“Titane” is the French word for titanium. It’s also the title of writer-director Julia Ducournau’s new film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. “Titane” comes by its title naturally — or surgically. The protagonist, Alexia, was involved in an auto accident as a child. She had to have a titanium plate inserted in her skull. Ever since, she’s had a special relationship with automobiles.
How special? Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has sex with a car. The act is handled with (relative) discretion. Naked, she sits in the back seat and is clearly enjoying herself. The particular source of that enjoyment is not visible. What we mainly see is the car all by itself in a parking lot. It’s night, and the headlights grow brighter and brighter. The car also starts to bounce up and down. Think of this as a different version of all-wheel drive.
Obviously, here is an unusual occurrence. No less obviously, Alexia is an unusual character. She has bleached-blonde hair, lots of tattoos — nothing too unusual about either of those, actually — and at 32 still lives with her parents. There’s a feral quality to her. The perpetual scowl she wears says don’t mess with me. Several people over the course of “Titane” who ignore that message come to regret doing so. Alexia’s like a punk version of a Patricia Highsmith character, not so much beyond good and evil as unaware of their existence.
This Highsmith character has wandered into a David Cronenberg movie. “Titane” is not for the faint of heart. Ducournau, whose previous film was “Raw” (2016), makes this plain straightaway. Right after that car accident, we get a graphic view of Alexia’s surgery. Later on, there are scenes of self-injection, self-extraction, self-immolation. Various bodily fluids appear onscreen. They include motor oil (which makes sense, if you stop to think about it). As with Cronenberg, there’s a fascination with the relationship between the organic and mechanical. Alexia — hmm, so similar to Alexa — joins the two: The car gets her pregnant. “Rosemary’s Baby” hits the road.
This all sounds ridiculous. It’s a midnight movie waiting to happen. “Maybe just a little farther?” Alexia says to a driver who picks her up hitchhiking. Farther is differently where Ducournau wants to take us, and she makes it work. “Titane” is deeply unpleasant, and its narrative borders on the inexplicable — not just the sex and pregnancy — but Ducournau knows what’s she’s doing, even if the audience doesn’t know why she’s doing it. She has a fine eye, and the filmmaking is very assured.
“Titane” is cold, tight, controlled, vaguely malevolent. This is one movie where the viewer truly has no idea what’s coming next. Ducournau’s visual grammar further keeps the viewer off balance. She uses handheld camera, funny angles (but they’re never showy), long shots (which create distance), tight close-ups (which, unexpectedly, create distance in another way). Does it make sense? No, but it has its own internal logic. It’s emotionally coherent. Viewers may not like those emotions, but they do hang together.
The most interesting character — and ultimately the only one who’s at all sympathetic, though it takes a while — is a firefighter captain (Vincent Lindon, looking like a beefier Jean Reno). Years ago, his son went missing. The grief that still consumes him has turned into a constant, low-grade rage. In a movie where emotion is oblique, at best, and motivation opaque, Lindon brings a disgruntled, moving humanity.
A note of North Shore interest: At one point Alexia wears a Salem State College sweat shirt. That’s a nice surprise, even if word has yet to reach France that it’s now a university.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 108 minutes. R (strong violence and disturbing material, nudity, sexual content, language). In French, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.