[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Titane.”]
The fervor for Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” feels, at least in part, motivated by a kind of relieved elation that a female filmmaker is the new cause célèbre of a genre that has historically been dominated by men. For many years, the highbrow “arthouse body horror” was seen as the purview of Lynch and Cronenberg, not Kusama or Kent.
With just two films, the Palme d’Or winner “Titane” and her previous teen cannibal feature “Raw,” Ducournau has allowed those who enjoy the sick thrill of skillfully art-directed torture to rest somewhat easy, knowing the perverted gaze behind the camera was — refreshingly — not entirely male. But in her rush to subvert this traditionally masculine genre, Ducournau has made a deeply misogynist movie with a healthy side of transphobia. Even the most generous read of the film — as a violent refutation of the shackles of womanhood and a rallying cry for self-determination — relies on a psychopathic mute pregnant woman who ultimately becomes a literal vessel for the film’s final crowning.
In interviews, Ducournau has said she wanted to create a character who was impossible to relate to. She succeeded, but to what end? Alexia (played by newcomer Agathe Rousselle), the film’s protagonist, is as steely as the cars she fetishizes (among other things) and entirely immune to human connection. After a car crash in childhood leaves her with a titanium plate in her head, she feels an unusual connection to automobiles and metal (though it’s hinted early on that this bond may have already been in place, pre-crash).
Working an exotic car show, the grown up Alexia caresses a flame-painted muscle car, shaking her fishnetted flesh to a crowd of adoring men. It’s hot, and Ducournau knows it. (She is French, after all.) The camera slowly pans up Alexia’s gyrating thighs, making no attempt to downplay the sexiness or undercut the lens’s natural objectification. In retrospect, the scene is perfectly calibrated to lure the audience in, forcing us to enjoy the view alongside Alexia’s pathetic and brutish fans. It’s not long before she’s stabbing the skull of a lustful groupie with the slender metal rod she uses as a hair clip, only showing disgust as she wipes his foamy spittle off her shoulder.
Invigorated by her latest conquest, Alexia climbs into the backseat of her favorite whip, wrists wrapped in seatbelt bondage as the car bounces and sways with what can only be described as a pep in its step. (The most talked-about scene in the film is also its most queer, a kind of inter-object romance and a love letter to alternative sexualities.) Panicked to discover she’s pregnant by the mysterious hunk of metal, Alexia’s dizzying descent into cold-blooded killer continues apace.
A comical group slashing feels right out of a Tarantino movie; after killing a girl she was seeing without provocation, each new roommate in the house becomes just another hassle for Alexia to dispose of. “How many of you are there?,” she asks, annoyed more than anything else. Fleeing the scene, she notices want ads plastered with her face next to a digitally aged photo of a little boy who went missing a decade prior. Seeing the resemblance to Adrien, she hacks her hair into a mangy mess and breaks her nose on a bathroom sink. She then binds her breasts and growing belly with an Ace bandage, furiously constricting the physical signs of womanhood.
Alexia spends the rest of the film pretending to be the missing boy, becoming the pride and joy of his lonely fire chief dad Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who embraces his willful ignorance of Alexia’s true nature. Vincent’s deputies eye “Adrien” with suspicion, doubting the legitimacy of his claim to daddy’s love. There’s something off about him, with his broken nose and sunken eyes and mute nature. In private, Alexia unwraps her bindings to reveal a growing belly, black motor oil leaking from between her legs and a festering opening on her side. Whatever is growing inside her isn’t fully human.
The iconography of transmasculine transition is used as window dressing in this gory fable. The dreaded Ace bandage, long out of use and which appeared most prominently in the controversial film “Boys Don’t Cry,” leaves red lacerations on Alexia’s breasts and back. To keep up with his demanding job, Vincent injects his bruised buttocks with steroids every night, flailing pantingly on the bathroom floor after each violent jab. “Titane” twists these milestones of transition — a beautiful and liberating experience for most trans people — making them painful and grotesque in service of its bent toward body horror.
“Titane” does not appear to be actively attempting to be a trans film, though it’s unclear if that makes its transphobia better or worse. There’s no evidence that Alexia identifies as male; she is merely using Adrien as a disguise to escape detection. Cross-dressing would be a more accurate descriptor, though she is desperately trying to “pass.” In one later scene, a group of drunk men harass a young Black woman on a bus, and Alexia stares unfeelingly across the aisle between them, grateful to be invisible to them. Her gender play is a deception, a means to escape the cruelties of patriarchy: a deeply harmful and misguided criticism often leveled at trans men, both from outside and within the queer community.
“Titane” plays her gender deception for comedy, too, laughing at Vincent’s purehearted belief that Adrien is who he says he is. In a callback to the first dance scene, “Adrien” sways atop a fire truck during a party, swishing his hips with increasingly feminine swagger. As the beefy firemen look on, their faces register a blend of confusion, lust, and disgust. It’s funny. But are we laughing at them for their ignorance, or their attraction to an androgynous person?
It’s hard to argue that a film about a mute, amoral, unfeeling, murderous woman is feminist. In fact, Vincent is the only character with any discernible emotions or desires to connect with. His desperation to find his son is pure and tragic, and Lindon’s vigorous performance makes his pain more visceral than any of the film’s violence, however perversely inventive it may be.
In her mysterious connection to metal, Alexia isn’t fully human. In a post-screening discussion at this year’s New York Film Festival, Ducournau said she viewed the opening credits, a sensuous slow pan of a car’s oily black engine, as a glimpse underneath Alexia’s hood. She also asserted that by the film’s ending, Alexia’s difference is what makes her special, so special as to spawn a new life form. By that token, women are special because of their ability to make babies.
If the film’s denouement, with Alexia birthing a hybrid offspring, is meant to be triumphant, it’s a triumph that rejects humanity. “Titane” is just like its protagonist — daring in form and entirely amoral, a lifeless metal shell.
A Neon release, “Titane” is now in theaters.
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