It begins with a car crash, and what follows is an escalation of violence, strangeness, and insane harshness. Titane‘s director Julia Ducornau shows the urge to explore the blurred lines of gender identity, sexuality and love. In order to do that, she looks at David Cronenberg’s Crash concept of a car accident as a “fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy” but in a dramatic sense. Titane throws down the gauntlet asking the audience if it’s possible for humanity to love without judgment.
Ducoranu is the second woman, after Jane Campion, to win the Palme d’Or after 74 years of Festivals, in an edition with twenty movies written or directed by women, among which are Ildykò Enyedi and Mia Hansen-Love.
It is also thanks to Torino Film Lab‘s support and training that Ducournau started her career, developing her previous feature Raw (2016), alongside other authors like Juho Kuosmanen (Compartment N. 6), Omar El Zohairy (Feathers), and Teodora Ana Mihai (La Civil). If Raw questions the ability of the old generation to manage and be responsible for the current crisis GenZ is facing, Titane goes further addressing the necessity to represent, accept and discuss queer instances.
In an interview with Deadline, Ducornau stated “I think we lack female characters who can be violent, and strong, and can kill men, without them suffering from a prior affliction. I want to see movies where women are independent, not giving a fuck, being able to reciprocate violence with violence. My go-to for this is David Fincher’s Gone Girl”.
Titane means titanium, like the plate the protagonist Alexia (Agathe Rousselle in her first feature film role) carries in her cranium after a car accident caused by her father when she was just a little girl. What seems at first like a teenage struggle with her parents and a passion for cars, becomes a disturbing quest for emotional stability.
While Crash reflects on the power of desire and death, giving cars and sex a merging function, Titane’s inciting incident is a burst of energy to which the protagonist tries to find a purpose for the whole movie. After the surgery she discovers she is something else: her body deviates from standards, on an aesthetic and a biological level. The metal in her cranium is a graft that makes a new species possible. This is the beginning of her progressive dehumanization.
Alexia is a dancer who performs at car races and motor shows. She twerks in skimpy outfits, rubbing explicitly against car hoods. Her absence of inhibitions hides a deep yearning for love and recognition that she fails to find in her relationships. When one of her fans goes too far with unwanted attention, Alexia murders him and turns into a sociopath serial killer.
Her fetish for cars evolves into something explicitly sexual and selective. For her, every human being in her life is either useless or a threat to extinguish. “Love is a dog from hell” says a tattoo on her breasts.
Homicide as catharsis and the importance of the body
In Titane, the violence is inexplicable, but it preserves an amount of comedy. Alexia even sets her own house on fire with her parents locked inside: it’s insane, unjustified, incomprehensible. The cold lucidity she uses to get rid of all her femininity highlights the perception of her body as a cyberpunk shell she can modify and replace if needed. The transformation and maiming of bodies are shown in a cruel and stark manner, making the view a physically trying experience for viewers.
The second half of the movie involves a fire chief (Vincent Lindon), a father whose child Adrien went missing years before. This fact is the perfect disguise for Alexia on the run. But a different haircut, a broken nose, and breast binding can’t change the fact that she had unprotected intercourse with a car and she’s pregnant.
Even though it’s hard to tell if he knows she’s pretending, their relationship grows to the point where she finds the love she always looked for. He’s deluding himself, he’s just trying to cope with his grief, but his illusion could be the only way to find balance in his hyper-masculine world. In fact, deep down they are similar in their relationship with their body. Vincent is old and can’t bear the fact that his body is deteriorating. He needs anabolic steroids to accept his age and keep away the sense of death that torments him every day.
A movie experience with irons in the fire
The finale is something the viewer could expect from such an extravagant movie. With so many references to David Cronenberg’s Crash and Existenz, such an insight on body-horror and grotesque, Titane is a visceral cinematographic experience. But it’s hard to grasp the point of the story. Alexia is an ambiguous character that empathy slips into Vincent’s sorrowful existence.
“I don’t care who you are, you will always be my son,” he says. When Alexia’s womb starts to tear it reveals the consequences of a monstrous pregnancy. Black oil leaks from her breast, a metal shell shines under her skin. She’s vulnerable and for the first time, she recognizes she needs Vincent. It’s the ultimate way to test if he cares about who she is or, at this point, what she is. Something completely new, a bruised hybrid with no defined gender.
But I’ve seen the way
That bodies lie and bodies tend to break
And I’ve been away
I’ve been away too long
And I don’t know a better place“Light House” by Future Islands (from the album Singles, 2014)
Mother of monsters
In Dead blondes and bad mothers, Jude Ellison Sady Doyle refers to Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters to explain how the elimination of non-conforming bodies has been fundamental to preserve male domination through the centuries. The control of reproduction made females responsible for the health and appearance of their babies on a moral level.
The author mentions Guy de Maupassant’s A Mother of Monsters, a short story where a beautiful, rich yet perverted woman hides her immoral pregnancy by squeezing herself in a corset. Because of this, her baby comes to life deformed and ugly as a sort of divine punishment for her corruption. Alexia’s baby is deformed, it’s a hybrid with a metal spine, the product of her mother’s freedom. Even if the world could be unprepared to welcome it, it’s here. Vincent can take care of him.
While Raw preserves a coherent gaze on the cruelty and viciousness of teenage impulses, Titane exaggerates on purpose a gore plot that could have been more effective if toned down. In fact, the second half of the movie is far more intriguing than the first. With an unbalanced narration, the initial tension diminishes making space for sci-fi elements. There is so much at stake that its violence seems redundant: an audience habituated to slashers like Friday The 13th won’t be particularly triggered.
In an interview with NBC News, Ducornau said “When women kill in movies, it is very often linked to a cause that is explained. There is a justification. Men can be inherently violent for no reason, but for women, it is utterly unacceptable”.
Lars Von Trier’s The House that Jack built, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo – every moment of violence is a statement, no scene is disturbing just for show. Alexia’s feral madness does not create concrete consequences and it’s so difficult to empathize with her that the audience can hardly relate to her loneliness.
Agnes Varda once said, “I’m not interested in seeing a film just made by a woman, not unless she’s looking for new images”. With such predecessors, it’s hard to reinvent the genre without falling into direction clichés. Titane shocks for its violence and a dreadful plot, but its essence is universal and intersectional. The unexpected comes from the way it plays with gender tropes more than from the actual plot. All the layers merge in a story that’s essentially a dark fairy tale. The whole movie pushes so hard on being irreverent and trashy, that it forgets more than once about the audience, to become a savage R-rated film about parental love and self-discovery.