Buckle your seatbelt because Titane is one wild ride. After becoming 2021’s breakout horror favorite on the film festival circuit — even driving away with the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted top prize, the Palme d’Or — French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature immediately grabbed the attention of U.S. audiences when it arrived in stateside theaters earlier this month. (It’s now available on most VOD services, including Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video.)
Much like last year’s bonkers exercise in body horror, Swallow, Titane has become a word of mouth hit on social media, with genre fans scraping their blown minds off of Twitter’s walls. And it’s not just popular in horror circles: The movie is heavily favored to win the Best Foreign Language statue at this year’s Oscars ceremony. And some are speculating that it could even follow Parasite‘s pioneering path towards Best Picture honors, too.
And there’s one extra-bonkers scene that’s proven to be the breaking point for some viewers: the moment where the film’s anti-heroine, Alexia (played by Agathe Rousselle) breaks her own nose on a bathroom sink to complete a dramatic transformation. That sequence’s combination of intense imagery and even more intense sound effects brands it onto the brain of all those who stagger out of the theater when Titane‘s credits roll — provided they haven’t already fled in terror.
“It provokes a very visceral and under the skin kind of reaction,” Ducournau tells Yahoo Entertainment about her approach to Titane‘s centerpiece sequence. “It’s very evocative and you see it evolve in front of your eyes. You see all of the choices that Alexia makes in order to transform herself. That implants an anticipation in your head about what’s going to happen.”
As Carly Simon once sang, anticipation is what keeps the audience waiting in terror for Alexia to deliver that final blow to her own face. “It’s very gradual,” Ducournau says about the character’s methodical transformation. “It goes from her cutting her hair — which is obviously something that’s OK to watch — to her shaving her face. Then you see that she’s taking an interest in her nose, because it doesn’t fit what she wants to sculpt. From the moment she touches her nose to when she she touches the sink, you understand what’s going to happen and you’re just like, ‘Oh no.'”
At the same time, Ducournau says that she purposefully held back on making a more graphic version of the scene. “You don’t see much,” she notes. “You don’t see bone, and you don’t see blood. You just see her face going on the sink. Because I created this sense of anticipation, it’s like I put holographic images in your head that make you feel it.”
The soundscape of that scene also contributes to its visceral feel, with the sharp crunch of Alexia’s nose hitting the sink playing over and over and over again. To hit the right bone-cracking note, Ducournau and her team of foley artists used the hard snap of celery stalks being broken in half, among other sounds. “Bone cracking sounds are usually made with vegetables, and you want to have a strong impact sound on the same ceramic that a sink would be made of — it can’t be too metallic,” the filmmaker explains. “That scene is all about mise en scène, not graphic violence.”
Prior to that painful turning point, Ducournau’s narrative begins simply enough, with a flashback sequence that shows a young Alexia sustaining a horrible injury in a car crash that requires a titanium plate being placed over her skull. Flash-forward years later and Alexia is an automobile show dancer — and secret serial killer — who consummates her attraction to one of the cars by… having passionate backseat intercourse with it.
But that’s not the truly bonkers part: After Alexia’s murdering ways finally come to the attention of the local police force, she escapes their grasp by disguising herself as Adrien — the long-missing son of ultra-macho firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon). If Vincent suspects that the “Adrien” who has returned to him isn’t the same boy who went missing, he refuses to acknowledge it and insists that the rest of the firehouse maintain the illusion as well. Meanwhile, Alexia/Adrien has a baby growing in their belly that may represent the ultimate union between human and machine.
Within horror circles, Titane has been likened to such body horror classics as Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man and David Cronenberg’s Crash, which also famously involves vehicular lust. Ducournau acknowledges that genre fans have been making the Cronenberg connection and calls Crash “a movie I love.” (Her debut feature, the 2016 cannibal-themed horror film, Raw, also earned Cronenberg comparisons.) “But I also think the way that sexuality and cars are linked in my film are not really the same way they are linked in Cronenberg’s film,” she notes. “You can’t create something of your own by thinking about someone else’s work.”
Certainly the much buzzed-about car sex sequence is unlike anything in Crash, and Ducournau says that it sprang into her mind fully-formed. “I knew exactly what the set was going to look like, how it was lit and where I was going to put my camera. When you write such a scene, you have to be really clear what your intentions are — what you want to show and what’s too far.”
And her chief intention with that pivotal scene was making audiences believe that Alexia is really seducing the car and vice versa. “It had to be seductive and emotional, but also delicate,” Ducournau says of how she staged the initial encounter between the two lovers. “If I had shown her hugging and caressing the car, it would have been a bridge too far.”
Ducournau’s direction remains equally restrained when Alexia climbs inside the backseat. “I had to make a believable sex scene, so I had to get into her orgasm, but I didn’t want to turn it into something that was tacky. It was all about keeping the strangeness and softness, and suggestion rather than showing. I don’t show any more [nudity] than her boobs. When you think about it, the camera angles are really simple: one wide shot outside the car and then a medium shot inside. You don’t need any more than that.”
While the deliriously dazed Twitter reactions to Titane have been music to Ducournau’s ears, she’s most pleased by the fact that audiences are also seeing the emotional method behind the movie’s madness. “The reactions that have moved me most are the ones that happen at the end of the film, because I think people don’t expect that level of empathy and emotion,” she says of the movie’s climactic emotional crescendo. “One of the nicest things that was said to me after a screening was someone confessing they cried a lot at the end, but they weren’t sure why. I think that’s the best reaction I’ve gotten.”