Shedding the Broken Present: Julia Ducourneau’s "Titane"

The Palme d'Or winning "Titane" is a physical provocation that challenges the viewer to consider the path ahead.
Anthony Hawley

There was a time when I wasn’t a cyborg. But it’s been so long now I can’t remember. 

In 1993, the same year Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia, and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was released, I was in the backseat of a two-door Ford escort carrying five people across the night too fast on too wet roads blanketed with even wetter leaves when the little machine ran head-on into a telephone pole. We were all pulverized. I was the worst—a fractured skull shattered like an eggshell upon impact. I broke it with my own knuckles trying to brace myself as we collided. 

I recall that there was yelling, some wailing, as our bodies spilled out of the car. I recall rolling on the ground in the mud, pressing my hands against the pounding in my forehead. I recall fire trucks, ambulances, being strapped to a board, the emergency room. I recall waking up after surgery a week later when they had made a cut from one ear to the other to place titanium strips inside my head—together these formed a Roman numeral IX or XI. I recall, in part, drifting in and out of wakefulness post-op and the paranoia experienced—does it work? Do I work? Am I on? Think Robocop (1987), when the lab finishes assembly and they power him up for the first time, testing out his vision and basic functionality; the flickering, the foggy apprehension. 

But nothing is as clear in my memory as visiting the hospital a second time, two weeks after surgery, post-recovery, when the nurse and doctor methodically extracted thirty-three industrial staples that were holding my head together. The process of removing the staples from my head had a very particular speed and pressure that still gives me a very clear sense of the density of human flesh, like pulling metal tomato planters out of healthy earth, or like extracting meaty fasteners out from wall-to-wall carpet and the foam beneath. 

While the sensations of my experience are something I can conjure up on demand, no film, song, image or piece of art has so evoked the physical phantoms of this moment as Julia Ducourneau’s Palme d’Or winning Titane.

Titane is a breathtaking (I don’t use that word lightly) movie about a young girl who suffers a terrible car accident, has metal put inside her head, becomes a car model turned serial killer, has interspecies sex with a flame-covered, pimped out car, gets pregnant, attempts to distort her physical appearance and gender, works as a firefighter, and pretends to be the missing child of a man broken by years of not being able to grieve his son’s death properly. It is also a gorgeous and terrifying movie about invasions—of body, species, violent masculinities, insular communities, gender, orifices, home and more. The film stars Agathe Rousselle who fearlessly plays the role of its central character Alexia.

To begin a conversation about Ducourneau’s new film, one would have to start with a hole. Holes leak. Holes discharge, emanate, seep and spurt. Holes also, for better and for worse, let the outside in, the foreign. In the case of Titane, one could begin with a particular hole, the ear, and, while the movie can’t easily be reduced to any one style, mood, message or mode, four words give a key to the film’s pathology, touching upon the radical transformations and trauma inherent to the work: “Even in her ear.” 

About halfway through the film, having disguised herself by shaving her head, binding her breasts, brutally breaking her nose, and bruising her eyes, Alexia boards a night bus to flee town. She sits near the rear, close to one other female passenger when a group of men loudly board. Blathering cacophonously about their sexual escapades, they drivel on about banging women, describing them more and more like globs of inanimate flesh than living beings. Mounting in obscenity, their unapologetic remarks pressurize the empty space. “A hole is a hole,” the men yell. The camera fixes itself on Alexia and the woman who exchange knowing glances, sharing a silent fear… will we be one of the next holes? “Even in her ear, bruh,” says one of the men. We can’t see them, but instead only hear the threat of their talk clutching the vacant seats with vulgarity. The camera cuts to the exterior of the bus as it drives away, Alexia back on the street underneath the awning of the bus stop.  

In Titane, the ear is the initial site of both transfiguration and reparations; a place both to penetrate the norms of human acceptability and to exceed it. At the film’s start, shortly after the life-altering accident that sets off a chain reaction of car-centric life events, we see Alexia’s alien scar above and around her ear—her unmistakable cicatrix, her disconcerting (and empowering) alien lesion. Other characters perceive this with concern, as if to question Alexia’s very humanity. They look to the lumpy mass as a sign that she is not quite human. The scar remains sensitive to the touch throughout her life, visibly “other,” especially as Alexia adopts a shaved head later in the film. 

But the ear’s poignant vicissitudes also allow it to function as the place of payback, for the ear is the orifice Alexia uses to kill. She viciously drives her long metal hairpin into her subjects’ inner canal, giving them a brief taste of what it’s like to have metal in one’s body before propelling them into convulsive states. Grotesque, ejaculatory, cathartic, these murderous moments seem a kind of revenge upon the blithe violence so evident in the callous phrase “even in her ear.” Certainly the first of these assassinations has that air. When a predatory male fan tails Alexia in a parking lot after her sexed-up car performance, Alexia tricks him into thinking she’s giving into his advances. Pulling him close as they make out, she thrusts her chopstick-like hairpin mercilessly into his ear hole, forcing him to spew globs of semen-like liquid from his head, “fulfilling” his fantasies as he shudders and collapses onto the ground. 

Unnatural? Maybe. But what is a woman to do in a world decimated by men other than find unnatural solutions? How is one to move forward in a techno-capitalist culture steering the planet and human race towards extinction? In what will most likely become one of the most infamous scenes in contemporary cinema, Alexia has an “unnatural” affair with the very Cadillac she models and splays herself across earlier in the film, shattering the ever-shrinking membrane between the human and non-human. 

