Titane (2021)

Little Alexia (Adèle Guige) is in the back seat of a moving car, making vroom vroom engine sounds as though she were one with the vehicle. To counter this noise, her father (Bertrand Bonello) keeps turning up the music on the radio – so Alexia, still wanting her father’s attention, starts rhythmically kicking the back of his car seat. When he shouts at her to stop, Alexia undoes her seatbelt, causing her father to turn around and shout some more – and so the car spins out of control, coming to a violent stop faced in the opposite direction to where it was originally headed. Severely injured from the accident, Alexia is shown undergoing (graphic) emergency cranial surgery, and then her head, still bearing huge scars, is in a metal brace, her fractured skull reinforced and in some places replaced with a titanium plate. “Watch out for any neurological signs,” the female doctor warns Alexia’s father. Then Alexia, released from the hospital, closely embraces the family car that waits for them in the parking lot outside, kissing its window. Following this sign that perhaps Alexia is already not in the best of neurological health, the film’s title Titane appears on screen.

The rest of Titane takes place several decades later, with Alexia, now in her thirties, played by Agathe Rousselle (in a committed performance of extraordinary physicality and versatilty) – but all the key themes have already been laid down by the film’s prologue. For we already know that unheeded, unloved Alexia will go to destructive, even self-destructive lengths, to win daddy’s attention and affection. We already know that she has a strong, almost fetishistic connection with cars. We already know that her material identity is a hybrid merger of flesh and metal. And we already know that her brain injury has left her susceptible to mental instability, hallucinations and worse. So as the adult Alexia’s misadventures unfold in two separate – but interrelated and peculiarly symmetrical – halves, it is left to the viewer to determine how much of what we are seeing is real, and how much a nightmare in a damaged brain. Meanwhile the film’s narrative will, like the vehicle in the opening sequence, veer wildly in unexpected directions. 

Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) dances

“Love Is A Dog From Hell” reads English-language text tattooed between the breasts of this commercial dancer, who specialises in writhing lasciviously on the bonnets of cars with flame motifs. That is also the title of a film (aka Crazy Love, 1987) by Dominique Deruddere which drew from some of the more queasily taboo-breaking works of Charles Bukowski to tell its tale of transgressive eros. Accordingly this inked text, not to mention its intermammary location, is a signifier of erotic transgression to come, even if by this point Alexia has already viciously – if casually – murdered an admirer-slash-stalker with her metal hair pin. It is a penetrative act which she will serially repeat on others of all genders, in situations where she herself is unambiguously the predator and the aggressor. Yet as the bodies pile up, Alexis (literally) burns her bridges at home and becomes a fugitive – or at least enters a fugue state – where she will wilfully alter and conceal her identity, and in so doing transform herself into someone else. Her own deep need for paternal love will find its ideal counterpart in another father, the fireman Vincent (the homonymous Vincent Lindon, also excellent), who harbours a corresponding, complementary need after the disappearance, decades earlier, of his young son Adrien. For in Alexia, Vincent believes he has found his son again. As both these people play-act their desired rôles in an intimate dance of reciprocal deception – but also of mutual, moving acceptance –  their psychodrama will be sideswiped by grotesque body horror.

Written and directed by Julia Ducournau (Raw, 2016), Titane hits the ‘auto-erotic’ G-spot – where human meets machine – that has already been probed by Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe (1973), by Shinya Tsukamoto’s Testuo: The Iron Man (1989), by that one memorable scene from Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006), and especially by David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). Yet what starts as a film focused on female dancers and sexualised feminine display soon shifts to more masculine spaces and masculine dances (recalling the choreographed coda to Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, 1999), even as Alexia’s Ema-like arsonist tendencies are soon extinguished by her stay among firefighters. The way that Alexia uses gender as a greasily fluid guise, finding ultraviolence in her feminine side and tenderness in her masculine side, queers any notion of sexual fixity or gender essentialism inside or outside the mysterious mechanism of this protagonist’s body.

Alexia is torn as much between her conflicting materiality of flesh and metal as between the different sexual identities that she performs – and for all her adventures in gender switching, for all her binding of her breasts and belly, ultimately Alexia’s biology will prove inescapable. Yet here biology too does not conform to the rigid, rationalising categories of science, but embodies Alexia’s intermediacy and otherness. For in her quest for unconditional love, she will become all at once girl, fetish object, life-taker, boy, life-saver, mother, and the vehicle for a young passenger no less peculiar or unruly than herself. The result is a bold, mannered, dreamy film, pregnant with ideas about the complicated, often messy relationships between man and woman, and between parent and child.

strap: Julia Ducournau’s hybrid body horror lets its damaged heroine work through her daddy issues via a love for cars, murder and dance

© Anton Bitel