“Titanium”: sludge and transcendence

There are films that are unlike any other. Titanium, by Julia Ducournau, Palme d’Or at Cannes this spring, is such a film. In an anniversary text marking the 50 years of 2001, a space odyssey, we went from this preamble: “There are films so innovative, so unexpected, so different that their place in the history of cinema is automatically guaranteed. »There again, yes, we dare to write it down, Titanium is such a movie. History will judge.

In the meantime, make way for Julia Ducournau’s cinema. Adventurous and driven by a taste for risk, his Titanium is nonetheless incredibly controlled. The filmmaker and screenwriter creates a recognizable but porous reality there: strangeness is the norm.

Mad furious film, and that’s a compliment, this is the second feature film of the French filmmaker after the noticed and esteemed Serious, initiatory story, like Titanium, of a young marginalized (and marginalized) woman who sows death the better to emancipate herself. Gladly called a horror film, Titanium displays in this case a filiation with the genre more vague than Serious before him. This film is more fragmented, but, paradoxically, more controlled.

The fact is that Titanium transcends the notion of gender, in every sense of the word. We meet little Alexia, sitting in the back seat and determined to elicit a reaction from her father who, behind the wheel, ostentatiously ignores her.

An accident ensues which will require the installation of a titanium plate on the child’s skull. The sight of this little girl with her head caught in a splint worthy of a science fiction film and who accusingly stares at her father is striking. This is just one of the many splendid and disturbing visions that Julia Ducournau summons in her film.

We find adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle, a revelation) while she works as a dancer in car shows. In lascivious communion with the vehicle all of flames painted on the hood of which it occurs, Alexia first exercises this profession to be as close as possible to the cars. The presence of libidinous men all around is a necessary evil (albeit).

At night, as in a dream, the car calls the young woman from its headlights. Back in the back seat, Alexia satisfies her desire …

A daring of her own

Without taking anything away from the fundamental originality of the film, we feel the influence of Crash, by David Cronenberg (based on the novel by JG Ballard) than by Christine, by John Carpenter (based on the novel by Stephen King). If these two films had mated, Titanium could have been their monstrous offspring. In Christine most notably, we see Arnie lovingly stroking the evil car while going in for it. Carpenter does not go further, however. Ducournau, yes.

This is how in this organic and chromed soil nourished by a daring all its own, the filmmaker grows a magnificent flower of bruised flesh and crumpled sheet metal. Because when her belly starts to grow, Alexia (and the audience) realizes that it was, and is, real. This is confirmed by occasional losses of sludge by way of bleeding. However, this mutant pregnancy is not what provokes Alexia’s subsequent run.

Like its predecessor in Serious, Alexia is responsible for several bloody deaths. In this regard, the car accident at the start informs as much about the tone of the film as about the nature of its anti-heroine.

Alexia does not relate to people, but collides. His tribulations, in many ways a “deadly hike” to quote Claude Miller’s film, are a succession of lethal face-to-face meetings. This until she insinuates herself into the existence of Vincent (Vincent Lindon, prodigious) by posing as the latter’s missing son.

Fascinating ambiguity

Improbable development? Absolutely, and Julia Ducournau treats it as such, throwing a fascinating veil of ambiguity over Vincent’s deep motivations. Is it denial, or a cloudy secret? As soon as we think we have guessed, the film negotiates an unexpected turn.

And now Alexia, more and more pregnant, becomes Adrien. An allegory of gender fluidity, this Titanium.

Apart from the character of Alexia / Adrien, that of Vincent evolves considerably. Commander of a fire brigade, hyper muscular despite his age and attached to a narrow vision of masculinity, Vincent amazes by accepting bluntly this new Adrien when he finds him wearing a dress … in a closet (we reiterate it : the film is not devoid of touches of humor).

Dense and very current, the subject does not go through an explanatory or didactic dialogue: Ducournau is too brilliant for that. Rather, she relies on the image, which she makes speak in a way by turns frontal, surrealist or poetic, always limpid.

We think, among other things, of this party in the mess where the firefighters, all muscular and virile young men, dance with their eyes closed: filmed in slow motion and bathed in a mauve light in imitation of the ambient testosterone, the sequence is smooth. – also languid – incredible. Later, another party, this one taking place in the barracks garage, offers an opposing view, with abrupt gestures from the dancers, thunderous music and harsh lights.

Besides reinforcing, a posteriori, the serene vision expressed in the first, this second sequence serves to generate a revealing discomfort. Indeed, Adrien / Alexia resumes his old job there for the time of a number demanded from him by his colleagues, who find themselves very annoyed when the recruit gives them more than they asked – or dared to ask.

Because repressed impulses, of all kinds, are also part of the complex DNA of Titanium.

No limit

At each turn, the form is in phase with the background. In fact, the production knows no limits, drawing on the rules of good taste (broken nose sequence) as well as those of traditional staging. Ducournau’s virtuosity is evident, especially in his way of playing with tension. Take this wide shot in the villa where, on the sofa, a victim of Alexia is lying lifeless next to her: in the background is a staircase from which, after a rather long time , emerges an unforeseen occupant. After the calm, the storm.

Conversely, the sequence of the mission in a burnt forest, with smoke and distant gleams of the blaze, seems straight out of a fairy tale. Sudden ellipses are not uncommon: narrative jolts also reinforcing this impression of a rugged journey.

Finally, it should be noted that, contrary to what has been reported here and there since the first one, there is nothing in Titanium revulsive – unless, in fact, we have never seen a horror film, starting with those of Cronenberg, like. Julia Ducournau’s approach does not have the childish desire to provoke, but to go beyond. Beyond conventions, evidence, common places, comfort. Yes, bis, it takes genius to orchestrate such a cinematic shock.

Titanium (VO)

★★★★★

Drama by Julia Ducournau. With Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Laïs Salameh, Garance Marillier, Bertrand Bonello. France – Belgium, 2021, 108 minutes. Indoors.

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“Titanium”: sludge and transcendence

Hank Gilbert