Titane

Titane ★★★★½

“All hail the new flesh, cause it suits me fine,”

Both of Julie Ducournau’s movies begin with a car crash. 

Neither crash ends up being the focal point of the film. Rather, the crash itself is displayed to yield something for our protagonist. The similarities don’t end there, either. In both instances, the main character had active agency in the crash, but curiously enough, this seeming act of violence is means to an end in both cases. In Raw, it’s because our lead wants to feed on human flesh and blood. She wants what is inside the car. In Titane, it’s a complete reversal, as our lead wants to leave the car. Totally opposing desires that, on reflection, yield the exact same thing: once they leave the car crash, both characters physically absorb something from the crash. 

And even further still, both characters are still not wholly responsible for their dilemma. In Raw, it’s out of a lustful, feverish, socially incentivized need that the lead does not fully comprehend. She was pushed to it by outside forces and cannot control herself, and while she displays agency, I think it’s unarguable that she is totally to blame. In Titane, our lead is a young child who seems to either resent being stuck in the car, or resent being stuck with her father. She may have been the cause, but it was never the intent. Nonetheless, both characters are irreversibly changed once this happens. One character eats human flesh, and it becomes part of her. The other is injured, and requires surgery and a metal plate in her skull, and that becomes part of her. 

That is to say, I think in order to ‘understand’ Titane, you have to be somewhat familiar with Raw. They weave together like a strand of DNA, and you have to look at what connects them to decipher the real information they contain. If Raw was about people consuming other people to participate in a larger part of the human sexual experience, thus eating humans to become ‘more’ human, then Titane is about the alchemy of that which is both human and inhuman. From the first scene, we see women and cars being filtered through a distinctly sexual gaze. The camera glides up and down the dancers bodies, and in turn, every shot of an engine’s interior and pan along the chrome accents of a car is lingered on as if it were inherently erotic. It’s use of cinematic language communicates that the audience should view the mechanical just as we view flesh. It is not a rejection or endorsement of anything, but an incentive to see the melding of flesh and machine as a synthesis. A progressive form that we could only see as strange or downright taboo. Once you look at it from that perspective, the movie shows it’s deceptive hand. 

Both films seem to have a fascination with the link between sex and violence. Whereas Raw was more of a 1 to 1 translation of a metaphorical device (ie, sex = consuming, etc), I think Titane is about something more specific. Now, keep in mind here, this is a dense movie that I’ve seen analyzed by tons and tons of people, specifically through gay/trans lenses, and while I should read more into them, my opinion here is obviously going to be informed by my own experience as a non-binary/bisexual person, so my attempt to hone in on this movie is less ‘what I think it all means’ and more ‘what this reads as to me’- so mileage could very. However, to get straight to it, Titane to my eyes and ears feels like an exploration of dysphoria, both of body and of gender. While these issues are not a monolith, as someone who has suffered substantially from both, these things felt spoken for. 

