Auto Erotic Ex Fixation – Titane

More often than not, I appreciate it when a filmmaker decides to take a risk and tries something beyond the standard conventions of storytelling and genre. I’m much more forgiving of a bonkers movie that falls short on quality than I am to a mundane film that’s presented competently but just ends up checking boxes.

As such, I’m more inclined to give a good rating to Titane – Julia Ducourau’s film that won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (making her only the second female director to win, and the first one to do it solo) and France’s submission to the Academy – despite the fact that I really didn’t like it all that much. This is a fucked up movie, which I love. It’s visceral, experimental, and unexpected to the point of being shocking at times. Where it falls short for me is in story and character terms, as it appears that Ducournau sacrificed them for the sake of spectacle. It’s riveting spectacle at times, surely, but like Hereditary before it, if you have way out there imagery in service of nothing, then what do you really have?

The plot – such as it is – revolves around Alexia, played by newcomer Agathe Rousselle. As a child, her shenanigans in the back seat of her father’s car caused a serious accident, necessitating a titanium plate to be put in her head (the film’s title coming for the French word for “Titanium”). As an adult, she sports a pretty rad head scar (it looks like her brain is partially exposed), models at car shows, and is a full-on mechaphile. Watching her strap herself into the back of a low-rider and give herself an orgasm is surreal to say the least, and the beginning of an intriguing character study or some sort of treatise on sexuality. It’s everything after this moment that sends belief careening into the canyon.

Because, in addition to this fetish, Alexia is a serial killer, using a long hairpin to murder basically any human who expresses attraction or desire towards her, whether they’re a rapacious obsessed fan or just a cute co-worker. She’s even forced to go on the run when she’s found out. If the movie had just stayed in this lane (I’m so, so sorry, but I had to), I think this could have turned out to be something truly fascinating. Seeing Alexia alternate between murder, lust, and cars would be genuinely intriguing. It also helps that she’s somehow pregnant, and it’s heavily implied that it was by the car. There’s some truly great and gory body horror effects where her womb becomes metallic and she begins lactating motor oil. That’s messed up, really messed up, and I’m here for it, because it raises so many questions that could have fans debating for days.

But once we hit the end of the first act, any and all momentum on that thread is ground to a halt by Alexia changing her appearance to hide from authorities, pretending to be the long lost missing son of a local fire captain. This too is messed up, but not in any matter that is remotely satisfying, and sadly, we stay on this path for the duration.

The captain (Vincent Lindon, who won Best Actor at Cannes in 2015 for The Measure of a Man) is addicted to steroids to keep himself in shape, with all the naked ass injecting and mood swings that entails. He’s obsessed with his lost son Adrien, and refuses a DNA test when Alexia shows up claiming to be him. That obsession translates into extreme overprotection and affection bordering on the sexual, with a hefty dose of physical and verbal abuse to boot, raising questions about his relationship with his son that I don’t think the film intended to ask. Alexia’s intentional silence for a large chunk of this does no favors for us in the audience, as her wide-eyed yet blank stare offers us no real insight into her motivations, methods, or instincts. All we get are occasional check-ins on her pregnancy and efforts to hide it, which is just a reminder of the much more interesting story we should be watching instead.

If Ducournau was trying to draw some weird parallel between a father desperate for his son back and a woman desperate to escape her previous home life, then it was completely lost on me. These aren’t two lost souls finding each other. It’s a crazed killer with a mechanical (and perhaps supernatural) fetish seeking refuge with an unstable drug addict looking for any outlet for familial authority. We went from a multifaceted femme fatale heroin to a no-note waif hiding with a one-note roid rager, which is just torturous if you’re looking for nuanced character work. Maybe on some level all of this could work, but not for the entire back half of the body horror erotic thriller we were given for the first half of the run time. It feels like there were two short films here sewn together to fill feature length, and the go together about as well as Bart Simpson’s pigeon-rat.

Just about everything that was cool and new in the first half of the film is abandoned in the second half. There seems to be only one person who even suspects that Alexia isn’t who she says she is, and he’s shut down because it’s presented as jealousy over the captain treating “Adrien” like the new favorite at the fire station, rather than what Ducournau should have gone for, which is, “Hey, isn’t that the serial killer who fucks cars that the police are looking for?” Even when the truth is revealed, it’s shrugged off because none of the setup seems to matter anymore. Multiple murders? Meh. Fugitive on the run? Screw it. What’s really important is that the steroid guy has all the feels.

This could have been one of the most captivating films of the year, and there’s certainly some great stuff on display, enough for me to still give it a mild recommendation on balance. What’s disappointing is that for whatever reason, Julia Ducournau quit the real story halfway through for a bunch of confusing nonsense that occasionally had good visuals. It was enough to win Cannes, and it’ll get serious consideration come Oscar time, so I guess mission accomplished. But for me, what started as a warped masterpiece instead became a gory, R-rated, gender-swapped adaptation of My Mother the Car.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the weirdest cinematic erotica you’ve seen? Does this movie give whole new meaning to the term, “drive shaft?” Let me know!

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