Titane (Cannes Review): Collisions of Flesh and Steel
Titane offers a daring vision of human-machine sexuality, fractured psyches, and unconventional relationships, although it never coalesces into a cohesive whole.
*Warning: This review contains potential plot spoilers for Titane*
After sustaining severe traumatic injuries in a terrifying auto accident, the young Alexia is fitted with a titanium plate on her head. After her release from the hospital, she displays a strange gesture of comfort and affection towards the car instead of her parents, foreshadowing a disconnection with her fellow humans and a strange intimacy with automobiles that matures into something much more sinister. Several years pass and we next meet Alexia as an adult (Agathe Rousselle), performing an erotic dance on top of a car at a motor show. Her act has garnered a devoted fanbase, but she couldn’t care any less about the attention as she unenthusiastically signs autographs and poses for selfies with wide-eyed fans.
After the show ends, a hostile fan pursues her and proclaims his love for her, and after he attempts to assault her, she murders him. Returning to the showers to clean the blood off, she’s interrupted by a mysterious banging noise and discovers a car inside the building. Alexia engages in what can only be described as a mechanically and biologically impossible feat as she has sex with the car—we’re not shown exactly how it works, but it’s clear what’s going on in this bizarre scene.
After an unexpectedly intense sexual encounter with Justine (Garance Marillier), another performer from the motor show, Alexia experiences strange bodily sensations and comes to the realization that she’s now pregnant, although not with an entirely human child. She then begins a sudden murder spree, and before long, she’s a wanted criminal. Stuck in a train station under heavy police surveillance, she catches an unusual opportunity for escape—disguising herself as a missing boy. Cutting her hair and wrapping her body in surgical tape to hide the signs of her femininity and strange pregnancy—and in a particularly gruesome scene—breaking her nose and even attempting an abortion, she transforms herself into “Adrian,” a victim who has been missing since he was a young child.
After spending years searching, the firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon) recognizes Alexia—now “Adrian”—as his son and takes him home. “Adrian” tries to escape, but Vincent stops him and says that he will kill anyone who threatens his son—including himself. He takes “Adrian” to his fire station and keeps him under his protection, prompting mockery from the rest of his unit and the jealousy of Ryanne (Laïs Salameh), another firefighter who shares a close bond with Vincent. Navigating this new identity and new gender performance, “Adrian” experiences a rocky relationship with the unstable Vincent, although finds an unexpected sense of family while trying to hide the burgeoning mechanical pregnancy that won’t go away.
In its first twenty minutes, Titane is a deliciously shocking and beautifully sensuous piece of body horror filmmaking. The harrowing opening sets up an eerie, psychologically uneasy mood as it establishes a bizarre story of human-machine intimacy, leading to strange yet fascinating images of human-car sexuality. A dazzling long-take leading to Alexia’s wild gyrations atop the hood of a car is charged with an intensely sexual energy that puts the sterile PG-13 car fetishism of the Fast and Furious films to shame. Drenched in neon colors and dizzying camera movements, this sequence is nothing short of sensual and electrifying, immersing us into Alexia’s world and her attraction to cars—for a moment, these images are so spellbinding that we’re almost as aroused by the cars as we are by the nearly nude bodies surrounding them. And of course, culminating in the puzzling car sex sequence, the first of many “is this really happening?” moments, Titane suddenly becomes the freaky arthouse genre flick we’ve all been missing—something daringly original, aesthetically provocative, genuinely shocking, and consistently full of WTF moments throughout. It’s almost like David Cronenberg and Gaspar Noé teamed up to reimagine Rosemary’s Baby with a car, but Titane is so much more than that—although unfortunately for the worse.
After its twisted tale of human-machine symbiosis and sexuality, Titane takes a jarring detour into a serial killer film, attempting to play a murder spree for laughs that don’t feel earned. Shortly after, it takes yet another detour into something else completely different—the story of a father reuniting with his missing “son.” By this point, the film loses sight of its original premise and even its focus on Alexia/“Adrian” as it now becomes the story of Vincent and his own strange pathologies. By the end, themes of ambiguous identity, family, obsession, and strange human connection establish themselves as Titane’s greater sense of purpose, but they seem to invade an already crowded narrative of car crashes, body modifications, car sex, and unwanted mechanical pregnancies.
The narrative and thematic whiplash with the introduction of these two narrative detours is particularly jarring, and once they emerge, you easily get the feeling on two separate occasions that you’re suddenly watching a completely different film. By the end, Titane feels like an auto wreck right out of its own story, where three separate films have collided into each other, and the resulting accident is the final product you’re witnessing onscreen, a bizarre cinematic mess of underdeveloped, disparate ideas that feel wildly out of place with one another but are nonetheless forged together, much like its mechanically augmented protagonist.
It’s a shame that Titane ignores its most intriguing elements and its daringly original premise about human machine symbiosis in favor of a more grounded and seemingly random narrative interruption, especially in a film that sets its own rules and logic, common-sense human/car mechanics be damned. Regardless of its deeply frustrating narrative, Titane is deserves to be seen, both for this reckless narrative experimentation, but moreso for its bizarre, grotesque images that must be seen to be believed. After countless artsy horror films with disappointing payoffs and journeys not always worth their destinations, it’s particularly satisfying to see something so weird and freaky—and so consistently weird and freaky—find new ways to shock and disturb with some of the most unforgettable (and uncomfortable) body horror in recent memory.
Titane won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered on July 14, 2021. The film was released in theaters on October 1, 2021, and is now available to watch in theaters and on demand.