A paradox about Titane, and not the only one, is that it almost certainly didn't deserve to win the 2021 Palme d'Or, and also it's extremely cool and exciting that it did so. The Palme is probably the major film award with the best batting average, quality-wise, so I don't mean to impugn it in any way, but it is, after all, a prestigious and serious thing, given to serious and artful movies. Titane is artful to a fault, but it's not remotely serious; it's a real movie-movie, the kind that makes the calculation early on that it will be better to throw absolutely every single idea it comes up with directly at the viewer's face, at top speed. It's a reckless film, bold and undisciplined, and in a couple of key moments, it feels actively dangerous in how far it's willing to take its ideas. It is, in every way that counts, a clear-cut example of French Art Cinema, the kind that has been a mainstay at Cannes and every other important international film festival since film festivals began, but it's got more vibrant, gutsy energy that a whole lot of its peers, and I have to assume this is what made it stand out to the 2021 jury. It is, if it is anything at all, an electrifying, singular piece.

None of which necessarily means that it's perfect, and in fact Titane's imperfections are inseparable from what makes it so exciting. It's the kind of film where you could with very little effort run through a dozen or more choices that writer-director Julia Ducournau makes that probably weren't the "right" choice, while it also being very clear that the version of this movie that's tighter and cleaner and more thematically focused would surely also be a bit lifeless and stilted in comparison to the freewheeling, galvanising mess that we have received. In this it is in some ways the opposite of Ducournau's wonderful debut, the 2016 coming-of-age cannibal film Raw, which feels very precise and almost myopically focused on making sure we "get" the central metaphor. And this is also exciting: while I unhesitatingly prefer Raw to Titane, it's thrilling to see a new filmmaker test herself with such wild swings as Ducournau is making here. It's not a remotely safe sophomore feature, and it fills me with hope that we're in for a wild and varied career from this director in the years to come.

But that's for the future: for the present, we have Titane itself, and it is just a complete doozy. Broadly speaking, the film breaks down into two parts, the second longer than the first: the story of a 32-year-old woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) with a literally broken brain who just up and starts killing people, and then what happens when she pretends to be a long-lost 17-year-old boy so she can hide in his father's police station. Which already gets us to the first important thing to note about Titane, which is that it's not really a "story" movie. Ducournau telegraphs fairly early on that straightforward matters of set-up and pay-off aren’t going to be important to her, at least not in any conventional way; maybe the single bravest choice and the one that ends up leading to the most frustration is that once the film stops being about a spree killer who has been impregnated by a car - I didn't mention that part; after murdering a man who's trying to sexually assault her by stabbing him in the ear with the knitting needle she uses to hold her hair in place, Alexia strips down naked and sits spread-eagle in the back seat of a car, having sex with it as it plunges up and down on its suspension - as I was saying, once the film has decided it's done exploring that plotline, it pretty much never comes back. And this happens relatively early in the film.

This does end up working against the film's best interests somewhat. That opening 30 or 40 minutes finds Titane going really damn big, with Ducournau and her crew demonstrating some audacious filmmaking chops. That is to say, "she fucks a car and gets pregnant" is the kind of thing that would be weird and wild no matter who put it into a film, but it takes real damn filmmakers to make the leap from "this is awfully weird" to "this is genuinely great cinema", and Titane comfortably manages to be both weird and great in perfect balance. It has some razzle-dazzle, right from the prologue in which young Alexia (Adèle Guigue) manages to annoy her father (Bertrand Bonello, a famously provocative French art film director in his own right) into accidentally crashing the car they’re both in; Ducournau relies on a very wide shot with just a little smear of blood and a crack in the window where the girl was sitting to let us imagine whatever horrible thing must have just happened, and then plunges from this carefully detached minimalism right into video footage of brain surgery, as Alexia has a titanium plate screwed to her skull (Titane is the French word for "titanium"). And this then leads into shots of Guigue with her head shaved and held in some kind of terrible body horror crown of metal and bolts, glowering with a look of sullen rage that makes it perfectly easy to accept, 25 years later, she'll become the electrifying psychopath we'll meet later on. No sooner has this happened than we leap into a wonderful, sinewy long take, with Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens sending the camera on a serpentine tour of a car show where the grown Alexia works as a model: the tracking shot sweeps by several women wearing almost no clothing as they grind against cars, ogling them while being disgusted by the crassness of it, if such a thing can be. Again, this is a film of many paradoxes.

The long take is a particularly feverish moment, but almost everything in this first sequence is operating at an equally hard and fast level, conflating sex and body horror so much that it no longer seems clear how we can separate them; treating Alexia's murders as a matter of dry comedy, increasingly turning towards genuine silliness; and pushing Rousselle and her body to various extremes. The stand-out moment in Raw, to me, was a simply gut-wrenching scene of bikini waxing gone awry; the opening of Titane feels a bit like that moment stretched out for minutes at a time (including one particularly shocking and uncomfortable moment once again involving Garance Marillier, the star of Raw, who is implicitly playing the same character), so much that it starts to blend the line where disgust turns into giggliness.

I imagine that the movie couldn't keep that up, and it doesn't really try to. Once Alexia, on the run from the law, disguises herself as "Adrien", Titane becomes an unmistakably different movie. Whether it is a "lesser" movie is probably in the eyes of the beholder. Everything shifts, recentering itself around the relationship between Alexia and Adrien's firefighter father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), dismal and grieving and perhaps willfully choosing to believe in this deception rather than actually being taken in. That ambiguity is at the heart of what Titane transforms into at this point, which is basically a domestic drama about two people who desperately need love, even if that love is a destructive lie. And this is still good, and it is amply redeemed and tied back into the first part of the movie by the ending; not least among Titane's strengths, it picks exactly the perfect moment to end.

The thing is, when a movie opens with such bombastic violence and outré sex scenes, it's hard not to feel afterwards that it's pulling its punches. There's still plenty of extravagant, challenging moments to come, including a remarkable dance scene near the end that blends genderlessness with a kind of parody of eroticism, and some shocking car-oriented body horror that ends up feeling more weirdly matter-of-fact than deliberately provocative. But there are also scenes that feel sluggish and redundant, focused too much on the mechanics of Alexia's subterfuge when that's almost objectively the least interesting element of the script. It's clear at a point that Ducournau wants to make the film about the emotional need between Alexia and Vincent, and the actors involved are good enough at finding the human truth in the extravagance to even make it work on a more-or-less unironic level, which is impressive given the quantity of irony that has gone into the film prior to its climax. Still, the film's insistence on following the narrative logic of a story it never seems to sincerely care about leads to some weird moments in the middle where it's just not very interesting. But when it rallies, Titane is an absolute hurricane of cinematic inspiration, and even if I can't quite figure out what it all amounts to, the sheer extravagance of the experience is rewarding enough that I can't really pretend that it bothers me.