24 Lies a Second: Une Touche de Je Ne Sais Quoi

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Une Touche de Je Ne Sais Quoi

In a normal January you can rely on something substantial and non-threatening and somehow comfortingly familiar to tide you over just as awards season gets underway – it's the role that a film like Spielberg's West Side Story would usually play, but – rather surprisingly – it doesn't seem to have made much of a splash, to say nothing of being released well before New Year. All the big seasonal films are still around, blocking screens as well as busting blocks.

As a result, going to see new movies at the moment can feel a bit like undergoing a detox without there being any mitigating pleasures to go with it. Or perhaps I'm just saying that after a week of enjoying, or at least experiencing, the fruits of last year's Cannes Film Festival, which appears to have been in a particularly experimental mood (one recipient of a gong which has already played in the UK was the collaboration between Leos Carax and Sparks, Annette).

Barely playing at all in the US, or so I understand, is Jury Prize winner Memoria, written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Apparently the plan is for a single print of this film to play for one night at a time in different towns and cities as it criss-crosses the country, potentially for years to come – not so much a release as a tour. For a conventional film this would be an idiosyncratic strategy. In this case…

Tilda Swinton, whose eminence I suspect was instrumental in getting the film financed, plays Jessica, a British woman living in Colombia. One night, while staying in new accommodation, she is woken by a strange booming crash. No-one she asks knows anything about it, but the sound recurs, and she ends up going to a recording engineer to try and work out what it is. 'It sounds like an enormous concrete ball falling down a metal well surrounded by seawater,' she suggests, proving you can be very detailed and yet perhaps not especially helpful. The recording engineer seems about to make friends with her before vanishing off the face of the earth.

The sound continues to plague her, even as she travels around the country. Is she going mad? A visit to a local doctor does not turn out to be very helpful, as rather than tranquilisers the doc seems more inclined to dish out religious tracts. Will the mystery ever be solved?

It seems unlikely to me, and I've seen the whole movie. 'I didn't understand the ending, but then I didn't understand the beginning or the middle either,' I heard someone telling his friends as they left the screening. And it is not as if the story of the film appears to be particularly complex: perhaps, if anything, it is that there doesn't seem to be much of a story at all. Long, static takes unfold, with a minimum of exposition; there are frequent moments and sequences which don't seem to add anything to the story – car alarms spontaneously go off, there is a lecture on the construction of guitars, a cheery improvised jazz interlude and a visit to an archaeological dig.

The climax, such as it is, takes place out in the countryside, with the mystification dial turned up even higher: it's clear the film is on some level about experience, senses, and memory, but the multiple weirdnesses of the story pile up. There's an earnest discussion of what's actually involved in going to sleep at one point, which concludes with a character lying down for a short nap. The camera stays on him throughout his sleep, which feels like it goes on for rather a long time. This is just that kind of film.

It turns out there is a paranormal or science-fictional rationale for whatever's going on, though it's obviously rather obscure. But Swinton is good value and the film has an odd, mesmeric quality that goes some way to make up for the glacial pace and general lack of narrative urgency.

These are not flaws you could accuse Julia Ducournau's Titane of possessing. This is the film which won the Golden Palm; Ducournau is probably best-known for making Raw, which I would say was easily the best feminist cannibal horror fable of the last few years. Titane is… less easily categorisable.

The film opens with close-ups of throbbing engine components, followed by a car crash and someone having a metal plate inserted in their skull; then we're off to a car show with gyrating female bodies juxtaposed with the less-yielding forms of the vehicles. There's a wincey interlude in a shower involving a tangled nipple-ring, and then a graphic murder with bodily fluids aplenty.

Perhaps you are getting a sense of what the opening section of Titane is like. I went to the lunchtime show and, as you would, took a couple of sandwiches and a biscuit to enjoy during the film. Just in the minute or two while I was eating, there was a sado-masochistic sex scene, an attempt at a self-induced abortion, three more grisly murders and a further attempted murder. Every moment, early on at least, seems intended to provoke a visceral instinctive response.

The actual plot concerns fugitive Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), who decides to go into hiding by assuming the identity of a teenager who disappeared some years earlier (this is perhaps inspired by the real-life case of Frederic Bourdin's impersonation of Nicholas Barclay in 1997). She ends up living with alpha-male fire captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon) and actually joining the local fire brigade.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, an almost wholly preposterous scenario (I have withheld some of the more outlandish plot details so far), but it serves the creation of a powerful and compelling story dealing with themes of identity, guilt, and grief. So far, fine: you could (if you squinted) imagine someone like Pedro Almodovar making a similar film. What pushes Titane into rather different territory and has invited comparisons with David Cronenberg is another thread of the story: someone has sex with a car, and the coupling is fruitful. (Yes, that is the correct preposition.)

In the end, the film is compelling to watch, but obviously quite challenging: so many graphic and queasy things happen in bathrooms that by the end of the film I was getting rather twitchy every time I saw a tap. Strong performances, careful use of black humour, and the alarming energy of the thing make it just as memorable as Raw, and far more provocative and unusual. An extreme movie, openly and proudly bonkers in places, but one which is, in its own way, not unrewarding to watch.

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