A story that goes to extremes is not always a story that reaches us at that extreme. Julia Ducournau's Titane is rare: it goes to extremes, all right, but its most affecting moments are — I think quite deliberately — the ones delivered in contrast to those extremes. It has at its heart a great tenderness, something you don't expect from a story about a sociopath who kills with a hairpin, then apparently has sex with a car and becomes pregnant with its child.
As wild as it sounds, I haven't spoiled much by saying that upfront. Titane gives us Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who from the beginning as a child horsing around in the backseat seems a little off. When she unbuckles her seatbelt and distracts her father, their car smashes into a divider, and she's left with a head injury that requires a titanium plate in her skull. And when she leaves the hospital, it's her father's new car she has more affection for than her own parents.
Decades later, as an adult, Alexia works as an exotic dancer, grinding furiously atop the hoods of cars and fending off autograph hounds. She is also apparently a murderer several times over, something we find out obliquely only after she stabs a would-be fan to death in a parking lot. That scene leads to the above-mentioned sexual congress with a car, an element that is one of many in this film we are free to interpret as subjective. Same with the motor-oil like secretions that ooze from her body after a positive pregnancy test. But there's no questioning the reality of the random, explosive violence she commits — as when she kills a fellow model who appears to have been coming on to her (along with a few houseguests, just because), and then follows that up by burning her own parents to death in their bedroom.
Alexia's pregnancy is only the first of the many transformations of her flesh and spirit. To evade police, she shaves her head and brows, breaks her nose (of all the violence in the film, this self-inflicted bit is the most excoriating), and poses as the now-returned missing son of a gloomy, fiftyish firefighter, Vincent (Vincent Lindon). That Alexia hardly resembles the adult version of the son is something Vincent seems more than willing to gloss over. What matters is that a hole in his heart has been filled, and that he, even with his failing health, will do most anything to keep it from being vacated again. Not the fact that this is not his son, not that his fellow firefighters smell a rat, not even Alexia's mounting insanity as her pregnancy (if that is indeed real, too) comes to term and becomes impossible to hide.
I admired the level of dramatic ruthlessness at work in Titane, and by that I am not talking exclusively about the graphic violence. We never get any real objective confirmation of Alexia's increasingly bizarre condition. The few times she's spotted bleeding black by others, it's not commented on directly; it takes a backseat to the mere fact that someone has seen through her disguise. By the time we reach the climactic birth, it's clear we have left objective reality behind, and that everything we see can be appreciated metaphorically. (Takashi Miike did this to great effect in Gozu and many other movies of his.)
This ambiguity about what's really going on becomes, surprisingly, a way for Ducournau to express what's at everyone's hearts: that whatever Alexia was or is, Vincent is accepting of it, and Alexia herself has found ways to transcend it by way of the love of others. Hints abound at how this situation has even reversed their roles, as when Alexia gives CPR to a comatose pensioner, and when Vincent lives up to his words about what will happen to anyone who interferes with his family. But whether or not the most outlandish part of Alexia's experiences are real, the movie seems to be saying, is not what matters, either to them or to us. The few truly real things in this world are the brutal realities of life and death, and the redemptive power of compassion. A movie with a weaker emotional core would have fallen apart playing mere head games with the audience.
Some time ago I made a point to seek out movies and books that were defined chiefly by their transgressive qualities. I quit doing that once I realized one-upsmanship by itself is a dead end. If something has transgressive qualities, that's only one part of what might make it worthwhile, and maybe not even the most significant part. Titane goes out on a limb, but not because that's the only thing it wants to do. It has much more on its mind, and at its heart.