cannes 2021

Titane Is the French Body-Horror Film That Has Cannes in Stitches

It kicks off with a woman having sex with her car, and only gets more bonkers from there. Photo: Neon

The last time French director Julia Ducournau was on the festival circuit, with the cannibal thriller Raw, there were reports of faintings in the aisles thanks to the movie’s outsize gore. I didn’t see anyone in medical distress during Ducournau’s latest, Titane, which just premiered in competition at Cannes, but if there was they might have been out of luck, because those of us who hadn’t walked out already were too busy laughing to call for help. That’s not because Titane is a comedy; if anything, it’s even gorier than its predecessor. But it’s also the type of batshit, fucknuts movie that’s going to give you some kind of physical response — laughter’s just the first door out. The whole way home, I noticed my teeth were chattering from the adrenaline. They’ve only just stopped.

I don’t want to spoil too much, because this is one of those cinematic roller coasters where half the fun comes from guessing what sort of bonkers development is going to come around the corner next. (If you want a more detailed synopsis, read this tweet.) So I’ll just give you the setup. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a 32-year-old woman who’s lived with a titanium plate in her head ever since a childhood car accident. This has done two things: (1) turned her into a serial killer, and (2) given her a sexual fascination with metal. Nipple piercings will do in a pinch, but what she really likes is cars. Ideally big, shiny sports cars. As they say in Mad Max: Witness me, horny and chrome.

Alexia works as a car-show model, because if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. She’s got a midsize Instagram following, including a pushy creep who becomes the first (but definitely not the last) of her onscreen victims, most of whom she kills by jabbing sharp pieces of metal into their skulls. Provided you haven’t put your hands over your face yet, you can see it as a symbolic recreation of that initial penetration, one of many moments of topsy-turvy gender play that Ducournau’s got up her sleeve. But back to the sex stuff. Washing up after the murder, Alexia’s interrupted by a loud banging on her door. She goes to the garage — yup, it’s her car, freshly waxed and ready for action. Thus commences a passionate round of car sex, which starts with a fully nude Alexia tumbling around the inside of the automobile like it’s a washer/dryer, and ends with her writhing in ecstasy while wrapped up in seatbelts, looking a little like the lead in a Detroit-themed 50 Shades of Gray spinoff.

Now, I’m aware that this is not freshly broken ground for cinema. Plenty of people have made movies about wanting to have sex with your car: David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, and I’m sure some day Vin Diesel will get around to it, too. But here’s what makes Titane unique: This is a movie where a woman fucking her car is only the inciting incident. Something they never thought to teach you in heath class is that you still need to use protection whilst fucking your car, or else in nine months you’re going to get a little automotive surprise. Yes, that’s right: Alexia’s knocked up, a development that made my Cannes audience erupt in impressed laughter. (This is different from nervous laughter and shock laughter, both of which this film also sparks plenty of.) Ducournau holds off on the reveal of exactly what form this little bundle of joy will take, but she takes great joy in letting us know that, when Alexia lactates, it’s gasoline.

Anyway, I hope you’ll forgive me for ruining three of the surprises contained in Titane, but trust me when I say that all of them take place in the first 15 minutes, and there are many, many more to come. I haven’t told you about the scene where Alexia attempts to outdo the most painful scene in Black Widow, or where she invents a horrifying new use for a kitchen stool. And I haven’t mentioned the movie’s second main character, a steroid-addicted firefighter who’s a dead ringer for Christopher Meloni. And I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the details of the moment that made me curl up into a tiny ball, or the one that made my whole body shake uncontrollably, or the one that made me let out a triumphant “Yes!” Okay, I’ll give you a hint for that last one — it was the movie’s final shot.

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The French Body-Horror Film That Has Cannes in Stitches