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The Current Debate: The Transgressiveness of Julia Ducournau’s “Titane”

Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winner is a grisly barrage of violence, sex, and all kinds of excesses—but is it as subversive as it looks?
Leonardo Goi
Titane
Following up on her 2016 feature debut, Raw, which chronicled a veterinary-cum-vegetarian student’s pivot to cannibalism, Julia Ducournau pushes her fascination for the pliability of human flesh to even further extremes with Titane. The film, awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes earlier this year—only the second time the top prize is given to a woman director—kicks off with a near-fatal car accident, after which Alexia (played by Adèle Guigue as a seven-year-old, and by Agathe Rousselle as a late twenty-something) is left with a titanium plate fixed to her skull and a seemingly insatiable appetite for the vehicular. Next we see her, she’s turned into a serial killer and a car show dancer. In one outrageous early sequence, she’s impregnated by a Cadillac. Following a killing spree that sends her on the lam, she disfigures herself to pass as a boy gone missing years prior, Adrien, and finds an unlikely refuge in Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged firefighter who welcomes her back as his son, all while Alexia’s belly keeps protruding and motor oil starts flowing from her body.
If all this sounds deranged, implausible, and all-out lunatic, well… welcome to Titane. “Whatever you’re willing to take from it,” David Ehrlich writes at IndieWire, “there’s no denying that Titane is the work of a demented visionary in full command of her wild mind; a shimmering aria of fire and metal that introduces itself as the psychopathic lovechild of David Cronenberg’s Crash and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man before shapeshifting into a modern fable about how badly people just need someone to take care of them and vice-versa.” The film has been lauded for its unhinged, insouciant swagger—for its “cocktail of outrage, excess, conceptual ferocity and sheer silliness,” as per Screen Daily’s Jonathan Romney. But Titane’s subversiveness demands careful spelling. Is the film as transgressive as it seems?
“There’s a fine line between movies that are genuinely original and those that feel deliberately orchestrated to shock and repel us in a winking, self-congratulatory way,” Stephanie Zacharek argues at TIME. The horror fantasy Ducournau conjures defies logic and plausibility, “but it all feels like an overworked in-joke, a bait-and-switch story whose hard-right swerve into conventionality is probably intended to be its most shocking element.” Zacharek is not the only one questioning what she sees as the film’s “floundering, false transgressiveness.” As Anthony Lane wonders at The New Yorker,
What, exactly, is being transgressed? It’s not as if “Titane” is rich in regular lives, with their litany of social codes, so who can tell if those codes are being disrupted or disobeyed? Beneath the gruesome violence there’s a silly streak: rules are smashed like noses, just for kicks.
I’ll admit that there are times when Titane can feel a little too meticulously engineered for its own good. And I agree with Ben Kenigsberg when he argues, over at RogerEbert.com, that the film “becomes somewhat calculated in its escalating weirdness; the sorts of shock moments that make midnight audiences whoop seem to have been planted at regular intervals.” But to claim that Ducournau doesn’t challenge social norms and conduct is to misinterpret her film’s design. Time and again, the heteronormative milieu in which Alexia and Vincent operate is dissected and subverted: by the young woman’s sexual proclivities for vehicles, sure, but also and perhaps more significantly by the role she comes to play once Vincent beckons her into his fire brigade. Away from her world of feminine performance, she’s catapulted into a hypermasculine realm that teems with homoerotic desire, whose boundaries Alexia/Adrien teases and pries apart. “If bodies are a prison in Titane,Katie Rife aptly notes at The A.V. Club, “gender is especially so. […] The body horror is in your face, and so is the gender commentary.” That commentary, and the way Ducournau handles it, has spawned some intriguing takes. Among the most coruscating, IndieWire’s Jude Dry argues that Titane is “a deeply misogynist movie with a healthy side of transphobia,” a film guilty of twisting trans tropes into body horror:
The iconography of transmasculine transition is used as window dressing in this gory fable. The dreaded Ace bandage, long out of use and which appeared most prominently in the controversial film “Boys Don’t Cry,” leaves red lacerations on Alexia’s breasts and back. To keep up with his demanding job, Vincent injects his bruised buttocks with steroids every night, flailing pantingly on the bathroom floor after each violent jab. “Titane” twists these milestones of transition—a beautiful and liberating experience for most trans people—making them painful and grotesque in service of its bent toward body horror.
