The French are really out-Frenching themselves when it comes to conceptually extreme movies these days, non? First Annette, Leos Carax’s garish pop operetta about the freakish CGI offspring of Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, now Julia Ducournau’s Cannes-winning Titane, the tale of a serial killer who gets knocked up by a Cadillac. And Paul Verhoeven expects to shock us with lesbian nuns? How merely Dutch of him.
Despite its bonkers premise, and some effectively lurid humor, Titane is not the trippy midnight movie bloodbath you’re looking to get high for. Its gore per minute rate probably falls short of the pace set by Ducournau’s career-making feminist cannibal movie Raw. But it’s a savvy flinch-fest, testing your nerve with an assurance too steady to be called gratuitous. And it precariously balances its tonal extremes: The more compelling you find the grisly nuance of its body-horror mindfuckery, the more willing you are to suspend your disbelief, the more likely you are to be moved by the makeshift familial relationship that develops at its center.
Titane begins with a car crash, as an irritable father reaches angrily into the back seat to grab his child while driving and loses control of the vehicle. (In just a few scenes, Bertrand Bonello brilliantly suggests unseen layers of unpleasantness beneath that father’s disagreeable surface.) That child, Alexia, has her cracked skull bolstered by a titanium plate that, when we see her next (as an adult played by Agathe Rousselle) she’s shaved her head to flaunt. Now in her thirties, Alexia dances at car shows, humping a classic Cadillac with an enthusiasm beyond the call of professionalism. Afterwards she fends off leering autograph hounds and slumps around her parents’ house like a sullen teen.
Oh, and she’s also rather nonchalantly begun to rack up a body count. One night after work, while Alexia showers off the fluids of her latest victim, her dance partner the Caddy beckons her. She heeds its call, and so begins the most virtuosic, over-the-top one-woman arthouse softcore display since Juliette Binoche’s interstellar Sybian ride in High Life. But this intense fling has its cost: Soon Alexia, emitting a black liquid down below, learns that the car has somehow impregnated her. She works off her rage and confusion with a few more murders, each more half-hearted than the last, then hits the road.
Just as you’re resigning yourself to the possibility that Titane may amount to no more than a series of ingenious Euro-sadistic set pieces, the movie shifts gears (very clever, Keith). The cops close in, and Alexia, holed up in a train station bathroom, binds her boobs and belly, chops off her hair, shaves her eyebrows, and smashes her nose. She emerges to tell the police she’s Adrien, a local boy who’s been missing since he was a small child, and the way Rousselle transforms herself from within, the killer’s dead eyes deepening into a haunted runaway’s look, is eerily believable.
Not that Adrien’s father needs much convincing. A fire chief named Vincent (Vincent Lindon, whose eyes droop with wounded soul) accepts Alexia as his long lost son out of hope, need, and delusion. Just as Alexia, her flesh increasingly scarred by her bindings and distended by her mysterious fetus, fights to maintain her illusory appearance, Vincent also struggles against his uncooperative body, jabbing his needle-bruised flank with regular steroid injections. He’s muscular yet inert, a raw steak of a man who carries himself like his own pallbearer.
Fittingly, since how people move reveals who they are to others, Titane is a story partially told through dance sequences—Alexia’s sleazeball-sating twerk ‘n’ grind at the car show, a belligerent sparring session between father and “son” to the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” and a climactic moment where Alexia wavers between her past and future as she seeks her place in a male-bonding throng of hunky firemen. In each instance, the camera deliberately alerts us to the ever-significant fact of who’s doing the seeing and who’s being seen, and all those cultural studies clichés—about the gaze, about gender-as-performance, about the human body’s mutability as a source of horror—are reinvigorated by the intensity of the depiction.
As the ticking womb bomb within Alexia nears its detonation, we’re constantly reminded of the fragility of the flesh bags that contain us, and also how their unexpected durability can lead simply to more intense pain. And because Titane is also enmeshed in the ambiguity of what its characters see, it suggests that what terrifies us about our bodies isn’t just how little we can control them, but how much we ask of them, both physically and psychologically. Our physical appearance defines our self in the eyes of others. That’s a lot for a body to live up to.
