By Alex McPherson

Nothing can prepare you for director Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” — a profane, sentimental, horrific work of art. It’s also a film that benefits from viewers knowing as little as possible about going in. Rest assured, this gem is A+ quality, but if you don’t mind some mild spoilers, feel free to continue reading.

Set in Southern France, “Titane” focuses on Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), an erotic dancer with some peculiar kinks and murderous inclinations. As a child, she was in a car accident that required surgery and the doctors implanting a slab of titanium in her skull. This presumably explains her love for automobiles and all things metallic, as well as her aversion to fellow humans. The movie starts with an elaborate sequence leading to Alexia writhing passionately upon the hood of a flame-streaked Cadillac to the sound of “Doing It To Death” by The Kills. Later on, she’s summoned by the vehicle to, well, have unprotected sex. Alexia finds out she’s pregnant, and it’s only a matter of time before the police put her behind bars for some vicious killings.

She impulsively decides to assume the identity of a boy, named Adrien, who has been missing for a decade. She’s unexpectedly picked up by Adrien’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fire chief willing to overlook glaring implausibilities to achieve a sense of long-lost comfort. Alexia/Adrien, straining to conceal her identity, finds a purpose missing from her former way of life.

Indeed, “Titane” takes the cake as the boldest, most unforgettable film I’ve watched this year. When you wade through all the blood, guts, and body horror, the central plot winds up strangely wholesome and life-affirming. Just like with “Raw,” Ducournau’s previous masterpiece, shock value is paired with fascinating characters that yield layer upon layer of complexities, even as viewers avert their eyes in disgust.

And there are graphic images aplenty, particularly during the first 30 minutes or so. The film’s relentless introduction immerses viewers into Alexia’s no-holds-barred approach to living with visceral, at times stomach-churning impact. Bathed in vivid neon light and captured with smooth, mesmerizing long takes forcing us to view the brutality up-close-and-personal, “Titane” throws viewers into the muck with zero time to breathe. We don’t completely understand what’s motivating Alexia’s decisions, but Rousselle’s performance is so magnetic — forgive the pun — that she commands viewers’ undivided attention whenever she’s on screen. Her inhumane actions, to put it lightly, are based in a deep sense of discontent with the world at large, as well as with her own body, which the pregnancy impacts day by day.

When she encounters Vincent, though, “Titane” becomes a wholly different beast. We go from observing an abhorrent character in Alexia to spending time with a broken, haunted man. Leading a crew of hyper-masculine men, Vincent puts on the appearance of strength, but remains deeply vulnerable. He will grasp at anything to appease his grief-stricken psyche and is able to suspend his disbelief to feel whole once again. Lindon’s performance is soulful, earning our sympathy from the outset. As they grow closer, and as Alexia/Adrien navigates intense scrutiny from Vincent’s crew and beyond, “Titane” provides some surprisingly warm-hearted, tear-jerking moments — finding humor, beauty, and compassion in the grotesque and uncertain.  

Ducournau’s film is anything but static, gliding between genres and tones with such confidence that it’s practically impossible to predict what will happen next. In a sense, this refusal to be categorized extends into the themes Ducournau explores — largely revolving around agency of one’s body, the rigidity of societal norms, the fluidity of gender, and the messy, chaotic lengths some will go to feel love and belonging. The trials Alexia/Adren and Vincent endure strip them down to their base drive for connection, struggling against man-made machinations and preconceptions that seek to control their ways of being.

Add to this a perfect soundtrack and original score on par with “Raw,” along with minimalist dialogue that sparkles with darkly comic wit, and “Titane” emerges as a film that deserves to be cherished by anyone brave enough to weather the storm. Sure, some more insight into Alexia’s backstory could have fostered a greater emotional attachment early on, but by the conclusion, we’ve witnessed something special — brought to life by talented actors and a director in absolute command of her craft.

“Titane” is a drama-sci-fi-thriller in French with English subtitles, directed by Julia Ducournau It stars Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Mariller and is rated R for strong violence and disturbing material, graphic nudity, sexual content, and language. Its runtime is 1 hour, 48 minutes. It was released in the United States on Oct. 1 in theaters. Alex’s Grade:: A+.