You know how it goes. You’ve got a rowdy kid in the backseat who won’t sit down, won’t shut up and isn’t wearing her seatbelt, so you reach back with one eye still on the road to play parent and gain control over the situation, only to realize that you do not have control. The car spins out, your seatbelt-less kid goes flying; she cracks her skull on a back window. And though she survives, she has to have a titanium plate installed upstairs and, you cannot help but notice, seems to hate you all of a sudden. Still loves cars, though. Enough so that they become a nutrient-rich source of erotic fascination for her when she grows older. So, in addition to becoming an apparent serial killer as an adult (you don’t ask), she becomes a serial fucker of automobiles — she is living her life. Eventually she goes on the run, as one does when their body count makes the news. But not before one last murder spree. Nor before learning, on the same evening, that a car has gotten her pregnant. This is merely where things start.
Much has been made of the outrageousness of Julia Ducournau’s Titane since it won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, courtesy of a prize jury helmed by Spike Lee. Already the notices out of that festival were calling it “the most shocking film of 2021,” and this is a festival whose lineup included a movie in which Adam Driver exploits his daughter, a singing puppet, for profit after killing the doll’s mother. Shocking? The above description supports that idea, and Titane is certainly greedy and excitable and knowing in its willingness to buck our expectations — down to the unexpectedly vigorous bucking of its sexmobiles.
It is also, it’s true, a fairly violent movie. A fleshy, sexy, uncomfortable exercise in body horror of the leaking, skin-ripping variety, in which the human body — confronted with the impenetrable realities of both machine technology and the story’s overwhelming grief — becomes a mutable object. A shape-shifter. Even better: an exploiter of the human form, and of the emotional realities that come with it. A shape-shifter for convenience’s sake. (Until things are no longer so convenient — and really, with a sentient Hot Wheels toy threatening to off-ramp into reality at any moment, how could they be?)
Sideline the shock for a moment, however, and what Titane has to offer is a pantry’s worth of borrowed conventions, torqued and spit-shined into something more titillating, frustrating, and sometimes even daring by Ducournau. She pushes this movie along by nesting and revising multiple plots and genres and enjoying the interplay between them, freely moving between pathos, critique, erotic thrills, and outright disgust. Comparisons to David Cronenberg’s auto-erotic thriller Crash (1996), about a crew of symphorophilics — people sexually aroused by car crashes — have already been made ad nauseam. Like the over-application of “shocking,” this is hardly shocking: cars, sex, we get it.
But for Titane’s protagonist Alexia (newcomer Agathe Rousselle), the car crash of her childhood — the event that has left the skin above her right ear permanently scarred and her skull forever amended by metal — was more like a pre-emptive karmic punishment, not unlike that of an old-school literary heroine who expresses a little freedom, a little desire, and therefore must catch consumption and die. The crash hits like a warning: Stop this. Does it matter to the rest of the movie that it’s her father (played by Bertrand Bonello) driving the car? You bet it does. Just as it matters that what leads Alexia to find comfort in the back seat of a flame-flavored Cadillac isn’t the thrill of catastrophe or the lure of violent fantasies made real, a la Crash, but rather something a bit more despairing.
Most of the characters in Crash are at least leaning into a fetish (sure, people die, but…). Whereas for Alexia, strapping into a fire truck to ride dirty comes off more like a primitive acting-out. It’s torrid and punishing and hotly exaggerated, as arduous as a feat of coercive self-pleasure, the climaxes tinged with a layer of not-quite-relief. Titane is not a film about sexual violence, per se. And yet it goes out of its way to link sex with violence in ways both galvanizing and usefully humiliating. Alexia’s sex with cars seems to crop up most directly after moments of psychic confusion or aggravation, ritualistically so.
The first murder, for example, happens after one of Alexia’s shifts working as an exotic dancer of a kind, modeling cars by dancing on and around them, men watching on all sides, with a showy eroticism that feels distinct from Alexia’s own pleasure. An overzealous fan follows Alexia out to the car for an autograph and gets a stiletto-sharp hairpin to the brain — an injury not unlike Alexia’s own affliction. This is her favored style of kill. In another movie, you’d maybe think: She’s replicating her own trauma, harming them to see her own harm out in the world, as if to balance the scales. In this movie? It’s the shifting of roles that Ducournau emphasizes: the aggressive man crosses a boundary, Alexia shifts from standoffish discomfort to luring fatale, and the predator gets preyed upon — gets the sneak attack while leaning in for a kiss. Another victim, a woman, also gets the hairpin treatment after a bit of intimacy, though in this case the intimacy feels like less of an imposition. Or is the idea that all intimacy, for Alexia, is an imposition?