On one level, Titane is a story of acceptance. If impersonating Adrien is initially a path to safety, Alexia finds meaning within it when she receives Vincent’s unconditional acceptance. Yes, gender is a performance but also, more broadly, so is identity, and it requires a sympathetic audience. Maybe even a willing suspension of disbelief.
Titane opens in area theaters today.
Special Screenings This Week
Friday, Oct. 1
Arab Film Festival: Moonscape (2020) + As Above, So Below (2020)
As Above, So Below follows a nomadic group of people who bring nothing along but a swing set. It’s preceded by the 17 minute experimental short, Moonscape. $10. 7 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: Trances (1981)
An experimental documentary about the Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane. $10. 9 p.m. More info here.
Saturday, Oct. 2
The Lost Boys (1987)
Hey Zoomers—there’s a good chance your mom had a crush on at least one of the dudes in this movie. Make her tell you which. (There’s a good chance your dad still has a crush on Jami Gertz.) 6:30 p.m. More info here.
The Craft (1995)
A classic of careful-what-you-witch-for teen magic-dabbling, with four Catholic school outcasts getting all spooky with the deviltry. $5-$10. 1 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: Our Memory Belongs to Us (2021)
Three Syrian activists are gathered on a Paris stage to watch footage of the violence they’ve endured and discuss their past. $10. 1 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: Bellydance Vogue (2020) + Moss Agate (2020)
In Moss Agate a Beirut filmmaker’s struggles as his life falls apart. Preceded by the short film Bellydance Vogue. $10. 3 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: About Some Meaningless Events (1974)
Immediately banned upon its release, this quasi-documentary begins with an inquiry into the state of Moroccan cinema and turns into a murder investigation. $10. 5 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: Gaza Mon Amour (2020)
A 60-year-old Palestinian falls in love, discovers an ancient statue, and falls afoul of Hamas. $10. 7 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: Zanka Contact (2020)
A “punk Romeo and Juliet” fight their way through the Moroccan underworld to save themselves and their love. $10. 9 p.m. More info here.
Sunday, Oct. 3
Mean Girls (2004)
When I first saw this movie 17 years ago, my immediate thought was, “That Lindsay Lohan, she’s gonna auction off an NFT of her fursona someday. Just you wait.” And they all laughed at me, the fools. 6:30 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: Before the Dying of the Light (2020)
A documentary about the arts scene of 1970s Morocco. $10. 12 p.m. More info here.
Arab Film Festival: Give up the Ghost (2019) + 200 Meters (2020)
In 200 Meters, a Palestinian father struggles to get to the other side of the Israeli border wall to see his injured son. Preceded by the short film Give up the Ghost. $10. 23 p.m. More info here.
The Trylon begins its October series, “Creepy Crawlies of Unusual Size and/or Violent Behavior,” with this vintage low-budget gross-out fest. These worms will eat your face! $8. 7 p.m. Sunday; 7 & 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. More info here.
Monday Oct. 4
The Shining (1980)
To get you in the mood for winter. 6:30 p.m. More info here.
Wednesday Oct. 6
October Tape Freaks
As always, the Trylon offers a secret movie on the first Wednesday of the month. $5. 7 p.m. More info here.
Thursday, Oct. 7
Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)
Questlove’s celebrated reclamation of the footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Free, as part of the Capri’s Grand Opening. 7 p.m. More info here.
Let Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer show you why they call it “gaslighting.” In 35 mm. $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Ah-woo! $9/$12. 8 p.m. More info here.
Opening This Week
The Addams Family 2
Some are calling it “this year’s sequel to The Addams Family.” Others are calling it “a prequel to The Addams Family 3.” See it and decide for yourself!
I’m Your Man
An archaeologist dates an android in this AI romcom from German director Maria Schrader.
The Many Saints of Newark
Does the theatrical release of Soprano Babies mean that movies are the new TV?
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Hmm, seems like there’s gonna be Carnage whether you let there be or not.
Ongoing in Local Theaters
The Card Counter
Dear Evan Hansen
Don’t Breathe 2
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
The Green Knight
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings