Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning sophomore solo film TITANE is a film that tapers, from a brazenly bold introduction to an excitingly unpredictable new character to a thin, sadly predictable ending that offers no way near as much shock or sustenance as anything that came before. By the time of the second (count them…) dance montages, this is a road trip that runs out of fuel.
Which is a shame, because there’s a brilliant beauty to the first half of this story about Alexia, a head-strong young woman with a titanium plate in her skull as the result of a car crash in her troubled childhood. We witness that accident then reunite with her as an adult, employed as a model slash exotic dancer at a car show, where it’s unclear who’s getting more pleasure out of the gig.
Turns out our girl has murderous tendencies, continuing on her killing spree until everything reaches an unforgettable climax at the film’s mid-point. A seemingly intimate home invasion slaying spirals out of control, like a never-ending level in a computer game, each new spawning challenge raising louder laughs from across the auditorium (including an audacious rest break that caused walkouts at the RFH). Forced to go on the run, another standout sequence sees Alexia re-sculpting her face in an airport terminal toilet, a scene that literally had the remaining audience members hiding their own faces in fear.
Nothing in the second half comes close, and while you might see that as formally inventive, or genre-hopping, to me the switch felt like a deflating party balloon, gradually losing any resemblance to its former form and glory. Plot-wise, Alexia is hiding herself in plain sight, thinly disguised as the returning prodigal son of a local fire chief where she gets caught up in his emotional trauma and cast as a cuckoo amongst the otherwise all-male brigade. The whole second half then becomes a series of repetitive fan dances as Alexia tries to hide her evolving female form. She’s pregnant from an earlier fuck with an automobile that comes across as an erotic encounter with CHRISTINE on steroidal suspension (I said the first half was good, right?).
Throughout, TITANE is a visual treat, and Agathe Rousselle deserves every plaudit for her astonishing performance as Alexia. ‘Fearless’ is often overused in reference to actors doing their job, but here she is routinely stripped, beaten and exposed, the film an intimacy director’s fever-dream of sex and erotic violence. Suffering from so much repetitive content in the second half – which feels like the ‘padding’ you get in much less lauded exploitation films of yesteryear – TITANE either lacks sufficient story or the 80s gonzo energy it needs to hold you aloft in its internal delirium. I genuinely see why lots of people will love TITANE, but for me Ducournau has yet to make a film that keeps me grinning with delight right to the finish line.
In brief: Julia Ducournau’s TITANE (2021) screened as the Time Out special presentation at the 65th BFI London Film Festival at the Royal Festival Hall (09 OCT 2021).
An earlier version of this review was posted at radiantcircus.com.