Titane: A Body Horror Forged in Fire
By Ryan O’Toole
Photo: Entertainment Weekly — Source
Julia Ducournau is a French filmmaker who made a name for herself with Raw (2017). Raw is an examination of sexuality, identity, addiction, and, most importantly, a relationship between two sisters all under the guise of cannibal horror. It is a visceral film filled with moments that could only be made abroad. Foreign has always been home to the craziest horror films made by auteur directors like Oldboy (2003) or The Skin I Live In (2011), and with Raw and now her Palme D’or winning Titane, Julia Ducournau has cemented herself as one of the best voices in horror.
The first 30 minutes of Titane are absolutely wild. I am typically not one with a weak stomach, but there were multiple moments that made me wince in my seat and drop my jaw in shock of what I was watching. There is a certain naturalism with the way Ducournau shoots these horrific scenes that are hard to watch. It’s the difference between stabbing someone in the neck and stabbing someone through the ear. And the sound design really puts it over the top. It’s a film that asks “What does breaking your own nose on the corner of a sink sound like?” If a movie’s job is to get a reaction out of its audience, Titane is one of the most effective movies of the past decade.
It is not just in the cover-your-eyes moments that makes Titane so wild. It is also in Ducournau’s unconventional narrative. I tried to avoid all of the marketing for this movie and went in relatively blind (all I knew is that at some point, someone has sex with a car) and 20 minutes in, I thought, “Oh so this is what this movie is. I got it.” And let me tell you, I did not have it. The film starts off about a car model, Alexia, played by newcomer Agathe Roussell, who, yes, has sex with a car, and also has a murderous tendency. However, the movie completely reinvents itself 30 minutes in when she claims to be the missing son of a grieving father, played beautifully by Vincent Lindon.
And as the film gets to this point a lot of Ducournau’s central themes come into focus: masculinity, femininity, and body transformation. Alexia cuts her hair and wraps her body to transform herself into Adrien, Vincent’s son who has been missing for ten years. At its center, Titane is a story about gender fluidity, and changing your identity to find the love missing in your life. It is a story that plays in the intersection of gender and interrogates the inherent qualities of men and women. At the beginning, there is a scene where Alexia is stalked to her car by a creepy guy, delving into the fears of women and the horrors of masculinity. This scene is recalled later in the film when Alexia, now Adrien, gets on a bus and a group of rowdy men vulgarly talk about their debasement of women. She is not the target of these remarks, with the comments distanced from her now androgenous body and applied to someone else. Ducournau is a woman photographing men, with some scenes shot with the firehouse that recall the legion of soldiers in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. And the father/son relationship is as complicated as the sisters in Raw, with Vincent showing a softer side and protecting Adrien, but also with a lot of pent up anger, fighting Adrien in one scene.
Photo: The Guardian — Source
One of the things Ducournau is great at is attaching visual elements as a metaphor for whatever she is exploring. In Raw, this was the veterinary school and cannibalism to match the ideas of identity and sexuality. These elements are so intrinsically linked to the themes and the characters. In Titane, Ducournau explores her themes through machinery. When Alexia was young, she got into a car crash and had a titanium plate implanted into her skull. And on her way out, she ignores her parents and hugs and kisses the car, setting up the essential connection between her and cars. The titanium plate represents the body transformation inherent to the story later on and the eventual Cronenbergian body horror further explores this. Alexia is inhuman, for the first part of the movie becoming a serial killer. There is this idea that the human part of her has been replaced with metal and she has been looking to become more human her whole life.
And she may have found that human side with the film’s core element: the relationship between Alexia/Adrien and Vincent. Vincent is a grieving father who wants to fill the void left by his missing son. He is as emotionally broken as Alexia, addicted to Steroids and holding on dearly to his past, unable to move forward. He knows that Alexia is not Adrien, but doesn’t care, continually choosing to live in denial as long as he has someone to love again and eventually loving Alexia for who she is, flaws and all. It is an incredibly complex relationship, obscured even more by all of the horror elements thrown in, but at its heart, Titane is a film about found family and unconditional love told in a way only Ducournau could.