Film

Julia Ducournau’s Palme D’Or-winning film Titane gives horror a high-octane twist. By Isabella Trimboli.

Titane

Agathe Rousselle as Alexia in Titane.
Agathe Rousselle as Alexia in Titane.
Credit: Carole Bethuel

The womb – a site of rupture, contagion and expulsion – is an enduring image in horror films. Its terror lies in what is hidden, how the womb collapses the boundaries between the internal and external. But I’m not sure it has ever been depicted with such metallic monstrosity as in Titane.

French director Julia Ducournau’s second feature and this year’s Palme d’Or winner, Titane is an ecstatic chronicle of the body’s capacity for glory and the grotesque, how it banishes borders and transforms beyond a person’s will.

For protagonist Alexia (played with steely conviction by first-time actor Agathe Rousselle), the womb is ever-expanding, leaking motor oil and creating shining pools of black. It’s an agonised, uncanny pregnancy that has provided the film with the slight cache of infamy, as the baby’s father is a flame-embossed Cadillac. Their carnal union is almost comical – Alexia’s arms are wrapped in seatbelts in the back seat as the car bounces on the polished floor, its headlights blazing in bliss.

Alexia’s proclivity for automobiles is explained in the film’s short, sharp prologue: she is a child in the back seat of the family car, humming along to the engine, pushing her feet against her father’s seat. The car crashes into concrete, a blotch of red on the window revealing its brutal impact. The film cuts to an operating room, where a titanium plate is being lodged into the small child’s bloodied skull. The family exits the hospital and, rather than recoiling from the site of trauma, Alexia embraces the car, tracing its edges tenderly with her fingertips.

We next meet Alexia as an adult in gold hotpants and neon fishnet stockings, slinking across the Cadillac. She is an erotic dancer in a car show, surrounded by a gaggle of leering male fans. After the show, one follows and forces himself onto her. Alexia kills him by plunging a sharp needle – also her regular hairpin – into his ear. But this is not simply self-defence: Alexia, we discover, is a serial killer, and dead bodies with the same stab wound are piling up.

The car copulation, a share-house massacre and an act of arson later, Alexia is pursued by police, her image plastered onto posters. Holed up in a train station bathroom, she attempts to morph into the image of Adrien Legrand, a missing boy whose highly publicised unsolved case is reaching its two-decade anniversary. She binds her breasts and bulging stomach with bandages, shaves off her peroxide mullet and smashes her nose into the sink.

As with other transformations through the film, this scene gestures towards the fluid possibilities of gender: unbound sexuality, the inherent performativity of femininity and masculinity. But Ducournau doesn’t hold the note. The film swipes through more ideas than it can handle and moments such as this one, an attempted bathroom abortion or a bitey lesbian hook-up feel a little cheap, played for shock and awe.

With the arrival of Vincent – an ageing firefighter captain and Adrien’s stricken father – Titane reveals softness. Vincent picks Alexia up from police custody in a fog of grief, refusing a paternity test (“Don’t you think I’d know what my son looks like?”) The film closes in on the fire station that is Vincent’s workplace and his apartment, where Alexia – disfigured and heavily pregnant – sleeps in the missing boy’s bedroom.

Vincent is dealing with another kind of loss: corporeal decay. Some of Titane’s most harrowing scenes are of Vincent hunched over the bathroom sink, plunging steroids into his bruised, purpled buttocks. Vincent’s jutting pecs and swollen stomach make him a mirror image of Alexia: two bodies stretched beyond their limits, struggling against the weight of trauma and time.

Titane has been criticised for its convenient ambiguity and loopy logic, but stripped of its excess the film holds relatively straightforward concerns: the tension between the body’s emancipatory potential – its ability to forge freedoms and new myths– and its betrayal, how flesh preserves suffering and loss. Hackneyed ideas, sure, but no less true.

For all its narrative defects, Titane is triumphant in sensation, wedding erotics to the macabre. Fluids and skin glow under neons, pinks and silvers, and the heat of flames. The film recalls an observation writer and critic Gary Indiana once made of David Cronenberg: “Eroticism is hardwired into our instinct, and dangerously close to the circuitry of the death wish.” Cronenberg’s porous, mutated bodies are an obvious influence for Ducournau. Titane shares carnal cues from Crash, his icy J. G. Ballard adaptation about a group of car crash fetishists, as well as Videodrome, where the boundaries between body and technology become indistinguishable.

But the film also shares significant preoccupations with early work such as The Brood, where a mother’s rage creates a cabal of genderless miniature killers who are birthed from a bloodied sack hanging from her stomach. In The Brood, the womb is turned inside out and exposed, disguised only by a white nightgown. For all their perverse indulgence, there is something strangely romantic about how both Cronenberg and Ducournau envision maternity: they both show how life can arise out of even the most brutal carnage.

As in Ducournau’s debut film Raw, where the taste of raw meat sends a veterinary student into the throes of cannibalism, much of Titane takes place in a training ground. Vincent’s fire station is full of wide-eyed young firefighters with foolish instincts and wild emotions, who are undergoing their own transformations. Alexia-as-Adrien is pushed into the pack.

Ducournau’s films thrive in these charged environments, where aggression and arousal surge towards the surface. She is interested in the eroticism that arises out of mob mentality and the act of dissent. We see this later in the film, at a sweat-drenched, strobe-lit party at the fire station, where shirtless men slam their bodies into one another. Alexia removes herself from the frenzy and under the group’s stony gaze dances slowly and sensually on top of a fire truck – the body falling back into its old, repeated rhythms.

For the film’s final moments Ducournau returns to the violent transcendence of procreation, the tangle of two bodies unable to transform any longer. But through their disintegration, Ducournau finds unexpected possibility. This is perhaps Titane’s most compelling achievement: its ability to move exuberantly between loss and attachment, deprivation and dependency, fantasy and horror, revulsion and romance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Auto erotics".

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Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic based in Melbourne.

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