If you’ve been reading reviews for long, you’re familiar with my annual rants about the Oscars’ lack of credibility and the Academy’s embarrassing record of prioritizing popularity and politics over artistry. And you may have noticed that I often point people to international film festivals — particularly Cannes — as examples of how, elsewhere in the world, great art is not only recognized but celebrated.

This year, my admiration for Cannes jury discernment has taken a hard hit. They’ve given Titane, from French director Julia Ducournau, the Palme d’Or.

The Golden Palm! This is the award they gave to transcendent titles like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; Wenders’s Paris, Texas and Malick’s The Tree of Life; Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs and Campion’s The Piano; the Coens’ Barton Fink and the Dardennes’ Rosetta; Leigh’s Secrets and Lies and Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives! Granted, I’ve sulked over a few Cannes jury choices (particularly the reportedly pornographic Blue is the Warmest Color, which sparked charges of abuse against the director). But I’ll rush out to see a Cannes award-winner over an Oscar winner on almost any occasion.

And here’s a rare occasion: They’ve given this award to a film directed by a woman! Yet another reason for celebration, right?

Alas, no. This time I’m going to recommend you give the 2021 Palm winner a pass. Why?

It’s complicated.

Let’s consider the narrative — a rollercoaster, wild and strange. Titane traces two painful journeys, both of which are, “on paper,” interesting. I’m not troubled by what their stories are about; rather, I’m troubled by how the stories are told.

First, we have the growing-up of a girl named Alexia (Adèle Guigue), who is strangely (inexplicably, really) obsessed with automobiles. This is true even before she’s in a car accident that results in surgeons implanting a metal plate in her head. Later, as a grown woman (Agathe Rousselle), she’s drawn to motor vehicles sexually — yes, sexually — and to such psychotic extremes that anyone who disrupts her obsessions is likely to end up impaled on the knitting needle that she keeps sheathed like a samurai sword in her hairdo.

Young Alexia’s love for machinery gets a boost: a car accident leads to the installation of a metal plate in her head.

That’s enough of an interesting premise for any psychological thriller or body-horror nightmare. Artists — filmmakers especially — have been intrigued by the seductive nature of technology since movies were first made, and the subject raises questions we need to investigate. I’d be intrigued if I knew that idea was being explored in a conscience-driven vein, like something we might see from Claire Denis (her High Life took us dark psychosexual sci-fi turns), Guillermo del Toro (with his penchant for stories of persecuted outsiders), or the Davids Lynch or Cronenberg (with their willingness to explore the darker recesses of human nature for purposes of caution or lament).

But wait — there’s more.

Second, we have Vincent (Vincent Lindon), the commander of a squadron of firefighters and the father of a long-missing boy named Adrien. The crisis has probably influenced his leadership; the men of his muscular brigade regard him with a mix of fear, incredulity, and humor. Driven to distraction, he enjoys losing himself in their trance-like dance parties. Worse, he has become addicted to some kind of drug that reinforces or amplifies aspects of his masculinity — perhaps to help him compensate for the sense of powerlessness that stems from his irreparable loss.

Fire chief Vincent fuels a deep sense of grief with steroidal injections and a god-complex.

Again, this sounds like thematic territory we’ve seen artists like Denis explore before (Beau Travail, for example).

But we’re just getting started. As Alexia becomes more and more desperate in her quest to be loved and understood, rather than cured of her alarming lust for chrome and machinery, she becomes more and more murderous, moving from the swift stabbing of a stalker to the full slaughter of a girlfriend’s housemates. Before long, she finds her face is on wanted posters alongside pictures of missing persons — and so, of course, she decides that the rational thing to do is disguise herself as one of them. She happens to choose Vincent’s missing son, Adrien. This involves a disfiguring body wrap, a severe haircut, and more.

But there is still no resemblance between Alexia and Adrien. Nobody could mistake them. Nobody. Especially Adrien’s father, who soon finds himself staring intently into Alexia’s anxious face. He may guess that this is a stranger, an opportunist. But he cannot guess the darker secret: that Alexia is pregnant with — are you ready for this? — the child of, yes, an automobile.

Nevertheless, Vincent, deep in his depression, decides to take Alexia at her word in a moment of … what? grief-triggered delusion? Implausible as it all is, they begin to make a life together as father and “son,” much to the confusion and dismay of Vincent’s firefighting boys’ club).

If that sounds jarringly erratic and surreal, it is — and more so than my summary suggests. But that’s not why I find Titane so difficult. I love unpredictable narratives, and I love it when ambitious directors take big swings. What matters to me most is meaningfulness. You can learn a lot about an artist by where and how they invest their time and attention. You can learn a lot about a movie by asking what it loves with its resources, its camera, its energy.

What does Titane love? Although the arc of the story might suggest it loves the dangerously unhinged Alexia and the poor broken-hearted Vincent, aiming to bring them together into a healing experience of love and trust, the absurdity of their desperate decisions makes it impossible — for this moviegoer, anyway — to take either of them seriously. And, worse, it shows them incapable of forming a bond that might bring actual healing, as reliant as it is on lies, delusions, and denial.

So why has Titane charmed the Cannes jury? Does it do anything particularly new?

Agathe Rousselle plays Alexia, and her performance — careening from simmering rage to flamboyant violence — is compelling but uninspiring.

