It’s downright astounding that a film as brazenly disturbing and purposefully cringe-inducing as Titane managed to win the Palme d’Or. Cannes’ top prize this year went to a film the likes of which we’ve truly never seen before, anchored by astounding, stark direction, and an utterly transformative lead performance. You’ll wince, recoil, and often look away, but Titane is the sort of bold gem that the horror genre desperately needs.

The film stars first-timer Agathe Rousselle as Alexia, a woman whose adolescent car accident leads to her possessing a slightly abnormal obsession with motor vehicles. Yet more than just an overly dedicated petrolhead, Alexia has an absurd dark side – she’s a serial killer, prowling the dark din of France for her latest kill. A chance encounter with an overly familiar fan leads to a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a car, that changes the trajectory of Alexia’s life forever.

It’s a phrase often used, but Titane is absolutely best seen knowing as little as possible. Director Julia Ducournau takes this film in such unexpected and horrifying directions that even the most minuscule knowledge will detract from the rollercoaster that Titane is. It’s a film very firmly rooted in the origins of body horror – think Carpenter or Cronenberg, but without any hint at magic realism or whimsy. Titane doesn’t take itself totally seriously—there’s some gruesomely dark comedic flashes throughout—but this isn’t one where you’re meant to relish the horror. Instead, you’ll dread it.

Alles is vloeiend en maakbaar in 'Titane' - NRC

Of course, that isn’t to say that Titane isn’t a good horror film. Conversely, it’s one of the most starkly original and engrossing horrors in years. It’s rare that you go into a horror film not wanting to witness the violence – usually, it’s the largest appealing factor, especially with franchises like Saw. Akin to something like Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, Titane is far from that. Alexia’s killing sprees are so gratingly realistic, with incredible practical effects and genuinely bone-wrenching sound design. Especially in a dimmed cinema room with booming speakers and no feasible escape, it can be a really intense experience.

But that’s all part of Ducournau’s incredibly unique plan. You aren’t meant to have fun here: you’re meant to gasp, to look away, and to feel your chest tightening as your breathing slows amid the horror. It’s anchored by two genuinely astounding lead performances, especially from Rousselle, in her first cinematic role. Alexia is such a complex and endearing character, with shades of Robert Pattinson’s Connie in Good Time, and Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Her performance is so fierce yet reserved, perfecting the art of conveying a character desperately wrapped up in circumstances far out of their control. Equally strong is French cinema A-lister Vincent Lindon, whose own demons intertwine with Alexia’s in a middle-act turn that’s powerful and entirely shifts your perception of the film so far.

That’s perhaps why Titane is such an astounding success. It’s not a film you’ll necessarily enjoy watching, especially those with a weak stomach, but the sheer originality of the ideas here — the reinvention of body horror, the glimmers of fantasy, and the comment on gender and grief — are executed so engrossingly. Horror fans will find a lot to love in Titane, a film that challenges your perceptions, and your resolve – and you’ll never look at cars the same way again.

★★★★