The fusion of metal and flesh, a little girl with a halo, a revenant, flames licking the side of a car and the ceiling of a room, existential comedy, erotic dance where every move is a seventh veil, a circle of blood on glass, the visitor. The body and the blood, the father and the daughter, the father and the son. A new Trinity. Scar tissue, fantasy, the endless longing for love, the sacrifice. The Theorem. The Returning. The Weapon.
“Well, no one told me about her, the way she lied
Well, no one told me about her, how many people cried
But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother tryin’ to find her
She’s not there.”
TITANE is the second feature directed by Julia Ducournau. In it, the director makes the boldest statement, but every move has the undercurrent of humanity, even though the humans don’t understand how the cruelty that they indulge in affects the entire world in the same way that they don’t understand themselves and their needs.
TITANE stars Agathe Rousselle (Alexia/Adrien), Vincent Lindon (Vincent), Garance Marillier (Justine), Laïs Salameh (Rayane), Bertrand Bonello (Alexia’s Father), Myriem Akheddiou (Adrien’s Mother), and Adèle Guigue (Alexia, 7 years old).
The film has extraordinary performances which, despite all the other things that might catch your attention first, are the film’s bedrock. What’s extraordinary about them are the actors’ movements, stillness, and vulnerability. There’s also the fact that so much of the film’s core interactions between characters are either quiet or entirely silent. Many actors and many films place a premium on characters talking. There’s a belief that explication and dialogue are the only ways to communicate between the characters and thus to the audience. The audience is trained to believe that if things are not explained to them in the most prosaic of ways, that the film is not good. It has “plot holes” or the script isn’t “developed enough” when what people are really complaining about is their unwillingness to be still and experience the film through our channels of nonverbal communication. They are speaking to their own inability or resistance to really listening to what the film is saying. They, the actors and the audience, are resistant to the fact that acting is not just your voice, with its intonation and words, it is really your emotions inside your body and how those emotions make your body move and react. Acting is a whole-body experience and watching a film if you do it right, is the same thing. There’s a reason why the proper cinema experience is considered, by film purists, to be in a theatre on the big screen. You are meant to immerse yourself with what is happening on the screen because that is the true meaning of cinema, you can experience the lives of others through cinema art.
That’s why the performances of the actors in TITANE and the direction of Julia Ducournau are so extraordinary. It’s not just actors reading dialogue and trying to portray human emotion to the camera. It is that the actors, in particular Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, and Adèle Guigue, are feeling the emotions of their characters with their whole bodies and showing it with their entire bodies. That is the highest form of the craft of acting. Real emotions that use the actor’s entire instrument. It’s why it all seems so seamless. The casting of the 7-year-old Alexia and the adult Alexia is perfect. You can believe that both versions of the character have the same kind of wild and wilful strangeness. Vincent Lindon’s Vincent is a man of great gentleness who is very controlling at the same time, but who is almost completely stoic. A brilliant and brave portrayal. Agathe Rousselle is a completely commanding presence even while completely naked, which isn’t easy since most people are more vulnerable when they are unclothed and she is fully believable as a dancer and a fighter.
TITANE is a film of doubles and revenants. In it, we are our own ghosts. The ghosts of our past selves that drive us to be the person that we are and the person that the cruelty of the world has made us into. That as human beings, we remain the same person that was traumatized by a tragedy or by wrongs done to us. That, in a very real way, that trauma stops our development as human beings and we are haunted by ourselves. We are haunted by our damage.
That the refusal of someone who is supposed to love or acknowledge us can damage us just as much as the loss of the person themselves. In effect, the trauma is the same. We have a scar that covers the biomaterial that we used to cover our wound with. It makes the point that the rearing of children is one of the most important jobs in our society that is frequently botched. People who have no business making children still do and their actions create monsters that sit next to us in the train station or theatre.
But TITANE is not that serious all the time. You will see things that you didn’t think you ever would. Ducournau has a whimsical sense of humor that has a very dark edge and a wild imagination. She finds humor in the things that many would not. Ducournau is a filmmaker who doesn’t have the boundaries that most have. She gravitates towards showing the outre and taking that chance over-relying on what is safe and proven with emotion, sexuality, sensuality, and brutality. She is so brave that I believe she has doubled herself in the film. The director and the title character share a stunning resemblance.
In the Q&A at Beyond Fest, when asked about her influences she cited David Cronenberg, who was a given considering her use of body horror, but also great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. She mentioned the film Teorema and even Salò, which she said, “Don’t get me started on Salò…”. Most Pasolini fans only talk about his films like Mamma Roma. The Pasolini fans who speak with this much enthusiasm about Salò are much rarer. You can see the influence of Teorema and Terrance Stamp’s ethereal performance in TITANE. I think it is accurate to say that Julia Ducournau is a filmmaker who is about freedom in filmmaking and one who enjoys playing with the forms in cinema. She’s not one who is going to let her self-expression be caged by the film establishment or by fan expectations.
The look of the film is marvelous. It is mostly a very strong light source that illuminates the characters with inky pools of blackness streaming around the edges of the frame, with a few exceptions. There’s almost a hyperreal feel to the imagery that boils over into a retro feel of the studio cinema of the past, if that makes any sense at all. The cinematographer, Ruben Impens, has done an excellent job of giving the film that hyperreal retro feel. The images feel so amped up that a feeling of unreality washes over the viewer that is unnerving in and of itself. There is also a primary purple lighting that is sickly and marvelous. It rarely shows up and only for a certain character who is in a certain headspace. Usually, such a bright primary gel would bring to mind Giallo, but in this case, it manages to use the color but breaks out of the mold.
I have to mention Camille Champenois for the costuming choices, especially the iconic car show outfit that Alexia wears during that scene. Christel Baras is the casting director and has a great eye for actors and was the casting director for A Portrait of a Lady On Fire. Dorothée Auboiron is responsible for the children’s casting and did remarkable work in finding the child version of Alexia. The child actor, Adèle Guigue, is arresting in a way that the character needs to be and that’s also tremendous casting.
TITANE is fascinating and striking. Vivid, terrifying, invincible, and yet it will wring tears from the stones. TITANE and Julia Ducournau are not the cinema and director that we deserve, but they are the ones we desperately need. It comes with my highest recommendation. Just go watch it. It will expand your mind and your soul. It will take you on a dangerous ride.
Gentleness and brutality. Horror that becomes funny and loops back again to terror. Rapturously captivating cinema.