Alexia in Titane cannot discern the difference between intimacy and violence. The trick is, sexually, she knows what she wants. The quandary comes from what she thinks other people want. She knows how to get off, how to get satisfied, and really, I think the key to unlocking this movie is realizing that her relationship with machines (cars, namely) is not supposed to be a direct analog for sex, but for masturbation. Weird thing to hone in on, I realize, but think about it. Alexia feels othered. She can relate and empathize more with machinery than with people, hence the car-fucking. However, because of her accident and because she views herself as being different from ‘normal people’- she views machines like her vehicle as being more or less an extension of herself. The first intimate encounter she has with a man is where we see her first kiss and then kill someone, but the kiss feels weirdly authentic. The guy harasses her and she wants to leave, but still elects to make out with him before stabbing him in the head. More specifically, stabbing him in the ear, where her scar and injury is most prominently displayed. To me, this communicates that she has a tenuous attraction to men, explicitly queer coding it, which is perhaps rooted in her strained relationship with her father. When she tells him that her stomach hurts, she visibly wants him to touch her. To validate her. The car accident also likely plays into this, which complicates her feeling on both her dad and men in general. (Also why she can’t find it in her to kill the firefighter when she returns, he’s a compassionate paternal figure which complicates matters) Alexia’s first interaction with a woman is a bit more reciprocal, but she inevitably ends up hurting her partner out of either a lack of self awareness, or the mindset that causing her partner pain is what she wants. When Alexia pleasures herself with a car, it’s while she’s restrained, and it visibly looks as though it’s painful to some extent. This leads me to assert that the crash, which is likely analogous to some kind of past trauma or abuse, is something she feels complicated about. Dysphoria is a funny, unruly beast that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you try to explain to people who haven’t felt it. I think Alexia perhaps embraces that she is a sort of hybrid of man and machine, and in that identity, sees the crash as something that made her who she was. This violent act was essential to her forming her identity, so her enacting violence is really an attempt to empathize and even pleasure those she is attracted to. To me this further emphasizes my reading, as myself and many people I know who suffer from gender or bodily dysmorphia find it affecting their sex drive to a frightening extent. From what I gather, this is because the act of sex itself is something that forces you to confront what you are and what you look like, and it’s magnified by the fear of someone else seeing you as well. If you’re trans, then dealing with the fact that you have to engage in an activity where your sex organs are required and not the ones society at large says you’re supposed to have to be who or what you want, it can intensify that dysphoria tenfold and just generally has the potential to make you feel like shit. It’s not universal, but from my own account and the account of those I know, it’s common enough. Alexia also does feel guilt, especially with women, as she becomes physically sick after she hurts her first female partner. It’s more messy and complicated perhaps because she favors attraction to women, but also doesn’t have the baggage that her attraction to men carries. Not to mention her first encounter with a man was literally her enacting penetration on him when things really heated up. 

“So why does she kill them?” you may ask yourself. Surely that’s something even she would be able to discern isn’t right, no? Well, I don’t think it’s that simple. If violence is what she mistakes for intimacy, then what does survival mean for those she enacts it on? Well, it’s simple, her dysphoria of both her gender and her body is so frighteningly intense that she is compelled to kill as an act of mercy. Because violence made her who she is, and ‘who she is’ is a more complex affair than one might initially believe, she attempts to perform an act she deems to be kind. Her self-perception is so skewed that she has begun to see being alive after ‘actualization’ as a burden. She does not want to condemn others to her own fate. Either that, OR she views death itself as the ultimate way to bypass dysphoria, and the act of dying as an extension of violence or mutilation. Her desire to enact it on others is an attempt to understand herself. Death could be some kind of transcendence in her eyes, or it could simply be a better alternative than living. Like I said earlier, I’m not certain about anything, and while the movie I think is undeniably about these things, what it is saying and doing with them is something else entirely. These issues are already complex, and more broadly fit into the idea of societal taboos and identity in more general strokes, so it’s only natural that this all not be cut and dry. To put it simply, if you make a movie about body/gender dysphoria, making it without clear cut answers and having it be confusing or challenging to decipher is the most honest thing you can do to portray the experience effectively- and in my personal experience, Titane vividly and effectively tapped into this and hits nerves I’ve never felt movies even touch on before. 

The fact that Titane features acts of violence outside the ones that stem from sexual encounters is what leads me to posit further that violence is not only how she views intimacy, but also power. It is the only thing she feels she can utilize in order to control her life. As she spirals because of her self doubt and perception, she can always use violence as a tool to keep things in order, notably when she kills the house full of people after her first encounter with a woman. It doesn’t feel as though she takes pleasure in it at all, in fact she’s actively frustrated by it, but views it as necessary so she can remain in control in one of the few ways she can. 

Some other things that tie in with my reading that I can’t avoid: the chest-binding scene. I know it’s a result of her attempting to hide and disguise herself, but the image of a ambiguously-gendered woman binding her chest and cutting her hair is so evocative of the experiences I’m speaking to that I can’t separate it from the remainder of the film. And the part where she sees her bloated stomach? A physical manifestation of how she sees her own inhumanity? And the fact that’s it’s obviously evoking the image of pregnancy? That’s about as honest to the idea of body dysmorphia as you get. This may come off as reaching, but frankly, there’s so much here that I feel spoiled for choice as to what to zero-in on. The important thing is that it feels honest to the experience, which is both validating and terrifying to witness in a way I haven’t witnessed since Cronenburg’s ‘Dead Ringers’- which is the most disturbing horror film ever made, for my money. 

