Titane is about a serial killer who becomes pregnant through having sex with a car. It’s the second feature film by French writer-director Julia Ducournau, who I find to be an incredibly sensitive filmmaker. Titane won the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where audiences were reportedly shocked and repelled. The same had happened with her earlier film Raw (2016). Scrape off the weirdness, and you’ll find her films are warm and tender stories of people finding themselves out.
Under the sensational trappings of body horror, Ducournau’s coming-of-age films feature heroines grappling with their evolving desires and changing bodies. Her short film Junior (2011) shows a young girl shedding her skin like a snake. This is Ducournau’s metaphor for puberty. Her feature film debut, Raw, appears to be about the young heroine’s growing fondness for human flesh. But really, it’s about her emerging sexuality. Titane, finally available on Mubi in India, is no different.
Alexia has been fascinated by cars from a young age. After young Alexia (Adèle Guigue) injures her head in a car accident, doctors put a titanium plate in her head. (Titane is French for titanium). During the surgery, Alexia, who looked quite cheerful in the car before the accident, now looks cold and expressionless – anticipating the emotional detachment that will define her as an adult. After the surgery, the first thing she does when she leaves the hospital is hug her car and kiss it. Buckle up, we’re entering Ducournau country.
Played by 33-year-old model and first-time actor Agathe Rouselle, adult Alexia is a showgirl. Ducournao introduces her spinning around and rubbing against a muscle car. The seductive dance ends with her mimicking the car while looking at the camera. Minutes later we get a glimpse of her murderous side.
The critical scene of this film is of course the one where the car gets her pregnant. If that scene went wrong, the movie wouldn’t work. How Ducournau films this moment is unbelievable. I won’t reveal the details, but the scene is set to choral music and bathed in the headlights of the future dad’s car. A spent Alexia is later framed by the sunroof, ominously surrounded by the car design’s flames. By giving this moment a religious dimension, Ducournau suggests that what just happened was a divine miracle.
Alexia is soon to be a fugitive on the run, pregnant with a motor spawn. She ends up at the home of grey-haired firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon), pretending to be his long-lost son Adrien. While Vincent’s young male stand-ins are unsure what to do with the androgynous and oddly silent fake Adrien, Vincent weeps tears of joy, eager to play the role of a father again.
Alexia is shown to have become emotionally withdrawn from everyone, including her actual parents. The film never tells us why. I assume it’s the PTSD caused by the accident. When Alexia feels uncomfortable engaging with someone, she resorts to violence. Vincent, on the other hand, is lonely. After his son disappeared, his wife left him. He’s plowing through life trying to be a strong fatherly figure to his group of young firefighters. Alexia has never experienced love. Vincent wants to love again. Titane gives them some touching moments and a fitting climax that has the same conceit as the car sex scene.
Titane has drawn comparisons to body horror master David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash, which also deals with people being sexually aroused by cars. But mechanophilia aside, Crash and Titane are extremely different.
Cronenberg is interested in the human condition in relation to her body and technology. Crash feels like a dispassionate study of a particular psychopathology, with Cronenberg observing his characters in a petri dish. Ducournau is a very different kind of filmmaker. Born to a gynecologist mother and a dermatologist mother, Ducournau combines her interest in the human body with what I believe to be love stories. Her work qualifies as dark fantasy rather than body horror.
Her films have also been seen as an example of feminist reclamation of the New French Extremity style, which I think is a correct view. Ducournau’s works do not share the nihilism of those borderline pornographic and exploitative turn-of-the-century French films like Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible or Alexandre Aja’s High Tension. Along with the rise of “torture porn” (Saw and Hostel series) in the United States, they had come into fashion about 20 years ago.
These films fell out of fashion in the mid-2010s until the likes of Ducournau and Coralie Fargeat (director of the 2017 French thriller Revenge) endowed their New New French Extreme heroines with agency, vulnerability and three-dimensional personality, reviving the film subgenre. A woman’s body, blood and guts are still key to these films, but they are no longer props or spectacles. They are now the active agents and central concerns.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Pour: Vincent Lindon, Agathe Rouselle