The most shocking film of 2021

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Revising your preconceptions at frantic speed, you might decide that Titane is a Cronenberg-ish sci-fi body horror crossbred with a Tarantino-esque caper about a natural-born serial killer. But not even that gonzo definition will suffice. On the run, our scowling anti-heroine chops off her hair, breaks her own nose (I told you about the winces), and passes herself off as a boy who disappeared a decade earlier. The next twist is that the boy’s tough-but-tender father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), takes her at her word. He drives her back to the fire station under his command and introduces her to a sceptical team of hunky fire fighters. To maintain her new male identity, Alexia has to bind her oily breasts and her swelling stomach, but Vincent injects steroids into his bruised buttocks every night, so who’s counting? The point is that Titane has mutated into a warm redemption story of gender fluidity, body modification, and plenty more besides. 

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One of the impressive aspects of this delirious, nocturnal trip through a purgatory of bone-crunching fights and skin-splitting transformation is that it’s never as off-putting as all that might suggest. The storytelling is lucid and propulsive, so you are always clear on what’s happening, even if you aren’t clear on why, and the gore is balanced by humour and even levity, so you smile as well as retch.

I’m not sure what the message of Titane might be, or why Ducournau has sewn together a Frankenstein’s monster from so many disparate ideas, or whether Alexia’s feverish journey relates to any recognisable, non-psychopathic emotions except a parent’s all-consuming yearning to be reunited with a lost child (the theme of another surreal film that premiered at Cannes this year, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb). It’s definitely less focused than Raw, but I admired the way Titane kept me guessing and gasping, and the way it revealed glimmers of compassion beneath its spiky, bodily fluid-dripping surface. Whatever you think of it, no one is going to roll their eyes and grumble, “Huh – not another genre mash-up about a homicidal lesbian cyborg fostering a quasi-incestuous relationship with the delusional father of the man she is pretending to be.” Ducournau has driven to the boundaries of conventional cinema – and then put her foot down.

★★★★☆

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