There are also several times where self-harm and self mutilation play a key role in defining Alexia’s appearance. She constantly has to enact violence on herself to not only hide and survive, but to BLEND IN. To BE NORMAL, she has to hurt herself. I can’t tell you how many times this mentality wormed it’s way into my teenage brain. Starving yourself, hurting yourself to validate your pain, it all feeds into the vortex that leads you right back to your own reflection. Sometimes the most potent images in this movie are just Alexia staring at herself in a bathroom mirror. We’ve all been there. I mean if you can’t link together the significance of Alexia hurting herself so that she can be mistaken for a boy, and that leading to her being treated with genuine compassion for the first time in the film, then I don’t know what to tell ya. 

Whether be it the firefighter who injects himself with some brand of drug midway through the movie, the woman Alexia almost sleeps with that has pierced nipples, Titane is also an examination of how the alchemy of the self is something that has the potential to yield deeper insecurities in pretty much everyone. Even someone with a role as small as the woman the firefighters see whose husband takes too many pills, no one in Titane is ‘completely natural’- so perhaps we’re all a bit closer to Alexia’s hybrid human than we might first estimate. And if we are, is that inherently such a bad thing? 

It’s what makes her eventual learning how to display a distinct kind of masculine intimacy with the firefighters so meaningful. She understands something beyond violence, and that it’s fulfilling in its own right. Doing so through an identity she hasn’t explored up until this point, being perceived as a man. Is it because masculinity is inherently easier to replicate in a world so saturated by it, or is it because Alexia is more comfortable that this development is made? Again, the murkiness allows for you to take away what you want. Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle. Maybe it’s only because Alexia is trying to best manipulate him, as all the while her body mutates and transforms… so who knows? 

The moment where Alexia is discovered in her most vulnerable state, as her body has mutated beyond recognition, and all the woman does is demand that she conform to the idea of behaving like the firefighter’s missing son, having to live inside the ghost of masculinity in order to have a semblance of a normality, it feels heartrending. She has to hide her very obvious pain and suffering whilst impersonating something she decidedly isn’t. Yet again, sound familiar? Hell, maybe it’s the obvious pain she’s going through that goes largely ignored that’s the real tragedy in all this. Or the fact that living in a stringent binary never allows her to truly find an identity she’s comfortable with, as the movie strongly implies that she is gender fluid/non-binary (at least by my account, anyway)- attempting to hide in a masculine identity as she gives birth as if to reject it as best she can, only for it to be futile. 

Now, when I write something long like this, I think it goes without saying that I loved or at least connected with something enough to say all this, but it’s also implied that on a formal level, it did something for me. The simple but still heavyweight direction from Raw is found here and then some, making sequences where we don’t even ‘see’ anything (that scene in the bathroom towards the start made me want to eat steel) can be physically revolting to actually watch. The color and look of it is a textural marvel, as the movie manages to make the mundane and industrial look as alien and odd as possible, which I feel adds to the feeling of losing oneself in a world of aesthetics, which is appropriate for a story you can project dysphoria onto. The camerawork is utterly exceptional, and the performances are as complex and authentic as they were in Raw, in some instances even more so. Sound design is also exceptional, as I maintain a well timed sound edit/ADR can make the difference between a gross scene and a nigh-unwatchable one, of which this movie has several. Not to mention the music, which sounds like gothic 80s post punk with an industrial tinge, which is always gonna be a choice I ride for. Top to bottom, it’s marvelous, but besides the visceral nature of the violence that results from the filmmaking, it’s the text itself that feels the most rewarding part of Titane. That’s not to demean the filmmaking, because frankly so much of this is told visually that I feel like this should be studied when it comes to simple art of conveyance. A lot of people are just kind of reveling in how crazy and batshit the movie gets, which yeah, it undeniably is off its rocker, but that’s only skin deep. There’s so much more at play here and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. This is only my first viewing and I feel like there’s so SO much more. 

So yeah, I just wrote thousands of words about the movie where a girl fucks a car, mainly to boil it all down to ‘this movie is about being a queer, sexually repressed bottom’- so that’s fun I guess.

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