Like a loud, rattling, unsteady automobile pieced together with parts of luxury cars, Titane is a marathon of allusions and references that has me wishing I was watching those other films — any of them — whenever they come to mind. As many critics have observed, Titane welds together the central conceit of Cronenberg’s lurid Crash and some truly imaginative twists from Leo Carax’s spectacularly strange Holy Motors. But I’m also reminded of the kamikaze, hell-for-leather energy of Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander in Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; the tragic co-dependent bond between vampire and aging familiar in Let the Right One In; the sentient, serial-killing car tire in Rubber; the mysterious charity of a grieving father in the Dardennes’ Le Fils; and the carnage-slinging relentlessness of Uma Thurman’s “The Bride” in Kill Bill (particularly Volume 2, from which Titane steals a key needle drop). And then, in its climactic moments, I can’t help but think about an unforgettable sequence from a film too recent to have been an inspiration: Nikole Beckwith’s Together Together.

Having said all of this, I’m tempted to reconsider my review. I mean, any movie that creates a compelling collage of such a wild array of movies is certainly a freakshow worth seeing… right?

Not for me. I have no desire to return to Titane ever again. I mean, maybe the Cannes jury was like, “Welp, so many technical aspects of this film are achieved with excellence that we really have no choice but to give it the Palme d’Or.” And yes, Ducournau demonstrates remarkable skill with staging crowded and complicated scenes, as well as an imagination for startling juxtapositions that keep us guessing about what’s around the corner. She’s also good with actors. For all of the spectacular color, light, and energy onscreen, there’s nothing more visually compelling than Vincent Lindon’s commanding physical presence.

But is the whole of Titane greater than the sum of its chrome-and-steel-and-multilated-body parts?

Alexia’s exotic dancing inspires a stalker — which is no surprise. But her reaction to it is… disproportionate, to put it mildly.

This is a film that has a very specific audacity that I do not understand. I’ll be the first to admit that, while I understand the importance of stories that imaginatively challenge our traditional definitions of gender and sexual orientation, I cannot figure out how a story like this would come as any comfort to those who have suffered in their search for love, family, and societal acceptance. Titane seems to think we will care about Alexia and Vincent even as their tentative and discomforting agreements and contracts take them to greater extremes of self-deceit and a refusal to reckon with the destruction they are wreaking in the world. Instead of summoning from its audience a sense of empathy, it glorifies a sort of anti-humanity, dismissing as collateral damage several victims of brutal murders, and celebrating the allure of a lie over the fact that the truth can set us free.

I’ve asked myself if I might be misreading it all. Could this be a cautionary tale about how, if we are scarred deeply enough, we might easily be persuaded to embrace lies for the sake of comfort and thus invite new forms of corruption into the world? I suppose that someone could read Titane‘s bonkers conclusion that way. But I can’t shake the sense that the movie wants us to root for Vincent and Alexia, and to welcome the new beginning in its final frames as the dawning of a new post-human era. Self-annihilation, it suggests, may be humankind’s only acceptable option.

And besides, all along the way, scenarios in which human beings are making self-destructive choices are filmed with a sense of revelry. Alexia’s exotic dancing is filmed with lusty enthusiasm, Ducournau making no effort to avoid filming Alexia and the other dancers with the lascivious gaze of the lust-driven men staggering like zombies through the explicit exhibition.

It’s not just an act: This is really how Alexia feels about cars. Why? The movie gives us no real hint. Thje heart wants what it wants, I guess.

Thus, it feels disingenuous when Ducournau tries to make a victim of Alexia later. When one of Alexia’s drooling worshippers dives in for an unwanted kiss, Ducournau celebrates his mistake by subjecting him to an excruciating execution, one of several that are staged in ways that suggest she’s with those misguided moviegoers who seek out and revel in particularly perverse varieties of big-screen bloodshed. Sure, the stalker’s a creep. But Alexia’s wild response — to pluck the knitting needle and plunge it into his ear, like like an evil Buffy staking bloody claims on an unremarkable vampire — is so extreme that any moviegoer with a conscience is going to be rooting for her to be caught and locked up as soon as possible.

As the story unfolds — or, better, goes on breaking down in so many ways — we’re asked to accept, and even enjoy, how Alexia turns against her girlfriend Justine when her appetite for metal isn’t immediately understood and endorsed. This leads to an all-out slaughter that I can’t imagine the most bloodthirsty Tarantino fan justifying, and it’s played for laughs.

I’d be curious to know what trans moviegoers think of Titane, but I can’t imagine any of my trans friends watching this and saying “This movie gets me.” (In this regard, I find Jude Dry’s indieWire review enlightening.)  If anything, I’d suspect that they would be distraught over how this movie makes the prospect of transitioning seem like a decision motivated by fear or insanity. Titane feels so hell-bent on troubling us with its relentlessly lurid assaults — “You think that’s disturbing… wait’ll you see this!” — that it’s culminating episodes, which illustrate The Guilty’s rubber-stamp platitude of “Broken people save broken people” seem disingenuous and smug.

Afterward, I felt like Hayao Miyazaki after he watched digital animation of mutant humans: “Utterly disgusted,” he called what he had seen “an insult to life itself.”

Privacy Preference Center

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This