Updated: January 29, 2022 9:34:07 am
Try as hard as she might, director Julia Ducournau is incapable of making a film fit for polite society. And this is perhaps why her latest arthouse exploitation picture Titane—out on MUBI—has been so glaringly snubbed at this year’s Oscars, a respectable event where overexcited winners are encouraged to rein themselves in while delivering speeches, or face the wrath of… music. In Titane’s version of the Oscars, they’d be hacked to pieces for such a transgression. It makes sense that Academy voters watched it and collectively went, “Nah.” You might, too.
Having premiered at Cannes five years after her debut film Raw—a coming-of-age drama disguised as a cannibal horror film—the Palme d’Or-winning Titane is perhaps as frank a depiction of trans otherness as you’re likely to find, and certainly more effective at communicating its anxieties than, say, the recent The Matrix Resurrections. “Look how binary is the form, the nature of things. Ones and zeros. Light and dark. Choice and its absence,” Jonathan Groff’s re-skinned Smith tells Keanu Reeves’ Neo in that film, a $190 million excuse for director Lana Wachowski to explore her own identity.
In Titane, the protagonist Alexia—and there’s no other way to say this—gets impregnated by a car. She realises she’s pregnant after noticing motor oil oozing out of her vagina. Some have joked that Titane is the secret origin story of Pixar’s Cars franchise, but that’s mostly an act of nervous deflection. Titane has a tendency of making you feel very, very uncomfortable.
It’s a wild scene that you don’t see coming, even though you’ve already watched a very young Alexia have her skull crushed in a car accident, grow up to become a stripper, and murder a creepy stalker with a hairpin.
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Alexia will kill more people, as she manoeuvres her way out of the emotional junkyard that she finds herself confined to. But as she breaks free of the binary shackles that have been the bane of her existence—psychologically and physiologically—she finds a kinship in Vincent.
A traumatised middle-aged fire captain, he, too, is in a (losing) battle against his body. Refusing to allow it to rot before his eyes, he injects his body with steroids on a nightly basis, taking on a bulging, almost grotesque form that Ducournau’s camera ogles at with the curiosity of a child who’s just seen a naked adult for the first time. Meanwhile, in a nearby room, Alexia rages against her own physical self, wrapping bandages around her breasts and dressing like Billie Eilish to mask her growing belly.
She finds herself in Vincent’s home after duping him into thinking that she’s his long-lost son, who went missing many years ago—a plot point that Ducournau seems to have borrowed from the real-life story of the trickster Frédéric Bourdin. The you’ve-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it tale was documented in the 2012 film The Imposter. Vincent probably knows that Alexia isn’t his son, but such is the extent of his desperation to forge a human connection (and denial to accept the truth) that he allows the ruse to continue anyway.
The rest of the film, however, owes a great debt of gratitude to David Cronenberg’s body-horror classic Crash. The film was denied a Palme d’Or in the 90s after it reportedly offended the sensibilities of then-jury president Francis Ford Coppola, who is said to have campaigned against it. How poetic, then, for Titane to be chosen as the best film in competition at the 2021 festival.
Ducournau dismantles the concept of heteronormativity with the sort of glee that The Incredible Hulk reserves for smashing random aliens. This is not a film for the faint of heart; it only gets nuttier after the car-sex. There is a sadistic pleasure that Ducournau seems to get from making the audience squirm. But you can’t help but wonder what she could have achieved if she’d put in even half the effort in making the audience feel.
Titane, ultimately, is the sort of movie you watch multiple times if it revs the engines of your mind and greases the gears of your psyche; once if you’re fulfilling professional obligations; and zero times if your favourite movie franchise has a three-word name that begins with the letter ‘M’.
Director – Julia Ducournau
Cast – Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier
Rating – 3/5
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