Directed & Written by Julia Ducournau
★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Julia Ducournau, between her 2016 feature debut Raw and her latest feature Titane, has cemented herself as one of the great body horror filmmakers of the 21st century. In both films Ducournau’s also explored the complicated, often messy, even horrific dynamics of the family unit. She’s taken a much different look at family this time in Titane, a story about a young girl who gets brutally injured in a car crash and ends up with a metal plate in her skull, only to grow up into a young woman who rejects the parents who didn’t protect her and flees to find a new family.
The film’s protagonist, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), not only finds a new family in a damaged man named Vincent (Vincent Lindon), she develops a fetish for cars after the traumatic incident in her childhood. Titane, apart from its family theme, explores the links between traumatic violence and eroticism, as Alexia grapples with her identity and her sexuality at once. Alexia’s journey embodies a number of facets of queer and trans life, from horrors of having a body to the painful process of discovering where one’s chosen family lies. The way Ducournau’s film navigates that journey is a thing of horrific beauty, merging drama, body horror, and sci-fi into a story that’s surprisingly loving and always a little surreal.
Titane is a story of Gothic posthumanism. The film reconsiders what makes us human, or, more specifically, how our humanity changes given what’s done to us. Ducournau’s film explores that through the trauma of Alexia’s car accident injury and the metal plate put inside her. Alexia’s metal plate is symbolic of her trauma; the more the film goes on the more we see the metal has taken her over completely, expanded throughout her whole body. Trauma alters us, and Titane imagines that quite literally, not only figuratively, as Alexia watches the changes of her body throughout the film, and those changes, like psychological trauma, alter her in various ways as she continues to negotiate life through said changes.
The film’s Gothic elements extend from posthumanism to sexuality in its exploration of the difficult, uncomfortable links between trauma, violence, and sex. After Alexia’s traumatic car injury as a girl, she later develops a fetish for cars as a young woman, anthropomorphising them into physical lovers. In an early scene, Alexia’s tied up in the backseat of a car, using the seatbelts like bondage ropes, and the hydraulics bounce as she writhes in ecstasy. She also uses cars in her stripping routine; the thing that nearly killed her is now a prop in her erotic dances.
Her wires are entirely crossed, much deeper than sexualising cars. Alexia associates sexuality with violence because of her eroticism centred on the car, the source of her violent trauma. She stabs two people, a man and a woman separately, with whom she becomes sexually intimate; prior to that she nearly bites a woman’s nipple off. Though even her sex with cars is violent: Alexia’s covered in bruises, from her arms and legs right to her vagina and surrounding area, like she’s been hit by a car rather than had sex with one. And the car sex in which Alexia indulges changes much more than her sense of eroticism, it changes her body itself.
“No need to be human“
Identity is a central focus of Titane. It’s extremely interesting that a story about identities echoes the real life tale of Frédéric Bourdin, a French serial imposter nicknamed The Chameleon, who infamously took on the identity of a missing American boy, Nicholas Barclay, and passed himself off to the child’s family for nearly half a year, living with them over a period of five months. The way Alexia looks early on as she runs away from home mirrors Bourdin, and the whole sequence during which Alexia alters her look resembles the steps Bourdin took in order to alter his appearance to fit that of Barclay. What’s more interesting is the way Alexia’s alteration of appearance involves trans imagery, as we witness her bind her breasts to make herself appear more male. Because it isn’t only identity Titane is interested in, the film explores the connection between bodies and identity.
Like many great horror films, Titane involves a return of the repressed, and it involves the territory of gender and bodies. After Alexia’s been living as Adrien a while she becomes friendly with Vincent’s crew at work and attends a little party they’re having. Alexia, as Adrien, does a sexual dance atop a fire truck, a return to the earlier erotic dancing she did with the cars, except here the performance of gender is confused, in the eyes of the male firefighters who watch Alexia, whom they only know as Adrien; the awkward reaction of the hetero firefighters shows how suddenly uncomfortable they are with Adrien’s androgyny. The issues of gender and bodies continues in the motifs Ducournau uses.
One major motif Ducournau employs to examine identity is mirrors, using the reflections of Alexia and Vincent to represent the Freudian Uncanny at play in their conceptions of themselves. In various shots we see Vincent and Alexia, occasionally together, in front of a mirror, looking at themselves and examining their bodies. The Freudian Uncanny involves an unsettling feeling produced by something that feels simultaneously familiar and somehow unfamiliar; in the case of Titane, that feeling comes from a dissonance between familiar and unfamiliar bodies. Alexia’s struggle in the film comes out of the fact she took on one gender as a necessity, only for her to become confused later when she must confront her actual body as opposed to the gender she performs daily as Adrien. Vincent also struggles with what he wants his body to be, trying to assuage his ageing male anxieties as he’s surrounded by younger, fitter men at work. Vincent and Alexia have their own respective body issues but find solace in one another, creating a chosen family together in the absence of their real ones.Titane is ultimately a queer/trans story about finding a chosen family when we must abandon our biological families, or are abandoned by them. Many of us who identify as queer, like those who identify as trans, have experienced difficulties with family coming to terms with our identities, and too many have been wholly rejected by their families. Alexia’s violence against her parents—and in general, considering she’s a serial killer—is shocking, yet there’s an indication, from the first time we see her as a little girl in the car with her father, that her parents have rejected her, or at the very least neglected her. The way her father acts around her suggests they have a difficult relationship, and with all we know about serial killers it’s possible he could have even abused her. For whatever reason, Alexia doesn’t feel at home in her home with her parents, so, like many queer and trans people, she leaves home on a journey towards finding a chosen family that accepts her, warts and all, which is exactly what she finds in Vincent.
There are difficult themes and topics at work in Titane, and the way they’re expressed is one reason why Julia Ducournau is earning a reputation as a consistently fascinating filmmaker. The film, like any great piece of art, can be read in many ways, though its affinity with queer and trans issues is undeniable. Titane is a profound work about gender and identity, questioning how trauma shapes what sort of human beings we become, as well as exploring the chaotic relationships humans have with their bodies and how bodies really just distract us from what matters most—the person within them, beneath the flesh, the bone, and all that mess.