When David Cronenberg adapted James Ballard’s car crash fetish novel, Crash, he made a movie about a bunch of weirdos I couldn’t possibly understand. Mainly because they seemed like nonsense ideas rather than actual people. Do actual people bond over recreations of famous car crash fatalities? Is there really a shadowy underground network that stages these things and then they all have sex with each other after they’ve evaded the cops? Are Rosanna Arquette’s leg braces supposed to somehow make her more or less hot? And do Canadians really say “penis” and “semen” when they’re doing dirty talk? Watching Crash was like accidentally stumbling into a Reddit group for some fetish that I never knew existed.
“Oh, so you guys are all into humping severed heads? Like, actual severed heads? Actually humping them? I should have known from the name of the group, Severed Head Humpers, but it honestly didn’t occur to me that such a thing even existed.”
That’s how I felt watching Crash (pictured). Are you being serious here, David Cronenberg? Do you know how weird and gross this is? I suspect he does. I suspect that’s the point of most David Cronenberg movies.
But Julia Ducournau, the director and writer of Raw and Titane, explores fetishes rather than simply pointing out they’re grotesque. She wants to discover what’s human about them. She wants to find something universal. Cronenberg just shows me something grotesque and delights as I squirm. But Ducournau wants to understand it. She wants to show me a new way to see it.
For instance, consider the act of having sex with a car. I already know this is absurd. I know this first-hand, from seeing it. At the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, I wandered into a midnight screening of Destricted, an anthology featuring graphic sex. To give you a sense of Destricted, take a segment called Death Valley. It’s composed entirely of a shot of the desert with someone way off in the background, walking towards the camera. He gets close enough to fill the frame, then he drops trou and starts jacking off. The camera holds on him. There are no edits, no camera movements, nothing else happening on screen. He finishes — like you do — and then the segment is over. That’s the sort of NC-17 arthouse nonsense you get in Destricted (Larry Clark’s insightful segment about porn excepted).
There’s also a segment in Destricted of someone having sex with a car. There’s no subtlety involved. It’s just a guy fucking a car. Pistons, penises, all that. Titane is this idea fleshed out into a full-length observation on…well, a lot of subjects, including the absurdity of car culture. And as befits an audacious French filmmaker, Ducournau isn’t interested in judging anyone. She just wants to take something apart and examine it, the same way Raw was a movie about taking apart and examining family dynamics, using cannibalism as a lens.
Which is a weird approach, but if you’ve seen Raw (pictured), you know how that worked. You know Ducournau ignored all the baggage that comes with cannibalism. That’s a big step, because so much of that baggage is just accepted, without question. But being horrified by cannibalism is a social construct based on religious ideas that many people no longer hold. I mean, yeah, it would be gross to have to eat someone to survive; it would be gross to have to prepare any raw meat to survive. But I simply don’t have the theological make-up to be horrified by cannibalism any more than I would be horrified by having to skin and cook a squirrel. The horror of someone’s body not being intact for the Hereafter, the enormity of the desecration, or whatever it is that makes cannibalism uniquely taboo isn’t part of my psychology. To me, cannibalism is no different than being eaten by any predator. Yuck, but circle of life and all that.
So most stories about cannibalism seem kind of goofy to me. Hey, Alive soccer team, we all know you couldn’t survive on snow alone. We understand what you did. There’s no need to expiate yourselves with a Frank Marshall movie. Eating Raoul is a wacky slice of 80s kitsch regardless of what goes in anyone’s mouth. That farmer played by Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell is quite the character, mainly for being a murderer; the ingredients of his Farmer Vincent’s meats are almost beside the point. Boy, Titus Andronicus sure did stick it to Tamora, as if merely killing her children wasn’t enough! The less said about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels, the better.
The genius of Julia Ducournau’s movie Raw is that its use of cannibalism isn’t about the Puritanical horror of eating another — gasp! — Human Being. Instead, it’s about something everyone understands: urges. And the story she tells puts the urges in a context that has nothing to do with cannibalism as we know it. Raw is commonly described as a movie about cannibalism, but I would argue that’s only superficially true, and it’s furthermore a huge spoiler (one that I made a point to avoid when I reviewed it).
But just as it’s important to note that Raw is not about cannibalism, neither is Titane about having sex with cars. So then what is Titane about? What if I told you it was about car culture, family dynamics, the plot of an over-the-top villain, and hilariously implausible intrigue? Does that remind you of any franchises you’ve seen lately? Because it’s not a stretch to compare them to Titane. On a meta level, the Fast and Furious movies are about the absurdity of being so in love with cars that you’d elevate car fetishism into a global multi-billion dollar franchise. Titane is a bit more grounded; it’s only about the absurdity of being so in love with cars that you’d fuck one. Herbie Does Dallas, anyone?
The title is simply the word “titanium” in French, and it’s a reference to the metal plate put in a little girl’s head after a car wreck. The wreck is Titane’s opening scene, and it’s a perfect example of how Ducournau plays with cinematic tropes. There have been plenty of riveting car wrecks in movies, whether for the spectacle or the cold clinical horror. But they’re usually shot according to a template, often touched up with a bit of discreet CG. That’s not what Ducournau does. She’s going to stage her car wreck as matter-of-factly as someone having breakfast, and she’s going to move on just as quickly.
Shortly after the car wreck and titanium plate, Titane has a long tracking shot that raises the bar on Ducournau’s similar scene in Raw. In Raw, the tracking shot was just a bit of technical wizardry. It was a little implausible for how it made veterinary school look so sexy, but it was a dazzling bit of world building, establishing the heroine’s arrival at someplace new, strange, and vibrant. The long tracking shot in Titane is even more absurdly sexy than the party in Raw, but there’s nothing implausible about its intersection of cars and sex. The tracking shot is also an uncanny bit of character development and it’s where Titane, which is my favorite Fast and Furious movie, establishes its premise.