Dry’s is a thought-provoking argument, but I’m not entirely convinced it stands as a definitive rebuttal. Not just because Titane doesn’t actively attempt to be a trans film in the first place, but because those alleged milestones of transitions aren’t posited as gender-transcending mechanisms so much as ways to test and trespass the limits of one’s body—which in Titane, as Rory O’Connor reminds us at The Film Stage, “is simply a cover on a chassis; a vessel made to be souped-up and modified.” Arguably more damning is the charge Lawrence Garcia articulates at In Review Online: the kind of transgression Titane strives toward—and doesn’t quite reach—isn’t a question of morality, but one of imagination.
Structurally, Titane depends on pitting two obviously unappealing extremes against each other while sliding toward a final, implosive synthesis. So however well-engineered, its supposed shock cannot go beyond the assumed terms of the dialectic. […] What we find, watching films such as Titane, is that anything genuinely transgressive tests not instincts of the censor, but the very bounds of the conceivable. And however skillfully Titane may be said to short-circuit the former, it does not, ultimately, challenge the latter. It is a failure of imagination—which means that it is, in a crucial sense, really no challenge at all.
I find it somewhat easier to accept Garcia’s critique than the objections raised by those, such as The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who claim Ducournau’s chief desire is “simply to make spectators squirm.” In an interview with Vulture’s Rachel Handler, the director objected to the label of provocateur. And even though “there's a kind of kinetic neon nihilism to Titane that can certainly be read on some level as provocation for its own sake,” as per Leah Greenblatt at Entertainment Weekly, Ducournau “has too much thrumming beneath the hood to be dismissed that breezily.” Indeed, as Catherine Bray echoes at Film of the Week,
Anybody can draw up a shopping list of edgelord provocations and go grab a camera, but the provocations in Titane have weight and meaning, exploring themes of “passing” in a world that still labels, reads and categorises people (and people’s potential) according to the slippery and fluid thing we call gender. Biology here is both fact and fiction; malleable, strange and changeable, but also the source code writing undeniable vulnerabilities into the flesh-and-blood vehicle in which we find ourselves embodied.
Do all the themes Titane tackles coalesce into an even, cogent whole? Hardly. “The different conflicting ideas don't exactly hang together all the time,” Sheila O’Malley admits at RogerEbert.com, “and Titane seesaws between its grisly first half and family-melodrama second half (making it either top-heavy or bottom-heavy, depending on how you look at it).” You may argue, as A.O. Scott does at The New York Times, that “the hectic, brutal intensity that drives the first part of the movie, before Alexia becomes Adrien, dissipates in the middle, as the narrative engine sputters.” More broadly, to borrow again from Jonathan Romney at Screen Daily, the film “is so crammed with undeveloped possibilities, bold as they all are, that it makes for a frustrating spectacle, although one you can never take your eyes off.”
Confounding and captivating may be a fitting way to sum up Titane’s many charms. When Ducournau took to the stage at the awards ceremony in Cannes, she stressed the film was far from perfect: “you could even call it monstrous.” A monster of many heads, “it’s so replete with startling ideas, suggestive ellipses, transgressive reversals and preposterous propositions that it ought to be a godforsaken mess,” Jessica Kiang suggests at The Playlist. But perhaps the most surprising thing about Titane—or “the most shocking,” as per John Bleasdale at Sight and Sound—isn’t its relentless penchant for violence, but the tenderness, love, and empathy Ducournau wrings out amid the horror. In the words of the L.A. Times’s Justin Chang:
“Titane” is an essay, etched in rivulets of blood and oil, on the mutability of gender and the pliability of desire. It’s also a profane hymn to the specific alchemies of fire and metal, to the dark allure of forces that can destroy us no matter how hard we try to bend them to our will. And finally, perhaps, it’s Ducournau’s attempt to turn that very destruction into a creative act, to envision the world collapsing in an unholy trinity of flame, chrome and flesh — and to pull an improbable and singularly incandescent love story from the wreckage.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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