Indeed membranes of all kinds—both physiological and social—get punctured throughout the film. While at a house orgy, Alexia attempts to perform an abortion on herself using the same metal hairpin she uses to stab her victims. Not long after, she employs a barstool leg to silence an unknowing guest by shoving it in his mouth. Further along in the film, unwanted pregnancy progressing, Alexia scratches furiously at the skin around her engorged belly only to gouge an accidental hole in her stomach that begins to ooze a syrupy black liquid. The same motor oil-like substance also leaks out of her nipples. 

Psychosocially, Alexia constantly perforates the codes of masculinity—both as herself and after she distorts her appearance and is misidentified at a police station by the firefighter captain Vincent (Vincent Lindon) as his long-lost son, Adrien. I don’t know that a term like “gender-bending,” or the current “non-binary” adequately encompasses her range of activities. Alexia/Adrien is too divergent, too various.

As an identifiably female figure, Alexia plays a resolutely feminine part for the swarm of male gazes. But outside of that she also functions as a welcome inversion of the car world stereotype, a woman who has a disconcertingly intimate knowledge of the motor vehicle (not to mention that she’s also a lesbian serial killer). Men can only come so close to her, yet she’s closer to the vehicles than they will ever be. As Adrien, she/he occupies a more porous point on the gender spectrum, neither male nor female enough for the environs in which she finds herself. Binding her breasts and ever-growing pregnant belly to such a degree that she scars them, Alexia is clad in a comically large firefighter’s outfit camouflaging the contours of her figure. The brawny young firefighters don’t know quite what to make of this new addition Vincent brings home. In a pair of scenes that rival Claire Denis’ balletic tableaux of highly sexualized male military training sequences from Beau travail (1999), Ducourneu stages two separate post-work celebratory dance parties at the fire station in which Alexia’s awkward presence as a not-quite-masculine-enough firefighter generates a quiet discomfort amongst the bro-y boys.  At one point, Alexia/Adrien, standing atop a fire engine after having been lifted up by the boys, ruptures the moment entirely with a slinky striptease of a dance... You can see how deep the discomfort runs in the hunky heteros’ eyes. Is this attractive? Am I attracted? Disgusted? Who or what am I watching? A wonderfully communal sense of gender dysphoria ensues. 

Part of what makes the screenplay so nerve-wracking is how it navigates layers of machoness, shifting tonal intensities as it explores the surrounding depths of anxiety. Be it the sleazy, touchy dudes at the slick car model showroom or the not-so-subtle father-to-son inculcating Vincent practices with Alexia/Adrien, the screenplay finds the heroine in locales brimming with unchecked hypermasculinity. Groups of men constantly brim with violent potential—the gang on the aforementioned night bus, the brawny flexing firefighters cavorting to hard house music, even Alexia’s tightly-wound father at the beginning of the film. But this isn’t the only type of masculine mess. We see it more subtly during Alexia’s stint as Adrien when Vincent teeters between tender self-awareness and more grating moments in his clumsy parenting, attempting to teach Alexia/Adrien how to “be a man.” “What are you, part of a knitting club,” says Vincent to Alexia/Adrien as he playfully spars with her one night after dinner and she removes the hairpin for the kill. “Fight like a man,” he shouts through laughs, fending off her attack while pinned to the ground. The scene immediately follows Vincent’s ingratiating Alexia with lighthearted dancing after dinner. But in his typically overbearing manner, Vincent goes from swaying whimsically to chest-bumping Alexia in an effort to coax out more masculine tendencies.  Vincent’s character perfectly straddles both a caricature of itself and a more vulnerable portrait haunted by the expectations of fatherhood carried over from decades past.

Just before Titane’s final scene, we see a naked, barefoot and pregnant Alexia dripping sweat, holding her belly, stumbling across the empty floor of the firehouse’s party aftermath, shards of the French flag dangling.. At this point, she no longer pretends to be Adrien. In fact, Vincent, keen to the fact she is not who she says she is, has told her that he doesn’t care who she is, she is still his son. Watching her scrape herself back to the living quarters, nude and wet, I heard the echoes of an earlier scene when a frustrated Vincent poses this question to Adrien/Alexa after the third or fourth time she attempts to flee. “Why do you always want to leave you’re already home.” 

Having seen Titane twice now, I can’t help but think about the future of our species, be it in the context of self-engineered ecological and climatological crisis, the increasing prevalence of microorganisms, A.I., or human-machine fusions in the form of cyborgian implants. A film as entertaining, gory, well-constructed, original, and of-this-world as Titane doesn’t flaunt its politics or megaphone its messages. But with all the emphasis on fathers, kinship, hybridity, found family and unprecedented life forms one would be remiss not to take note of the subject. 

Unlike other films featuring intrepid female predecessors tackling invasion—take Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979), or even Furiousa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max Fury Road (2015)—Titane isn’t about a fight to restore order or a return to normal. It isn’t about becoming more human again (after all Alexia murders her birth father by locking him in his room as she burns down the house). Nor is it about the pursuit of psychosexual Cronenbergian auto-erotics or extensive Matthew Barney Cremaster-like sexual organs (two car-heavy forerunners). 

What I remember very clearly about the moments before I became a cyborg, the instant just prior to running head-on into a telephone pole, was an unexpected pause in the fabric of life. It was a strong, unflinching impression that there was no going back, no return from this. To be able to glimpse the unavoidability of an event, the promise of an impending, unalterable change, is something very raw. At the end of Titane, Ducourneau grants Vincent a similar kind of pause, an opening to examine the future laid bare. When everything is said and done, will Vincent continue to force upon future generations a tired, outmoded way of being, or will he adapt, make new kin, and shed the broken present?

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