Titane had been on my watch-list since it was released last year, however I only recently got around to watching it. I loved Julia Ducournau’s last movie; Raw. Between that and Titane winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, I had pretty high hopes for this movie. Unfortunately I came away feeling as though Titane may be one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious films that I have seen in years.
Full spoilers for Titane, The House That Jack Built, The Fly and The Last Of Us Part 2 will follow.
The film can be viewed via Mubi.
Possibly the thing which annoyed me most about Titane was the fact that there are good ideas in here, it is just unfortunate that they are buried under a mound of unnecessary garbage. The multitude of ideas presented in this film, – interesting or otherwise, – lead to the overall product feeling messy and unfocused.
The idea of using self-inflicted body-horror as an allegory for someone struggling with gender identity is a fascinating one. That could have been its own film. The idea of an emotionally distraught father accepting a complete stranger as his own blood out of sheer desperation despite having absolutely no proof is also a great concept. Again, it could have made for its own interesting movie.
Unfortunately these interesting concepts are completely wasted here for the sake of telling a story revolving around a completely unsympathetic character. Alexia is an extremely unlikable character and the idea that Ducournau expects the audience to feel sympathy towards her is downright insulting.
Whilst watching the movie, I was reminded of a few other films who have tackled some of the themes present in Titane. Just off of the top of my head, I was able to come up with a handful of movies which did a better job of handling similar topics in a far more successful fashion. I have already mentioned how Titane is guilty of containing a few decent ideas which are buried under a mound of unnecessary nonsense. A director whom I have accused of this in the past is the master of the shock factor himself; Lars Von Trier.
With that said, there are a couple of Von Trier movies which I actually am a fan of. Namely; Melancholia and The House That Jack Built. Like Titane, The House That Jack Built is also considered by some to be a pretentious film and is based around an uncompromisingly evil character capable of murdering innocent people en-masse.
However, The House That Jack Built succeeds where Titane fails in that Von Trier never asks his audience to sympathise with Jack. The clear emotional distance kept between Jack and the audience in that movie, allows us to observe and understand Jack’s lack of morals and twisted mental state, without ever being asked to feel sorry for him or side with him.
It felt good to watch Jack descend into the lowest pit of hell at the end of that movie. Although the movie followed Jack, he was the antagonist of that story and he got what he deserved in the end. Thus, the audience came away from that movie feeling satisfied.
Titane presents Alexia as an unfeeling husk of a person and then asks the audience to support her cause. This is one of the major elements which makes Titane such a pretentious film. Ducournau doesn’t even provide Alexia with a great deal of emotional development or tangible backstory beyond the car crash scene in the movie’s opening. Working on either of these lacking elements may have at least allowed the audience to feel as though the filmmakers made an effort to make Alexia’s character more palatable.
Perhaps if Ducournau was to either present Alexia as an outright villain, or at least attempt to use years of ongoing trauma to justify her actions things would be different. As it stands, none of that is explored and so what we are left with is a shell of a character going from gory sequence to gory sequence absent of any clear character arc.
The choice to not explicitly show elements of a character’s backstory for the sake of painting them as an ambiguous enigma can work in some cases. The most recent example of this being Ethan Hawke’s phenomenal performance as The Grabber in the otherwise sub-par The Black Phone. Another famous example of this type of mystery being implemented successfully was in Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight.
With that said, both The Joker and The Grabber are chaotic psychopaths. The thing which fuels their respective deteriorated mental states doesn’t matter because it doesn’t pertain to the story being told. We are also never asked to sympathise with either of those characters.
However, Ducournau clearly wanted her audience to side with Alexia. Asking your audience to get onboard with a character whom we know very little about, – other than the fact that she is a violent, merciless murderer who loves cars, – is frankly baffling. It goes against everything that is taught at film school.
The hard-cuts in the movie’s editing also don’t do anything to help with its disjointedness. Frankly, much of Titane feels more like an artsy music video than it does a flowing narrative experience. Again these sequences make Titane feel like an overly pretentious film. I also felt that this shooting and editing style did the actors in the film a disservice, causing passionate performances to come off as somewhat shallow.
Along with Lars Von Trier, another director’s work which clearly inspired Titane is that of David Cronenberg. The body horror sequences in Titane are well executed from a technical standpoint, but narratively they have little impact. This is due to the fact that Alexia is such an easy character to despise. Therefore, when she is seen suffering from immense pain, it feels as though she is getting exactly what she deserves.
The iconic body-horror elements of The Fly didn’t just work because of the awesome practical effects employed to create those sequences. The scenes in that movie were horrifying because the audience was witnessing a comparatively likable character played by the affable Jeff Goldblum slowly lose his humanity due to an accident which wasn’t directly caused by him.
Watching a human slowly lose control of themselves and transform into a grotesque monster is far more disturbing on an existential level than it is on a visual level. A filmmaker could use the most effective special effects in the world to show body-horror, but without an emotional tie to the character experiencing it, the sequences are rendered meaningless.
If anything, watching Alexia suffer the pain she did was cathartic and felt like it came as a consequence of her previous evil actions as some sort of karmic justice. I do not feel as though this was what Ducournau was aiming for with these sequences, hence they come across as unsuccessful.
Again, the main issue here is just how unlikable Alexia is made out to be so early on in the film. The closest parallel I can think of to this is Abby from The Last Of Us Part 2. Like Alexia, the audience is made to despise Abby very early on in the story being told by Naughty Dog. Then, they are abruptly asked to side with this despicable character whom you shouldn’t want anything to do with.
This jarring lack of compromise by the storyteller is what results in the feeling of betrayal within the audience. It shows a lack of respect for the audience’s emotions and makes their trauma feel belittled. This is normally the reason for an audience to feel insulted.
Ultimately, Titane fails in trying in its disparate themes. It pales in comparison to Ducournau’s last effort; Raw. And frankly, there are times where it is hard to believe that both movies were made by the same person. This, along with the director egregiously asking her audience to sympathise with an unlikable character is ultimately why I feel that Titane is the most pretentious and self-indulgent film in years.