Julia Ducournau does not make movies that audiences are likely to see themselves in. Her knockout debut feature, Raw, follows a veterinary student who develops a craving for uncooked flesh, mostly of the human variety. Like so many horror films, the work is suffused with metaphors about hard-to-discuss topics—in this case, sexual maturity and peer pressure. But compared with Ducournau’s follow-up, Titane, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Raw seems like a breezy, accessible fable. In her new film, Ducournau aimed to create a character that was “impossible” to morally relate to. She succeeded.
The viewer meets the protagonist, Alexia (played by Agathe Rousselle), as a child, when she injures her skull in a car crash and gets a metal plate inserted in her head. After that, she relates more to automobiles than to people and eventually takes a job as an auto-show model, writhing around on top of cars and largely ignoring her family. What follows is intense, unbelievable, and viscerally violent—but also strange enough to register more as a surreal comedy than a shocking piece of horror. Ducournau challenges viewers to find the humanity in a character who seems intent on rejecting her own, all while provoking as many laughs as gasps.
I’ll try to sum up Alexia’s journey as briefly as possible. After a car show one night, she brutally murders a man who forcibly kisses her. She then showers, makes passionate love to a vrooming car (which somehow impregnates her), and goes on a killing spree. Alexia’s decision making can seem opaque and erratic; the reality of the world around her similarly shifts from moment to moment. The love scene with the car is heightened and fantastical; the murders she commits afterward are mundane and tragicomic—frightening only because they are so pointless.
Some theatergoers will surely be running for the exits. Those who stay might find themselves numbed by the relentless violence. But I appreciated the effort of trying to understand Alexia. Is there anything to grasp onto emotionally in such a bleak vision of the world, with a protagonist who almost appears machine-like at first? The most thrilling moments are those in which Ducournau provokes sympathy for Alexia, from something as universal as her being in pain. The transgressive appeal of horror, to Ducournau, is clearly rooted in those times when one briefly identifies with the monster.
Then halfway through, Titane introduces a character who not just empathizes with Alexia but unabashedly loves her—or who he thinks she is. In an effort to dodge the authorities, Alexia pretends to be the grown-up version of a boy who famously went missing years ago. The boy’s devastated firefighter father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), eagerly takes her in. To the audience, Alexia plainly is not a 17-year-old boy, but Ducournau is entirely focused on individual perception, on the way things can be wildly different to different people. A car can be an alluring sex object to Alexia; a homicidal pregnant woman can be a wounded boy in need of care to the achingly sincere Vincent.
As I wrote before, Raw’s metaphor was simple but effective, telling a coming-of-age story about breaking through boundaries as one grows up. The metaphors one can apply to Titane are far more oblique. Ducournau is obviously fascinated by Alexia’s transformation, both external and internal. But she’s also transfixed by how traditional gender roles endure under the strangest of circumstances. Of course the beefy, hypermasculine Vincent can relate to Alexia only when she’s his long-lost “son,” someone to take under his wing and train as a junior firefighter in his heroic trade.
Eventually, the ticking plot bombs that Titane has set—Alexia’s pregnancy, her deception, and her past as a murderer—go off. I won’t spoil the aftermath, but Ducournau’s final and toughest challenge is in writing a story that begins with monstrous ferocity and ends with tender humanity; the strength of the performances, particularly Lindon’s nervy, exhausted Vincent, make that tonal shift possible. You’ll likely walk out of Titane feeling like you’ve been rattled by a roller coaster, but the film’s daring attempt at pathos has stuck with me the most.