Review: French thriller ‘Titane’ sends chills down audiences’ spine

Movie thrillers usually follow proven recipes.
In the opening moments of these popular films we become captivated by the peril a character may face, often made worse by experiences that continue to haunt. As stories develop, we sense how external forces may threaten, made more frightening when we see (usually before the characters) how little chance they have to escape. And as narratives continue, we munch our popcorn while nervously awaiting the outcomes remembering the best cinema cooks withhold resolutions until the last moments. This thriller formula – perfected by Alfred Hitchcock and copied by others – defines a genre we continue to love.
As comfortable as Hitchcock would be with how “Titane” follows the essentials of this recipe, he might be surprised by the specifics. Yes, as the formula dictates, we discover our lead character’s challenges early in the film, made more complicated by a childhood accident that left a titanium plate in her head. Yes, we quickly see how her choices, such as launching into arbitrary killing sprees, place her in dangerous situations from which there is no easy way out. We empathize with this broken soul as she gets to know a man who believes he is someone’s father. And we sit at the edge of our seats wondering how she will survive all the challenges the world and her actions throw in her way.
As familiar as the structure of “Titane” may be, the details feel remarkably fresh. This comes from how filmmaker Julia Ducournau creatively makes Alexia, our killer with a past, more than a routine villain. Working with script support from Jacques Akchoti and Simonetta Greggio, director Docournau carefully reveals Alexia’s complexities, not just her actions, to help us understand the character’s motivations. This elevates what could be a standard tale into a fascinating exploration of how trauma results in lasting damage and how victims of childhood events often live with emotional scars the rest of their lives.
Of course, casting the right actor makes a difference, too. Ducournau is fortunate to work with Agathe Rouselle, a magnetic performer who communicates so much about Alexia without always having to rely on dialogue. Through her eyes and expressions, Rouselle makes us believe in the character’s demons as well as her hopes, her reasons to kill as well as her capacity to forgive. Together, filmmaker and actor create a fascinating portrayal of how someone deals with the lingering impact of childhood crisis and the layers of suspension and doubt that may forever linger. Not since Roman Polanski guided Mia Farrow through the shadows of “Rosemary’s Baby” in the 1960s have an actress and director so effectively collaborated to create chills on screen.
While Hitchcock – always a filmmaker to push boundaries – might be shocked by the explicit sequences in “Titane,” he would respect how Ducournau uses her camera to take us inside Alexia’s fears. This film beautifully follows the recipe without giving us any chance to escape. Until the end.

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Film Summary: Titane

Content: High. Filmmaker Julia Ducournau creates a compelling thriller about the relentless pain that tragedy can create.
Entertainment: High. No matter the tragedy of this violent story, the visual world Ducournau creates and the performance from Agathe Rouselle create make it entertaining.
Message: High. Because the film is fascinating, and the character of Alexia so accessible, we easily absorb what it says about grief. Even if it is a thriller.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to experience the best this genre can generate is always relevant. But this is not a family film.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie should inspire parents to talk about the layers of pain that childhood tragedy can create.

“Titane” runs 1 hour and 48 minutes. It is Rated R for “strong violence and disturbing material, graphic nudity, sexual content and language.” This French film, now playing in theaters, is subtitled.