It’s been five years since Julie Ducournau’s debut feature Raw made audience members at the Toronto International Film Festival allegedly pass out and throw up. Her highly-anticipated—and Palme d’Or winning—sophomore effort, Titane, continued the trend with reported walkouts from disgusted audience members at the Cannes Film Festival, and a reported faint at its TIFF premiere.

All this commotion sets the scene for Titane to be an impossible movie to stomach—figuratively or literally—and at the very least, was another reason to deem Ducournau to be some sort of sick and twisted provocateur. But while there are parts of the film that are certainly not suited for the squeamish, Titane is interested in the intersection of the disturbed and the intimate.

Titane is a difficult movie to surmise without revealing too much. Ducournau herself has been tight-lipped about the film’s plot outside of a generic definition of the word “titane.” But the film is best when you let it take the wheel. After a car accident in her youth, Alexia (a phenomenal Agathe Rousselle in her feature debut) is given a permanent titanium plate in her skull and a fetish for metal and machines.

Now in her 20s, Alexia works as a dancer and model at car shows—gyrating on a flame-painted Cadillac, enticing the male attendees, and having some risque fun of her own with the help of a sharp hair accessory. But when officials start to notice an uptick of murders in the area, Alexia goes on the run and assumes the role of a fire captain’s long lost son, Adrien. There is a constant, looming threat of the truth being revealed, but that delicate dance is further complicated when an unconventional sexual encounter changes her body.

Titane ★★★★
Dir. Julia Ducournau, R, 104 min. AMC Theatres, Gene Siskel Film Center, Music Box Theatre, ShowPlace Icon Theatre

Rousselle and Vincent Lindon’s performances are out of this world here. Where Rousselle is expertly terse and uncommunicative—there is scant dialogue on Alexia’s end as she tries to assume this new identity—Lindon has his burly arms open wide to the new, and unexplainable, normal that is their lives. There’s a refreshing depth to their relationship that audiences can really hold on to as the story evolves.

A lot of reactions to Titane have touted it as the most “insane” or “over the top” movie they’ve ever seen—but that feels like a cheap misreading of the film, whose backbone is built on thoughtful ruminations on family, and a curious—though sometimes awkward and cisnormative—commentary on gender and bodies. Sure, there’s body horror galore here, and Ducournau’s eye for genre and violence is firmly in play with an impressive knack for brutally choreographed kills, but this is an unmistakably human story with moments of unexpected levity.

Ducournau brings a lot of Raw alum in her second feature, including dizzying cinematography from Ruben Impens, a pulsating score from Jim Williams, and the minor casting of Raw’s lead, Garance Marillier.

With Raw and now Titane, Ducournau is increasingly interested in the complications of humanity, and specifically what it means to be a family, or in a more queer-focused reading, what a found family looks like. In the case of both films, these families are complicated by the introduction of something foreign or horrific, but Ducournau instead treats those unusual developments the same way any family drama would treat a secret just waiting to be unleashed. These elements of Titane are indicative of similar films under the umbrella of “new French extremity”—think of films from Claire Denis or Gaspar Noé—using gore and violence or anything else disturbing as a direct reflection of humanity and its ilk. In a world that keeps getting more and more strange, how out-of-pocket are the myriad of oddities thrown at the screen after all? What is shocking if everything is shocking? Maybe it’s us.

There’s a lot to look at in Titane, but you are constantly confronted by a tattoo on Alexia’s chest that reads “Love is a dog from hell,” which viewers may recognize as the title of Charles Bukowski’s collection of poetry from the 1970s. Bukowski’s poems from that era focused largely on the valleys of love and heartbreak, but one line has stuck with me in relation to Titane

“If there are junk yards in hell, love is the dog that guards the gates.”

Titane will not give you the answers to your questions, and you’re sure to have plenty by the film’s end. But it’s a hell of a ride across genre, shock, and awe—and it’s a delight to parse through the trash and treasures of Ducournau’s cinematic junkyard.