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Agathe Rousselle poses on top of the object of her affection in "Titane."

Man, every time I think I’ve seen the weirdest movie of 2021, something else comes along. Titane opens in quite a few theaters this weekend, more than you’d expect for a French film about a serial killer who has sex with cars. It might not even be the strangest movie on offer this month. (Wait till Lamb comes out.) Anyway, it seems fitting that this category-defying work, which became only the second woman-directed film to win the Golden Palm at Cannes, starts the month of October right.

The title is the French word for both “giant” and “titanium,” both meanings coming into play here. The story starts in 2000, when little Alexia (Adèle Guigue) is misbehaving in the back seat during a car trip. Her father (Bertrand Bonello) turns around to yell at her and drives them into a concrete barrier, and the surgeons put a metal plate in the girl’s head. Twenty years later, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a dancer and model who uses her hotness to lure both men and women to their deaths, stabbing them with a knitting needle that she wears as a hairpin. One of her victims gets away, so Alexia hides from the law by chopping off her hair, taping down her breasts, busting her nose Black Widow-style, and posing as a 17-year-old boy named Adrien who has been missing for seven years. Fortunately, Adrien’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon) won’t hear any questions about whether she’s his son, and she has a taste of normal life while going with him to his job as a fire captain.

A serial killer discovering the value of love and joy while posing as a teenager? This is a tremendously bad idea, yet writer-director Julia Ducournau makes it work far better than it should. This highly talented and irreducibly perverse filmmaker made her debut with her cannibal horror film Raw. She impresses from the start here, with a single-take tracking shot following Alexia into a car show that she’s working, losing sight of her as it takes in the guys ogling the cars and the sexy models, and rejoining her after she’s changed into a skimpy outfit and is now twerking on the hood of one car. The naturalistic-looking scenes in Vincent’s house are balanced by the purple lighting of a scene when the firefighters decompress with alcohol and dancing, or the unearthly glow of a forest fire.

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This is the backdrop for some body horror like we haven’t seen since the best days of David Cronenberg. (This film bears more than a passing resemblance to his 1996 film Crash.) The logistics of how Alexia has sex with cars is one of the few things that remain vague here, as weird things start happening to her body even before she’s forced to go on the lam. She mysteriously becomes pregnant with something that grows quite rapidly, and her bodily secretions appear to be motor oil. Is she giving birth to a Peugeot?

The first of several viscerally uncomfortable scenes happens in her bathroom, when she tries to diagnose herself by sticking that knitting needle up her vagina while screaming into a wad of toilet paper that she’s stuffed in her mouth. (The camera mercifully stays on her face during this, but Rousselle’s performance is harrowing enough.) Time and again, Ducournau forces us to regard this woman’s body and its deformations as Alexia pretends to be male and hides her pregnancy. Speaking of which, the film climaxes with her giving birth, and the movie saves its most terrifying for last as the thing inside Alexia decides it’s not coming out the usual way. This isn’t a film where you want to be eating something while you watch.

All this is set off by a feral performance from Rousselle in her first feature film role. The part entails copious amounts of nudity, but she’s similarly naked emotionally, whether conveying her lust for blood or her initial fear of Vincent’s touch or her physical agonies as her bodily changes come upon her. There’s even a funny scene when she realizes that her latest murder has been witnessed and now she has to kill a whole bunch of other people. In the later scenes, Alexia realizes that Vincent only wants to take care of her, and her slow process of trusting this man (whose personal demons have caused him to scourge his own body) is deeply moving. The wild female monsters of Julia Ducournau’s imagination are creatures of appetite whose stirrings of conscience make them tragic figures. The untamed performances she draws from her novice actresses make them unlike any other characters we encounter at the movie theater.

Titane
Starring Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon. Written and directed by Julia Ducournau. Rated R.

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