In Review: 'Titane' and 'The Many Saints of Newark'
Julia Ducournau's lively Palme-winner bursts with ideas. The Sopranos prequel recycles too many of them.
Dir. Julia Ducournau
[Note: Titane has a lot of twists and turns in the early-going, but I could not write about it without getting into some of them. Proceed at your own risk. And if you’re spoiler-averse, you can circle back to this review after you’ve seen it.]
Since her startling art-horror debut Raw tore through the festival circuit in 2016, French director Julia Ducournau has announced herself, with a brazen confidence, as a next-gen David Cronenberg, using the genre to give physical manifestation to extreme psychological distress. Raw starts with a shy vegetarian entering veterinary school and witnesses her evolution into an insatiable meat-eater, forced to consume raw rabbit kidneys during a freshman hazing ritual and then gradually developing a taste for flesh and blood that shames her. Meanwhile, an itchy rash consumes her body, spreading across her abdomen like the spiderweb of a cracked windshield.
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The hosts of Cronenbergian body horror are typically men—think James Woods in Videodrome, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Peter Weller in Naked Lunch—while Ducournau has seized the opportunity to explore women’s bodies, much as fellow Frenchwoman Marina de Van did in her little-seen (but superb) 2002 film In My Skin. As she said in a 2017 interview with the Guardian, “In every movie we see, women have to be beautiful and fit or whatever the hell, and they have to fit a certain box, and no: women fart, poop, pee, burp. This is why you can relate to them, because they are not these heavenly creatures; they are real people with real feelings, and when they go down, they go down.” In her work, bodies tell their own, very visceral stories.
The surprise winner of this year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau’s second film, Titane, takes fluidity as its central theme, in multiple senses of the word. There are the expected sights of seeping wounds and bloody gashes, along with the far less expected sight of a woman lactating motor oil, but for all that Ducournau has made a surprisingly emotional film about transformation. Its heroine’s body is stretched and mutated in Cronenberg fashion, and as she recedes ever more dramatically from social acceptability, Titane stirs intense alienation and loneliness. But a disarming sweetness sneaks its way into the film, too, as the conventional boundaries of gender and family are scrubbed away and a relationship defines its own terms.
Getting there takes some doing. In the opening scenes, a little girl named Alexia suffers a severe car-crash injury that leaves her with a titanium plate in her skull and a scar above her right ear that resembles discarded brain matter. As a grown up, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is the star showgirl at a motor club, grinding her body against the steel and chrome, as if the metal in her head is dictating a sexuality well off the Kinsey spectrum. (In one grim attempt at lesbian sex, she fails to recognize that there’s an entire body connected to her partner’s nipple ring.) One night, she gets approached by a gentleman caller in the Club’s garage: The same sleek vehicle she danced on earlier is all revved up with its hydraulics bumping, and one thing leads to another. She starts to experience morning sickness and the odd excretion of black sludge. Holy motors! She’s pregnant!
But in Ducournau’s mad vision, this is just the start of the intrigue. We witness Alexia fend off an aggressive male fan by jamming a knitting needle into his skull, which turns out not to be an isolated incident. A woman matching her description is wanted for a spate of similar killings, which leads her to attempt a desperate gambit. Noting her vague similarity to the digitally aged image of a boy who’s been missing since childhood, Alexia shaves all the hair off her head and face, binds her breasts and baby bulge, and passes herself off as Adrien, looking the part of a traumatized, abused young man.
When the real Adrien’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), the captain of a firefighting unit, takes her into his home, he doesn’t notice the discrepancies between his son and the strange, mute, androgynous person posing as Adrien. Does he really not know that Alexia isn’t Adrien? Or does he simply choose not to care? The middle section of Titane, where the two are getting to know each other, is astoundingly beautiful, not least because it’s so unexpected. The first third of the film seems like Raw revisited, with Ducournau riffing on the provocations of Cronenberg’s notorious Crash, which had also explored the kinky fusion of man and metal. But Alexia’s deeper craving is for understanding, something she doesn’t seem to realize until she meets Vincent, who has scars of his own. They can pretend to be family until the pretending doesn’t matter.
Titane is a wild ride by design, though Ducournau isn’t always steady behind the wheel. Ideas are raised and discarded, and the fact that Alexia is a serial murderer winds up seeming like a plot device, never getting the moral reckoning it deserves. There’s also a point, late in the film, where the relationship between Alexia and Vincent tips into sentimentality and obviousness, as if Ducournau is making absolutely certain that her trans themes and love-is-love-is-love-is-love sentiment don’t get overlooked. Yet the film’s relentless energy and audacity keep it on edge from the beginning, and the lead performances are beautiful enough to carry it across. Lindon has been a familiar face in French cinema for many years—his turn as a handsome stranger in Claire Denis’ swooning Friday Night is a favorite—and his wounded masculinity perfectly counterbalances Rousselle’s almost feral remove from humankind. Their bodies are bruised, but their souls are improbably aligned.
Titane opens in limited release tomorrow.
