French director Julia Ducournau’s latest film, Titane (2021), is even more bizarre than her last, Raw (2016). The films cover quite different subject matter, but at their core both films function on the same level. Titane, and Raw are both concerned with becoming; becoming something monstrous, something socially unacceptable, but something we can’t help feeling is justified.
Titane opens with a scene depicting the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on how you see it), Adrien, as a child imitating the sound of a car and irritating her father. Eventually, she undoes her seatbelt and as her father turns around to tell her to put it back on, he crashes the car. When we next see her, she’s waking up from surgery, with a titanium plate in her head, and giving the camera a look sinister and brooding enough to make even Kubrick shudder. It is immediately clear that this trauma will have consequences – if the Kubrick stare isn’t enough to signal this, the nurse says, forebodingly, ‘watch out for any neurological signs’. There will be many signs. From perverse interactions with cars to changing her appearance so Captain Legrand will take her in as his own son, there is no doubt there are direct and extreme consequences to the car crash.
In the end, this is what makes Titane so bone chilling; the madness it portrays doesn’t come out of nowhere and neither does it seem all that unfamiliar. Although the acts which may follow from her mental problems are far from relatable, her ‘origin story’ is one we can relate to. Head trauma does lead to people losing their inhibitions, and intense childhood trauma in general does lead to mental problems in later life. This is what makes Titane the kind of horror which offers little relief when it ends. You can’t turn off the television and say ‘well at least it can't happen to me’ or ‘at least ghosts aren’t real’. You’re forced to acknowledge that, in a broad sense, people do experience childhood trauma, those people do sometimes go on to harm others, and, worst of all, we can’t even fully blame them for this. Unlike many traditional horror movies, besides her first victim (who rather deserved what he got), most of the casualties of the film are fringe, sometimes unnamed characters who seem not to have done anything to deserve their fate. Once again, we’re not given the kind of relief a movie like The Descent (2005) offers in knowing ‘as long as I don’t enter a dodgy looking cave, I’ll be okay’. Instead, we’re left feeling unnervingly vulnerable.
Likewise, in Raw, the driving force of the protagonist’s descent into cannibalism seems to be the universal horror of puberty. Similar to Titane, we see the monster that the protagonist becomes and it’s a disconcertingly familiar beast. The trauma of puberty can cause people to hurt others, occasionally violently. In fact, the recognizable context of university makes Raw strike even closer to home.
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, in comparing the two films, stated that in Titane ‘everything is so labored and crudely directed, without the style and sympathy of Raw. While this is a little too extreme it does help shed light on the difference between the two films. Titane gets your blood pumping by showing you a figure, scarred by trauma, who reacts in a way and does things we imagine anyone might be capable of doing to us. Raw is probably more captivating because despite also doing this, there’s also an element of seeing oneself in the protagonist. Like Justine in Raw, we remember questioning our beliefs, fighting with family members and having awkward (although hopefully not cannibalistic) sexual and romantic experiences while maturing. Although Ducournau may augment all of these normal features of puberty to abnormal extents, they remain eerily recognizable due to the strong writing of the main character. In this way, Raw is certainly more compelling than Titane. Although just as horrifying, Titane is just too ‘far out’ to pack the same character-driven punch as Raw.
This is not to say, though, that Titane is a step down from Raw. Although it operates on about the same level of horror, and is slightly less compelling due to its more foreign subject matter, it is certainly a stylistic improvement, whatever Peter Bradshaw may claim. Primarily, the lighting in the film is really thoughtfully executed and truly elevates some scenes, for instance those of the captain injecting steroids where a red lighting gives an almost psychedelic and rage-fueled feel to the shot. There are many more noticeably intelligent editing and framing choices than Raw, too. For example, the symbolism invoked by the scene where Adrien comes out of surgery and embraces a car, kissing its windows, is particularly strong. Ducournau’s camera is placed inside the car, uncomfortably close to the window. Although we may be separated by a glass pane from Adrien, the close-up of her face as it mashes up against the window is an unsettling picture. What this scene sets up so well is how, as the movie progresses, we will feel more and more separated from Adrien and her antics, we will never feel far enough. She is too human, too forgivable, to put her out of reach of sympathy and reality.
Raw’s cinematography doesn’t work on such a complex level, and it’s clear from this that Ducournau has developed since then. Nevertheless, a lot of the strengths of Raw are maintained in Titane, most notably the unusually emotionally affecting endings of both films – a rarity among most horror movies. Both end on a tender yet strange family scene – something of a trademark which works brilliantly in each case. The focus on female killers is also a growing trend in the horror genre which Ducournau surely has been and will continue to be a key part of. This dynamic flips the traditional ‘damsel in distress’ trope of horror which, although effective, has been undeniably overdone. Ducournau pushes the envelope in Raw, and even more so in Titane, and with the marked improvement in style from her first major feature to her second, things are looking very promising for whatever comes next. Whatever that may be, if it maintains her emblematic blend of the uncanny and the familiar, and combines the stylistic strength of Titane with the more real and familiar characters of Raw, could be her best yet.
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