FilmWatch Weekly: Cannes winner ‘Titane,’ Lovecraft Film Fest, Godard’s ‘Breathless’

If this is (almost) October, it must be horror and Halloween and Lovecraft time. Plus, a Breathless bit of history.

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Agathe Rousselle in “Titane.”

For only the second time in its existence, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival was awarded this year to a female director. Beating out, among others, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Leos Carax’s Annette was Julia Ducournau’s second feature, Titane.

Ducournau’s first film, Raw (2016), was a tremendously unsettling horror film about a vegetarian veterinary student who discovers the joys of cannibalism, but if you thought that winning big at a prestigious film fest meant her follow-up would be less transgressive, you’d be dead wrong.

Titane doesn’t just push buttons, it mashes them like a manic Xbox player. The logline is that it’s about a woman who gets impregnated by a car, but that’s really only the barest sliver of the weirdness in store. Ultimately, it’s a masterfully directed, stunningly shot series of provocations that ultimately don’t land because the character at their center remains a cipher. Alexia, played by newcomer Agathe Rousselle, was in a horrific car crash as a child, which resulted in a metal plate being implanted in her skull and leaving her with a distinctive scar.

When we meet Alexia as an adult, she’s working as a model at a car show, a job that allows her to indulge her libidinal fascinations, both carnal and mechanical. Turns out she has a side gig as well, one that involves the regular murdering of innocent people. She also realizes she’s expecting … something … and attempts to terminate her pregnancy with a hatpin. Before too long, her extracurricular stabbings threaten to draw the attention of the law, so Alexia leaves her old life behind, meets a firefighter (Vincent Lindon), and—well, at this point, if you’re still with me, anything further would be considered a spoiler.

Comparisons with David Cronenberg’s Crash are inevitable, and recentering a tale of auto-eroticism and alienation around a non-masculine, even nonbinary perspective is a potentially fascinating project. But, unlike the lead character in Raw, we never get a sense of Alexia’s internal life. This seems intentional, based on the casting of a non-actor and the character’s lack of dialogue, but the result is deadening. To be fair, the same criticism can be made of Crash, but at least that film tracked its protagonist’s gradual descent into perverse madness, whereas Alexia, pre-damaged by her childhood trauma, doesn’t have much of anywhere to go.

The raw talent (pun intended) and the demented integrity that Ducournau brings to the screen are things that the horror genre—to which Titane unequivocally belongs—could always use more of. But bad things are always more disturbing when they happen to recognizable human beings, which this film largely forgets. (Opens Friday, October 1, at Cinema 21, Cinemagic, the Hollywood Theatre, and other local theaters.)

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Well, it’s October (or will be any minute), and you know what that means: an onslaught of Halloween-themed programming on screens big and small. The season gets off to a ghoulish start with the 26th Annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, which runs this weekend at the Hollywood Theatre. (There’s also a streaming option next weekend for those to whom simply being in a movie theater with strangers is, understandably, plenty scary enough.) The festival’s organizers have once again exhumed several programs of short films, and a few features, all united by their embodiment of so-called “cosmic horror.” You know, hints of the unknown eternal forces that secretly battle for the souls of humanity—that sort of thing.

A scene from “Masking Threshhold,” playing in the online component of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival.

The Lovecraft fest is always an interesting showcase for independent genre filmmaking, and that looks to be true again this year. Not many of the shorts draw directly on the Cthulhu Mythos created by Lovecraft in the early 20th century, but the best of them can replicate the sense of glimpsing a layer of reality so terrifying it can drive you insane, but without the racist and anti-Semitic baggage that has tarnished Lovecraft’s reputation in recent decades (and which the festival’s organizers, of course, explicitly disavow). The budgets may be minuscule, but the dedication of the filmmakers is almost always apparent.

Among the features are the world premiere of the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired Fall of Usher and an adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. And the streaming content includes an intriguing effort called Masking Threshhold, about a man striving in his homemade laboratory to find a cure for his tinnitus, and confronting the impossibility of silence. About that streaming content: The in-theater screenings at the Hollywood run from October 1-3, while the online component of the festival happens the following weekend, October 8-10. Visit hplfilmfestival.com for full details on all the options.

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The death of 89-year-old French screen icon Jean-Paul Belmondo on September 6 prompted many an appreciation of his long and storied career, with a sizable portion of those encomia focusing on the film that made him a star, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 Breathless. It just so happens that a newly restored edition of that seminal work has been making the rounds, and opens in Portland this weekend. While it’s an open question whether this latest, 60th-anniversary restoration is that much snazzier than previous such efforts, it’s still a welcome opportunity to revisit a movie that occupies an almost unique status, heralding as it did the arrival of legends on and off the screen, not to mention a seismic shift in both film culture and the emergence of a youthful zeitgeist that would shape the decade to come.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in “Breathless.”

That’s a lot for one movie to bear, especially one so superficially slight as this one. The ragged plot centers on the relationship between Belmondo’s petty criminal, on the run after shooting a policeman, and an American newspaper hawker played by the ethereal Jean Seberg. Godard imbues this simple story (by Francois Truffaut) with a series of stylistic innovations (including the famous jump cuts) and allusions to American films, especially the low-budget films noir so beloved by French critics. (The movie is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, one of the so-called poverty row studios that churned out such fare.)

This sort of self-conscious cinematic and cultural pastiche was very new in 1960, even if the notion of postmodern cross-references and “easter eggs” has become the coin of the realm in today’s mass entertainment. The shock of Godard’s nonlinear editing touched has worn off, too, leaving an essentially academic appreciation in its wake. So what does Breathless offer the audiences of today?

For one, it offers a window into an inimitable time and place—Paris at the dawn of the 1960s, full of cafes, Citroen deux cheveaus, and a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes. Despite the film’s playful exaggerations, it was shot on the streets and in the cramped apartments of the City of Lights, and so embodies an invaluable documentary record of what was, by almost all accounts, a truly special moment.

Even more, it has Seberg. While Belmondo enjoyed a lengthy post-Breathless existence and became an eminence grise, Seberg’s life was considerably more tragic, ending with her premature (and likely self-inflicted) death in 1979 at only 40 years of age. She was, infamously, mistreated by the Hollywood machine that Godard and company found so fascinating (not to mention the FBI), and her performance in Breathless is a bittersweet reminder of the talent and presence she possessed. While Belmondo’s character is, frankly, a jerk, especially by 21st-century standards, Seberg emanates an easy, almost naïve sophistication, and, upon a recent viewing, qualifies more as the hero of this story than Belmondo’s narcissistic hoodlum ever could. (Opens Friday, October 1, at Cinema 21)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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