The Many Saints of Newark
Dir. Alan Taylor
How did Tony Soprano—an impressionable yet sensitive teenager from New Jersey, with the aptitude for leadership but not necessarily the stomach for it—become the powerful mob boss at the center of The Sopranos? That’s not exactly a pressing question, not least because the origins of his professional sociopathy are laid out, brick by brick, in the HBO series in his sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, who guides him toward a level of self-actualization that makes him a better gangster.
What about Tony’s absentee father Johnny Boy, the man whose arrest at a carnival left such a deep emotional scar? What was he like? Surely Tony’s mother Livia wasn’t as miserable back then, was she? And what were his enforcers Paulie Walnuts, Sil, and Big Pussy like back in the day? These are even less pressing questions.
David Chase, the show’s creator and the co-screenwriter (with Lawrence Konner) of its new movie prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, seems to know this, but he’s been compelled to answer them anyway, because fans have been itching for a Sopranos movie since the show cut to black 14 years ago. Penning a script for a movie that has absolutely no urgent artistic reason to exist is a formidable writing challenge, and Chase approaches it like a procrastinating student, refusing to get to the actual assignment until he can put it off no longer. It’s almost heroic how little he cares about making a Sopranos movie, but it inevitably puts the film at cross-purposes, with the story it wants to tell getting strangled by the one it’s obliged to.
The story it wants to tell pivots around the Newark riots of 1967, a four-day tempest of fires, looting and violence in the middle of July, sparked by an incident of police brutality against an unarmed Black cab driver. The Many Saints of Newark does not have time to fill in the context—the longstanding tension between a majority-Black population and white political leadership, high Black unemployment, a “white flight” to the suburbs—but it does suggest a city sharply divided along racial lines, and an active resistance to any upward mobility by the Black professional class. When Johnny Boy (Jon Bernthal) returns from his time in the clink, he’s so consumed with fury about the Black family that’s moved into the neighborhood that he can think of little else. He wants to know: Who let this happen?
And so, this film that’s mostly about Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola)—mentor of young Tony Soprano and father to Christopher, the temperamental protégé the adult Tony will eventually strangle to death—yields a surprising amount of time to Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a Black numbers runner with entrepreneurial designs. Through Harold’s attempts to assemble his own crew and make inroads into the illicit business of Italian-American gangsters, The Many Saints of Newark uses the criminal underground as a microcosm of the combustible tensions that were gripping the city at large. And those tensions persist into the 1970s, creeping toward open warfare.
Frequent series director Alan Taylor, whose career is far more distinguished on television (Homicide: Life on the Streets, Mad Men, Game of Thrones) than in film (Thor: The Dark World, Terminator Genisys), doesn’t evoke this vital Jersey history as vividly as he could, despite a soundtrack that’s full of deep rock and R&B cuts. It seems difficult for him—and for Chase and Konner—to conceive of The Sopranos as a movie rather than a TV show, so it suffers from a fatal absence of perspective, volleying listlessly between multiple strands of narrative without the strong through-line that the medium demands. Of course, it would be possible to make an Altman-esque survey of the Jersey mob scene, but Taylor, Chase, and Konner are trying to give all their subplots equal service, which flattens the pace and drains the film of urgency.
Eventually, The Many Saints of Newark has little choice but to get to that assignment, just before the due date. It circles back around to Dickie Moltisanti, whose failing is presented as something like the poison at the root of the Sopranos family tree. Dickie likes to imagine himself as a better person than the venal likes of Johnny Boy or Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), and he certainly believes he’s better than his father Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), who beats up the beautiful young Italian (Michela De Rossi) he imported from the Old Country. He keeps seeking penance, but when his sins become mortal the mark on his soul is too deep. It’s the type of epic family tragedy that informs The Godfather movies: Christopher Moltisanti is only a baby here, but his dad, in his inability to keep young Tony from the life, has an invisible hand in killing his son, too.
And yet Dickie’s story is Tony’s, too, articulated over six of the greatest seasons in television history. Here we can see the same desire to do right by his family and the people he loves, and the same psychological torment of knowing he’s leading a wicked life and not being able to stop himself anyway. All of these themes are a pale echo of the series, coupled with the outright banality of recounting formative events from Tony’s childhood that fans of the show already know and giving us early glimpses of behavioral traits that will define major characters later on. Was Uncle Jun always a petty, duplicitous worm? Did Livia (Vera Farmiga) guilt Tony with “poor you” that early? Did Sal (John Magaro) act like an SNL parody of his middle-aged self as a teenager? Fans of the show want to know the answer to those questions—and need them to be “yes.” The film is defeated by giving them what they want.
The Many Saints of Newark streams on HBO Max and opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.
Saw Titane yesterday at NYFF (along with The Lost Daughter & Red Rocket) and it's practically all I've been thinking about since. I truly haven't seen something that equally grotesque and tender. A phenomenal and entrancing piece of work that's gonna be stuck in my head for quite a while.
Good job name-checking the superb In My Skin, which sadly doesn’t appear to be digitally available anywhere. Glad I bought the DVD.