Zero to sixty in three seconds, but loses traction toward the end. When I first read David Ehrlich describe Julia Ducournau’s Titane as “the sweetest movie ever made about a serial killer who has sex with a car,” I as instantly intrigued. And for the first half of the movie, that is exactly what I got. It was a brutal, thrilling, and raw (pun intended!) ride. The main character, Alexia, is an erotic dancer at a car venue with a sadistic side – hinted at in her interactions with a fellow dancer in the showers and made even more obvious with her murder of a fanboy later in the evening. While it may seem like a one-off act of self-defense, the mechanical precision and heartless manner in which she swiftly kills and stows her victim suggest otherwise. We later learn she is a wanted serial killer terrorizing the south of France.
Her heartless nature can be reflected in her relationship with cars. After surviving an automotive accident as a child, a titanium plate is inserted into her head with the scars of the procedure following her onward into adulthood. She physically has become more machinelike form this operation, and when discharged, she does not take solace with her parents, but rather begins to passionately kiss their car. As an adult, this “auto” eroticism will manifest into her literally having sex with cars and later, even conceiving.
Alexia continues on with her killing spree, until one night she miscalculates – what she thinks is a quiet secluded night in to kill her colleague turns out to be a small gathering, with several guests in the home. It becomes a massacre, as she stresses over making sure each new witness meets their demise in order to keep the situation under control. But it all goes wrong when one girl escapes. From this moment on, she will no longer be a mysterious killer able to move freely in plain sight, she will be a wanted criminal with her police sketch plastered everywhere.
At this point, around midway, the movie takes an odd pivot and never recovers the thrill of the first half. What started as a violent adventure with a sensual huntress becomes a drawn-out family melodrama as the film slams on the brakes in tone and pacing.
Alexia is on the run and sees a sign for missing children that have been digitally aged. She decides she can pose as one of them and goes into a bathroom to undergo a brutal transformation involving a haircut, binding her breasts, and several excruciating attempts – one finally being successful – to break her own nose. She turns herself in at a police station and is now “Adrien” the long-lost son of an unknown man who instantly “recognises” her and takes her home – even refusing a DNA test to confirm.
Whilst Alexia was an alluring figure –leading men and women to their deaths through seduction, once she makes the transformation to Adrien, she loses that spark. Even her attempt to murder her foster father comes across as half-hearted. She, like this film, has lost her gusto.
Adrien hardly mutters a word – a presumptive attempt to prevent outing herself as a female – and takes on a shy, timid nature. Maybe it is deeper- a commentary on the silencing of women in a “man’s world” and her change in demeanour and “worth” due to the loss of her alluring sexuality. In any event, Alexia as Adrien must work hard to keep her secret, which becomes especially harder as she realises she is pregnant and beginning to show. She binds her stomach and breasts at all times unless showering or sleeping. Still, there are many close-call instances where she must quickly grab a blanket or a towel to prevent her foster father from seeing her naked body as he busts into the room unannounced. The challenge is greater still when whatever is growing inside her starts causing motor oil to secrete from her mammary glands and groin.
Her new father is a fire chief and gets his “son” to start working at the station. Fitting in is difficult, with Adrien coming across as awkward and weak. One fellow firefighter even starts to catch on to the ruse and poses yet another challenge to keeping the secret intact. However, it soon becomes clear that the task will not be so difficult, as the father simply does not care if this person is truly his son. Even when confronted about it, he refuses to discuss it. And when his estranged ex-wife arrives to see their newly found son, she tells Alexia she knows she is a con (even seeing her naked to remove all doubt), but that she does not care because it is helping her ex-husband to cope with his trauma. The father’s apathy to the truth and is finally made blatantly clear when the he ultimately does see Adrien’s breasts in the shower and is completely unphased, and then later when he helps her as she goes into labour. She dies during childbirth, with the final scene showing the father embracing the new-born, who like its mother is a hybrid of human and titanium with a metal spine protruding on its back.
This film certainly has a lot to say – although it is not always clear what that is. It touches on gender roles and androgyny, misogyny and the objectification of women, and delusion as a coping mechanism – willful ignorance, or even denial, can be bliss. There are Biblical references, with a perverse protocol son scenario and even mention of Adrien being Jesus-like figure. The line is blurred between the “human” and the “mechanical.” And it certainly has its fair share of brutal bodily pain – from an older man shooting up steroids and overdosing to a woman scratching, taping, and even secreting motor oil from her pregnant body. Whatever she has conceived with the car is causing her immense physical pain, with metal cutting through her flesh.
Fire plays an important role, even Alexia’s car – yes, the one she has intercourse with – is covered in flame motives. She later decides to entrap her family in a burning house as she makes her great escape from the law. Her newfound father is a firefighter and finds himself surrounded by fire in both simulations and real-life scenarios. The destructive power of fire acts to both destroy and provide opportunity – Alexia can leave her old family behind without a trace and later the fellow firefighter, who suspects Adrien is not what he/she seems, succumbs to a forest fire, his inquisitive distrust dying with him. The father even sets himself on fire when a match falls on his alcohol drenched shirt from a drink he has coughed up on his chest.
The second half of Titane is almost unrecognizable from the first half – it feels like an entirely different film. Had the movie unfolded in the reverse – the slow, crawling pace of the Adrien portion leading up to a motorized, satisfying payoff, perhaps as a flashback– then I probably would have left with a different view. But starting with a bang and then faltering towards the conclusion, the film left me unsatisfied. I found myself wishing that the movie that it started as was the movie it finished as; namely “the sweetest movie ever made about a serial killer who has sex with a car,” which, in the absence of any competition, I suppose it still technically is.
This review was written by Justin Schubert.
You might also like to read the review on another French horror film Knife+Heart.