This may be a question for the film’s fathers. Titane shifts when, with the help of her dad, Alexia decides to cut loose and go on the run, latching onto a new identity with the kind of grim opportunism that pulls the viewer in two directions: You want to see Alexia get away (for some reason). But this? The identity in question, co-opted by an Alexia who steals away to a train station bathroom to break her nose and rough herself up, is that of Adrien: a long-missing child who’d now be a young man, whose father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), runs a fire station and has surrounded himself with a crew of young men, all of them like sons. But there’s a real son out there somewhere, maybe. When Alexia, in the guise of Adrien, pops up in Vincent’s life — a miracle! — the pathos of this grieving father’s belief in the gimmick, or willingness to go along with whatever this is, opens the movie outward to what are its actual shocks.
Suddenly Titane rips the rug from beneath our feet with a conflicting, worrisome new dimension of questions and hang-ups. Ducournau knows what she’s doing here, taking the classic gender-flipping trope — a romantic trope, a la Twelfth Night or for that matter Yentl — and inserting it into what becomes a tale of father and son. Only Ducournau doesn’t strip the idea of all the sexual anxieties and dramatic ironies it naturally dredges up for an audience that’s a step ahead of the people onscreen. The gender-flipped love story as traditionally told gets mapped here onto an awkward, grief-addled paternal love — and the result, with Alexia’s own father’s denials kept in mind, proves as discomfiting as it is bewitching. Not least because of that baby bump Adrien has to keep taping down, every day, in images that will no doubt evoke the travails of trans and gender-noncomforming bodies for some viewers.
The movie walks a tightrope. Is there an incesty vibe between Adrien and Vincent, or is it that Lindon’s full-bodied grief so overwhelms, the need for intimacy with Vincent’s son so overwhelms, that the forced closeness should not be mistaken for desire? Or does that desire register because we know that Adrien is not Adrien? And are we sure that Vincent does not know?
That’s Titane for you. It is so many things at once. There’s the part that is a movie about an unplanned pregnancy, one akin to a film like Rosemary’s Baby, in that it knows well enough to string us along on the question of whether the horrors we’re imagining in that belly will, in fact, be horrors — and which, like that earlier film, forces us to imagine pregnancy as a malignant violation of a woman’s body. It is also a movie that is about a ruthless killer’s change of heart regarding intimacy. (Or something like that.) And it’s a movie that deploys gendered spaces, gendered problems, very knowingly. There’s a trio of crucial, wonderful scenes involving Alexia’s relationship to Adrien as a male identity. In one, Adrien sees a woman being harassed by a group of men and does nothing. In another, the young men of Vincent’s firehouse let their hair down with music, vapes, and alcohol, and Ducournau paints us a vision of a male social sphere, an intimate camaraderie that even Adrien seems surprised to see. In the last, Adrien, to that point a weirdo outcast, is invited in on the camaraderie.
Titane powers through its story with clashes of images and ironies and moods. Yet it also sails along on the power of a nicely-rigged set of narrative questions and their consummating answers. For whatever we’re supposed to feel is outrageous about it, it’s slickly entertaining for straightforward reasons: the pile-up of mysteries — questions about people, particularly, and their bodies — that some of us simply can’t not see through to the end. The emotions it digs up — paternal love, sibling jealousy, an alienating fear of one’s own body — provide ample bedrock for the quieter shocks Titane has up its sleeve.
Yes, it’s a gender-morphing, misery-and-mystery tour of sensational and at times incomprehensible events, rife with questionable life choices and odd twists of fate. There are absolutely ideas at work here about gender and sex and all the rest. But it’s the movie’s sense of play that feels most striking. Rather than offer coherent comment on gender and sex in themselves, the movie gets off on the pleasure of twisting gender and genre in parallel, teasing apart their conventions synchronously and side by side. The serial-killer movie we think we’re watching shifts as our protagonist’s identity shifts. The idea is in the flexibility. The achievement is in the willingness to flex, even with the risk of failure.
What leaves the keenest aftertaste aren’t the headline-grabbing sexual theatrics, which are active and surprising and fun, but rather that what’s-the-word-for-it something hanging over the movie — the shadowy spots at the margins of it all, the things that its brash maneuvers render less explicit and therefore more curious. The film’s “studious inattention to its own implications,” as another critic has fairly put it, feels to me like a chance to watch the movie differently. Watch it like a Brian de Palma movie: less a statement than a playground of moods and references, a fantasy in which gender and sexuality become as susceptible to cinematic trickery as anything else available to a genre movie. The commitment of the actors — Lindon and Rousselle especially — gives the movie a soul-bearing dimension that makes its playfulness harder to see. But just catch that ending. Had you forgotten about the motor-baby? The movie does not. In its closing moments, it consummates many things at once. It reminds us of what it is, and also of what it never claimed to be.