The first ten minutes of Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (pictured) is the best the series has ever been. Justin Lin’s opening vignette — his arrival into the franchise — has all the sex, action, heroes, villains, and car fetishism you could ever want, all compressed into fifteen minutes of tanned skin, glossy steel, finely tuned internal combustion, and licensed soundtrack. A showcase of hot guys and hot girls driving hot cars to hot music. Just don’t expect any celebrity power; that’s for the other Fast and Furious movies.
Ducournau’s lurid tracking shot in Titane is her own showcase, in which she uses hot girls, hot cars, and hot music to establish her world. It’s at once more electric and crass than anything in a Fast and Furious movie, and, hoo boy, is it going places! It’s a four-minute sequence with its own twists, reveals, driving music, candy-colored cars, candier-colored girls, and breathtaking action. It’s an amazing bit of filmmaking, and it’s only just the beginning (it took Dune nearly three hours to reach this point). For all of Vin Diesel’s blathering about family, the Fast and Furious movies have precious little to say about how human beings connect with each other. In those movies, “family” is more of a punchline than a theme. But in Titane, family is the entire point, just as it was in Raw. The four-minute tracking shot in Titane is Ducournau’s way of saying, “Welcome to the fam!” It’s also your introduction to Agathe Rouselle.
In 1996, Holly Hunter flashed her left breast in Cronenberg’s Crash when she was undoing a seat belt. 25 years later, Ducournau presents Rouselle to do a heck of a lot more than flash her left breast. Rouselle, who Ducournau found on Instagram, is fearless, capable, fit, and gifted with astonishing range. I usually assume tattoos in a movie are actually the actor’s tattoos, but Rouselle has a tattoo between her breasts that’s too perfect. It could be the movie’s tagline. But a Google image search reveals that it’s actually her tattoo. Which just goes to show she’s perfectly suited for the role. Her performance is incomparable. In interviews, she’s cited Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Charlize Theron in Monster, but neither of those can compare to the extremes of Rouselle’s feral sincerity. Titane burns with it and it’s 90% nonverbal.
Her co-star, Vincent Lindon, is equally committed. Their bodies are each amazing in their own way. Their characters each have a unique tendency to self-destruction. They’re each part of tragically incomplete parent/child relationships. They are like the elements in a combustion engine: fire and cast-iron, one containing the other, one galvanized into action, one a force, the other a check, one pliable, the other ruthlessly hardened, one impulsive and explosive, the other steely and in command. Their connection is as unlikely as it is incendiary. They’re the kinds of characters who find each other only in novels or French films.
Using these characters as her touchstone, Ducournau shoots Titane with a keen eye for the grand and mythical, but without sacrificing the intensely personal. In this regard, Titane has a lot in common with Dune and The Green Knight. These are cinematic spectacles crafted with the intimacy of poems. Epics in the truest sense of the word. Fire, sand, landscapes, castles, mansions, quests, fates, the overbearing weight of secret histories and destinies, the inevitable tug of shame and the implacable draw of honor. So far, these have been my three favorite movies of 2021. (Don’t ask me to rank them yet!)
Titane is putatively a horror movie. It’s got a ton of brutality, some of it borderline comedic. But all of this is in the service of developing the characters. Shocking, sure, but I get the feeling that Ducournau isn’t trying to shock you. She’s the opposite of Cronenberg. She wants you to understand and if the understanding involves recoiling, that’s on you. In Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer explores how something brutally inhuman finds humanity. Titane is that exact same character arc. A story about empathy, love, and acceptance, in which the protagonist is a monster. Speaking of, I might as well throw in Patty Jenkins’ Monster while we’re at it. But Monster is the most prosaic kind of serial killer movie: it’s about a serial killer. Titane and Under the Skin play on a more mythic and cosmic scale, respectively.
One of my favorite elements of Titane is its perspective on gender roles and transexuality, taking them back from fetishism and politics. The movie is a kaleidoscopic look at sex, split into dazzling and barely comprehensible shapes. And by “sex”, I don’t just mean the usual penises and vaginas. I mean “sex” in the sense of roles, expectations, social pressure, confusion, love, kinks, connections, genders. And the usual penises and vaginas, of course. For Ducournau, they’re all of a piece. She would make a heck of a modern version of Twelfth Night. You could say she just has. When people truly connect, there’s no room for social constructs.
It’s obvious that I’m skirting around the specifics in Titane. I can imagine the pat way it’s described in most reviews or synopses (e.g. saying Raw is a movie “about cannibalism”). And having seen the Titane trailer, I don’t have to imagine how much the experience will be compromised if you watch it before seeing the movie. I’m being purposely vague because if I were to spell out the plot, Titane would sound more absurd than it intends to be. Yet that absurdity is just the premise. For most of its running time, Titane has nothing specific to say about car culture. Like Raw, it’s told as a story that can be universally understood, even if it’s hanging its hat from a weird fetish. But again like Raw, is it a fetish if the point of the movie is to explore the context and consequences? Isn’t the very definition of fetishism to admire something divorced from context and consequence? So when Ducournau thrusts the subject matter back into a richly textured context and an incisively explored consequence, is it even fetish anymore? I may not understand the kinks in Titane any more than I understand the people in Crash who stage car wrecks and have sex with each other. But with the context Ducournau lends, with the consequence she explores, a fetish turns into a story of staggeringly unique and grotesque beauty.