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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema, French Cinema

How the Other Half Lives: Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’ (2016) & ‘Titane’ (2021)

Directed by: Julia Ducournau || Produced by: Jean de Forets [1], Jean-Christophe Reymond [2]

Screenplay by: Julia Ducournau || Starring: Garance Marillier [1, 2], Ella Rumpf, Laurent Lucas [1], Vincent Lindon, Agathe Rousselle, Lais Salameh [2]

Music by: Jim Williams || Cinematography: Ruben Impens || Edited by: Jean-Christophe Bouzy || Country: France, Belgium || Language: French

Running Time: 99 minutes [1], 108 minutes [2] || 1 = Raw, 2 = Titane

I go back and forth over how much attention I give prestigious film festivals like Sundance, Toronto, or Cannes, the latter considered perhaps the most high-profile of all critical awards shows save for the Oscars ceremony by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Cannes’ annual lineup, I would argue though, is far more balanced in genres highlighted and international in scope. How Cannes in particular showcases so many weird, gritty, or borderline experimental pictures (e.g. Pulp Fiction [1994], Taste of Cherry [1997], The Wind that Shakes the Barley [2006], The Tree of Life [2011]), as well as how many controversial screenings prompt walk-outs as often as standing ovations (e.g. Only God Forgives [2013], Crimes of the Future [2022]) amuses me to no end relative to the Academy Award’s never-ending preachiness and airbrushed, bland nominees. On the other hand, Cannes and festivals like it feel like they, at times, court controversy just to generate headlines (e.g. Elephant [2003], Fahrenheight 9/11 [2004], Blue is the Warmest Color [2013]). The “edgiest,” most abrasive projects often stand out at these prestigious festivals for little reason beyond their shock-value, emphasizing content over style like the Oscars, but in the opposite direction.

That latter point brings me to Titane (English = “Titanium”) and, to a lesser extent, Raw, the sophomore and directorial debut projects of one Julia Ducournau, respectively, who became the first solo female director to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes with the former. Titane, a sort of coming-of-age film about a sexually ambiguous young woman (Agathe Rousselle) with a fetish for metal, motor vehicles, and serial murder, explores her development from a “misunderstood” girl with a titanium plate in her head (a result of a childhood car accident) to the aforementioned career in homicide, to her sloppy assumption of a false identity as a decades-long missing person to escape law enforcement.

Top: Garance Marillier (far right) undergoes a multitude of gross hazing rituals during her first week at veterinary school. Bottom: Her carnivorous urges connected to her libido, Marillier bites herself to avoid “devouring” costar Rabah Naït Oufella.

If that sounds like significant ground to cover in less than 108 minutes, we haven’t even gotten to the film’s second and third acts, where the bulk of the narrative concerns her emotional attachment to the father of said missing person (prolific French actor Vincent Lindon); the two of them find in each other the sort of emotional support, a warped but genuine familial bond, they couldn’t find anywhere else, so the film ends with Rousselle giving birth to a cyborg child due to her earlier copulation with a Cadillac sedan in Act One. Oh, did I forget to mention that last point?

Much like Raw, which I’ll cover in a moment, I appreciate (1) Ducournau’s incorporation of these bizarre genre elements into the foundation of a feminine coming-of-age story, as well as how (2) Ruben Impens’ composed cinematography emphasizes both ominous narrative tones and subtle yet important character details. The smooth, weaving tracking shot that introduces Agathe Rousselle’s adult protagonist after Titane’s brief prologue, where Rousselle and various minor supporting characters dance as showgirls atop various muscle cars at a slick, stylized motor show, is superb. The remainder of the film’s camerawork is more refined, more stationary, with an emphasis on bright, reflective lightwork against shiny metallic environments. Rouselle’s gestational transformation combines these diverse cinematographic elements and distinct body horror prosthetics to deconstruct her character’s personality and question her overall development by the movie’s conclusion.

My problems with Titane have to do with the relatability of our main characters. Titane’s Rouselle in particular is portrayed as not just abrasive or eccentric, but downright evil; even with her complicated family history and estranged relationship with her father (Bertrand Bonello) in mind, her early attempts to “find herself” (i.e. experimenting with lesbianism, fucking cars, murdering overly touchy fans) don’t endear her to the average viewer, nor does she have much in the way of memorable dialogue or notable character traits beyond her aforementioned tasteless cruelty.

Raw, in similar fashion, plays with fire in its characterizations and audience sympathy. The movie follows the veterinary school freshmen initiation of protagonist Garance Marillier, a lifelong vegetarian raised by dietary extremists Laurent Lucas and Joanna Preiss; as part of several hazing rituals at school, she is doused in sheep’s blood and fed raw rabbit kidneys, awakening within her an insatiable desire for meat, including and especially human flesh — not a bad high-concept premise! Marillier is more balanced as a lead than Rouselle in Titane, but supporting actress Ella Rumpf, a critical component to the greater plot, feels an oversimplified and unlikable foil to Marillier’s burgeoning carnivore. The plot is at its best when its feminine maturation analogies are broader and less allegorical (e.g. physiological development, genetic predispositions to addiction, misanthropy, etc.), and not acting as a simplistic, one-to-one metaphor for sexual experimentation in college.

Raw’s cinematography is less impressive than Titane’s but exemplifies its protagonist’s journey the way it should, even illustrating literal hunger pangs through claustrophobic framing of Marillier writhing under her bed sheets. Despite being an artistic precursor to Ducournau’s Palm d’Or-winner, Raw feels more composed, audiovisually, and its overall narrative, more cohesive. I only wish the story had better embraced its horror undertones and the implications of its revelatory conclusion to Marillier’s character arc, rather than describing her catfights with Rumpf’s older sister.

Agathe Rousselle makes her feature-film debut as a fusion of sex and metal in Titane’s bravado oner.

Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Titane are quintessential film festival darlings with admirable genre twists to traditional character studies, but they also exemplify the tiresome clichés of the art film circuit. They’re more inventive than the average Oscar-bait and, unlike most Hollywood crowdpleasers, are defined by a distinct creative vision, but those aspects alone don’t warrant recommendation. Perhaps my experience with these female transformation stories were slanted by the sheer high praise they received from various critical sources I otherwise respect, the Cannes Film Festival juries that awarded Titane the top prize of 2021 most of all; however, both films suffer from unlikable characters and inconsistent body horror analogies that don’t always service their greater stories, so I question their appeal to most audiences, not to mention their long-term cinematic merit once the critical hype dies down.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Titane and Raw boast strengths and weaknesses in opposite proportions; the former is a good-looking movie with unpredictable narrative twists, while the latter has a better main character and thematic control of its David Cronenberg-esque body horror inspirations; both are as fascinated with the physiological metamorphoses of the female body as they are with the social or psychological, particularly with regards to hair & makeup FX.

However… Titane’s lead is so despicable and bizarre in its first act I couldn’t relate to her and her cyborg pregnancy for much of the rest of the film, though Raw’s supporting cast isn’t much better and its narrative focus ignores the creepiest, most alluring parts of its premise.

—> I remain ON THE FENCE with regards to both of Julia Ducournau’s theatrical features thus far. Her genre twists to classical coming-of-age formula seem readymade for my tastes, but also overwrought and unfocused.

? What was that Robert Rodriguez movie with the girl who had a machine gun-leg?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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