaking point. He uses steroids to maintain the strength expected of him, and the pressure to be strong in the face of losing a child has all but caved in upon him. Alexia walks into his life, and he nurtures her through his own pain. He escapes into the traditionally feminine. 

It's a thriller, so crises ensue. And “Titane” asks: Is transformation the same thing as transgression? Or is it transcendence? 

Like its characters’ fluidity, Ducournau’s film shapeshifts. “Titane” often is quite funny, including one pitch-black sight gag involving a stool and a corpse. Amid the industrial bloodshed, the music cues are on point and often hilarious, too; Alexia dancing the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” is so literal as to make you crack a grin, and “Macarena” is an honest-to-goodness plot point.  

Plus, a gaggle of bro-y firefighters let it all loose to some disco in the most rapturous dance scene since Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail.” 

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After the Fantastic Fest screening, Ducournau explicitly dished on myths and symbols in “Titane.” Alexia is metal, Vincent is fire. The Greek Titans of myth alluded to in the title were monsters, but that monstrosity was also their strength. Knowing that kind of thought went into “Titane” is a gift to a viewer. The lunacy lets you in on its secrets, if you’ll watch closely enough. 

Ducournau told the Austin festival crowd how glad she was to show “Titane” in theaters, saying it was “good to start this machine again, together.”  

It’s an extraordinary machine, and an exquisite slice of what-the-hell, to boot. 

'Titane'

Grade: A-

Starring: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh

Director: Julia Ducournau

Rated: R for language, graphic nudity, disturbing material, sexual content and strong violence

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Watch: In theaters Friday