Titane is the messed up body horror that just won the Palme d'Or

The most shocking thing at Cannes this year, the new movie from 'Raw' director Julia Ducournau has earned the same prize 'Parasite' did in 2019.

by Douglas Greenwood
19 July 2021, 9:29am

Carole Bethuel

Good movies can leave you feeling satisfied, but great ones can string you up like a pig in a slaughterhouse and beat you to the point of thinking you need therapy. Titane (or Titanium in English), the latest movie from Julia Ducournau, is one of the latter. What’s more, it’s now award-winning: on Saturday night, the Cannes Film Festival’s jury awarded it the prestigious Palme d’Or, meaning it now follows in the footsteps of classics like Parasite, Taxi Driver and La Dolce Vita.

But she was an off-kilter choice for the prize, one historically given to old dudes who make lumbering message movies. The French director is known best for her debut feature Raw, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2016 and went on to send arthouse cinemas and multiplexes into a frenzy the rest of that year. The story follows a teenage girl going to college and realising that, despite her love for animals, her own flesh and the flesh of other humans is wildly irresistible. At Cannes, it won the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize, and was nominated for six Césars (France's own version of the Oscars).

It's taken her five years to follow that brilliant body horror with another one; a movie that's already been described by a critic as "one of the wildest films to ever screen at the festival" — a completely just assessment. 

Titane is a heart and head-thumping visceral masterpiece that, in some ways, even Julia downplayed before it had its first screening. The plot line relatively simple: a series of murders, followed by the story of a man meeting his son for the first time after a decade apart. Sure, this is technically what Titane is about, but each of those elements, like a shattered mirror or melted chrome, has a million reflective surfaces. To go into too deep detail would spoil the jaw-clenching, sweat-soaked fun of it, so here is as spoiler-less a version of the movie as we can offer up.

agathe rouselle in titane 2021
Carole Bethuel

Titane starts in the backseat of a car, in which young Alexia, our protagonist, is emulating the roars and revs of an engine before, without warning, the car, driven by her dad, spins out of control and crashes. We meet again in a hospital, where her father is warned to look out for neurological side effects to a titanium implant in her head As we know Julia Ducournau's work, there is likely to be many.

Fast forward a decade or so, and we're a nightclub with exotic dancers that also looks a lot like a showroom for souped up cars. Young women – including Alexia, played by Agathe Rousselle, and Justine, played by Raw's lead Garance Marillier – writhe around in barely-there bikinis and fishnets, soaping themselves up and grinding on bonnets under the leery eyes of several dozen men. As the night wraps, said men flock to them in admiration. But these women, Alexia in particular, hold more agency than the sleazy gentlemen around them realise. One man's overzealousness towards Alexia once she leaves proves fatal, and sets off a string of violent and sexual events that will lead her to a lonely fire chief trying by any means possible to quell the grief of his lost son. 

Those violent events, as we've come to expect from Julia, are rancid and disturbing; some using sound design for you to imagine their impact and others that show you the full version of what's unfolding: think impaled boys, self-inflicted nose breaks and intense nipple play. Some audience members at the Cannes press screening walked out in disgust.

There is a lot more going on here, stories much deeper, complex and shocking than what we’ve unpacked, but this violent riot of a masterpiece, about cars and sex and masculinity as performance, deserves the right to surprise you. Prepare for carnage, Titane is coming, and it'll leave you stunned and revolted.

‘Titane’ premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2021, and will be released in US cinemas by Neon and UK and Ireland by Altitude soon. It is in French cinemas now.

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Cannes Film Festival