starring Vincent Lindon, Agathe Rousselle, Garance Marillier, Lais Salameh
written and directed by Julia Ducournau
by Walter Chaw In Julia Ducournau's first film, Raw, there's a part involving scissors wielded near a vagina that almost made me pass out. A sequence in her second film, Titane, involves another massively inappropriate object wielded near, and inside, a vagina, yet it didn't bother me half as much. This may have something to do with Titane's tone and attitude towards menace: In Raw, there's a tenderness and familiarity to it all that makes the horror invasive, whereas Titane gives off an alien, madcap, Mack Sennett vibe that announces the movie's allegorical intentions as a barker at a carnival sideshow might. What's constant in Ducournau's two films is an admirably reductive drive to boil a woman's body down to its biological functions. As Titane opens, hero Alexia (Agathe Rousselle)--badly scarred from the titanium plate behind her ear, the product of a childhood car accident she caused by wanting very badly to sing along to the car's engine noise--is making her living as a stripper/model at an underground car show. Her body is a fetish object the way a car is to certain men, you see, and I'm thinking immediately not only of how men often assign a feminine pronoun to their cars, but also of e.e. cummings's naughty poem "she being brand." Here it is in full:
she being Brand
know consequently a
little stiff I was
careful of her
thoroughly oiled the universal
tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.
i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her
(and then somehow got into reverse she
minute i was back in neutral tried and
again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg. ing(my
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
greasedlightning) just as we turned the corner of Divinity
avenue i touched the accelerator and give
her the juice,good
was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on
breaks Bothatonce and
brought allofher tremB
I'm thinking of Cronenberg's Crash as well, of course, not to mention Donald Cammell's Demon Seed, in which an AI finds the mechanical means through which to impregnate a human woman. That's the plan, anyway. In Titane, after Alexia is followed to her car by a stalker (whom Alexia summarily dispatches), she goes back into the club for a quick shower and ends up in the front seat of a Buick that, somehow, inseminates her. The "how" is not nearly as important as Alexia's weapon of choice being a penetrative shunt and the fact that, immediately following her murder of a rapist, she "marries," in the Anne Sexton "Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" sense, the object symbolic of her deformity, her estrangement from her father, and, in a larger sense, her strangeness in every social interaction. Without a real explanation for why she is the way she is (it's not the accident that made her want to growl like a motor), she attaches her identity to a moment of intense trauma.
Titane is about identity, sexual preference, manufactured families, trauma therapies, and social conditioning enacted through physical contact and hunger. Ducournau wants to chat about how deep that desire is to show on the outside what you feel on the inside. After Alexia murders a few more people--with, again, penetrative shunts--she binds her breasts, breaks her nose, and, in a city of literal lost children, assumes the identity of a fire chief's long-lost son, Adrien. The chief, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), looks her up and down, nods grimly to the policeman managing her case, and with that, he has his son back. It's rough going, though, as Adrien refuses to speak and reacts badly to Vincent's attempts to engage with him. And, lest we forget, Adrien is a serial killer. For his part, Vincent rules the men at his firehouse with an iron fist ("To you, I'm God"), an authority he doesn't carry over into his private life as he injects himself with steroids and laments that he's no longer able to do pull-ups, given his advanced age. Worse, he just doesn't look like what he wants to look like anymore. He loathes the body he's trapped in. We're all prisoners of our bodies, and many of us are likewise prisoners of a self-image no one else can see.
Adrien is mistaken for a gay man by the firemen, and when his father discovers him trying on a yellow dress, there's a pregnant moment where we're not sure how this 'roided-up bro is going to react. There's real kindness to Titane: amidst all of this self-loathing and masquerade, the picture makes clear that what sort of genitalia anyone is carrying around is maybe the least important element of their personality. Vincent teaches Adrien how to perform CPR on an outcall, and Adrien saves the life of an old woman. Later, at the station, the boys listen to Future Islands and dance under purple lights--awkwardly, as men do when trying to show each other that they matter to each other. Adrien, I should mention, is pregnant--by the car, the film's logic tells us, but we're working out how it might be the rapist's child, with Alexia's behaviours post-"murder"--the disgust, the shower--possibly code for the immediate aftermath of rape.
Adrien scratches stretch marks into his rapidly-expanding belly. His breasts are creased with red marks from their constant binding and, in an agony of revulsion, he beats himself--a denial of his condition and a refusal of a body he can't refuse. His nipples leak motor oil--it comes seeping out of his vagina and, exhausted, he collapses into a ray of sunlight filtering through the window of his room. That's how Adrien's mother (Myriem Akheddiou) finds him, discovering the secret that this person isn't her son. But in the decisions she makes at that moment...isn't he? Vincent doesn't see that Adrien is extremely pregnant, and the mother doesn't see the oil streaming from her son's chest: Adrien sees that. He's imagining it, though that doesn't make it any less real. Or he isn't imagining it, and Vincent only sees what he wants to see. That's how it all started for Vincent, after all. It's possible, too, that the versions of a father Adrien has killed are Vincent's failed attempts at being a dad up to the moment he lost Adrien the first time. Vincent's job is to find people in the flames, visibility impossible and everyone on the edge of immolation. During one of these scenarios, Vincent sees the carbon outline of a child in a cabinet. He can't save everyone he wants to save. He can't save himself.
He can, however, save Adrien. And Adrien, if he can recognize the potential he nurses within himself as something of tremendous power rather than shame, well, maybe Adrien can save Vincent in return. After an explosion maims one of their number, the firemen in Titane engage in an ecstasy of masculinity. They hoot like animals and jump to industrial music--a subgenre that was once described to me as music a machine would make if it had the means and inclination. Then they force Adrien on top of a fire engine and switch to a torch cover of "Wayfaring Stranger." Transfixed, these men watch as Adrien dances like Alexia used to on top of a different type of automobile. The shame they feel reminds me a bit of the confused love story in the animated Mulan, and at night, alone following his display, Adrien "marries" the fire engine. Here are the first two of "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator"'s seven stanzas:
The end of the affair is always death.
She's my workshop. Slippery eye,
out of the tribe of myself my breath
finds you gone. I horrify
those who stand by. I am fed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
Finger to finger, now she's mine.
She's not too far. She's my encounter.
I beat her like a bell. I recline
in the bower where you used to mount her.
You borrowed me on the flowered spread.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
Ducournau rhymes Adrien's birthing pains with Vincent's IV drug use, which almost results in him setting himself on fire. They're both insults to the middle, you see, scarifying the body like a car in an accident not unlike the one that first altered Alexia's appearance. The injuries they both suffer to their middles merge their respective crises of identity into one destabilizing metaphor--and now I'm thinking of another Cronenberg, Dead Ringers, and the dream of the twins therein that has them connected by a thick umbilicus the woman who has come between them must bite through. Adrien tries to love in the only way he's been conditioned to love. Though initially revolted by them, Vincent returns to act as a doula for his foundling's excruciating, possibly mortal labours. The product of his grace is a future with a little less loneliness, marked by possibilities for a world with maybe just a little less pain and, not coincidentally, a little more acceptance. Titane isn't as confident a film as Raw. It feels like a collection of indelible images and compelling, even important, ideas always on the verge of flying apart. Ducournau is holding it together still, if maybe only barely. While I'm always drawn to stories about identity, and created families, and the miracle of acceptance in a cold universe (reason here why I'm so transfixed by Rob Zombie movies), I can see the strain of Titane's ambition bleeding into something like chaotic provocation. It's not perfect, but that works for a film about imperfection. I'm interested to see how she follows this one up.