What is Julia Ducournau’s Palme D’Or-winning film – in which a serial killer is impregnated by a vintage Cadillac – really about?
What is Titane (2021) about? Famously, it is a film about a woman who has sex with, then is impregnated by, a Cadillac. To go into further, spoilerish detail: Titane is a film about a woman who behaves like a machine, dangerous and automatic and devoid of empathy or feeling, and who thus imagines herself to be incompatible with other human beings. Alexia, this woman, is a dancer who performs on tricked-out cars at underground conventions. She is singularly suited to her job not only because of her genuine desire for the vehicles she is grinding up against, but because of her total and dead-eyed indifference in the face of male attention. One night, when one of her fans follows her through the parking lot in total darkness and then leans in through her window for a kiss, Alexia – proving herself to be not simply a machine, but one designed for killing – stabs him brutally with a hairpin. A switch in the film has flipped – its engine, previously idling, roars into high gear. In quick succession, we see Alexia fuck the car she danced on earlier at the convention, and then begin leaking motor oil from her vagina; we learn that she is in fact a serial killer; and we see her set her parents’ house on fire, and then escape by disguising herself as a missing teenage boy named Adrien Legrand.
Writer-director Julia Ducournau’s first feature film, Raw (2016), was also about a young woman driven to kill, although if its cannibal heroine lacked humanity, it was not because she was too much like a sleek machine, but because she was too much like an animal. That movie was the opposite of Titane in its style, if not necessarily in the transgressiveness of its content – primal and warm-blooded rather than cool-skinned and hard, more concerned with pleasure and indulgence. Titane’s Alexia does not kill because she needs to, nor does she appear to kill because she wants to. (When she stabs a female co-worker after first sleeping with her and finding the experience wanting, it’s implied that her murderous urges may stem from her sexual alienation, a frustration borne of wanting to be ‘normal’ rather than the kind of woman who ends up being impregnated by a car.) As soon as the real Adrien’s father, a stoic fireman named Vincent, turns up to collect the now-androgynous Alexia from the police station, the serial-killer storyline fades into nothing, the film devoting itself instead to the relationship between a parent and the cuckoo in his nest. Alexia, who in one scene smashes her face against a sink in order to give herself a more masculine nose, binds her pregnant stomach and her breasts, and remains mute; Vincent, who claims not to need a DNA test to prove that this pale-faced interloper is his son, enters into a delusion that has less to do with gullibility than it does with the unimaginable emptiness felt by a person with a missing child.
Here is the real question: what is Titane actually about? Certainly, it flirts with transmasculine iconography when Alexia is in disguise as Adrien, although since Alexia does not actually identify as male, and since the transformation has more to do with convenience than with need, it does not seem to me to work as an explicit allegory on this front. (As both Ducournau and myself are cis, at any rate, I am inclined to leave further analysis of this theme to critics who are actually trans.) Arguably, in aligning herself with coldness and machinery and violence, Alexia distances herself from what are typically perceived as feminine traits. The source of Alexia’s sexual preference at first seems entirely obvious – as a child, she had titanium plates screwed into her skull after a car accident – until we consider the fact that in a brief flashback of the incident, she is shown already fixating on the sound of the car’s engine, raising questions about nature versus nurture. In the broadest sense, Vincent and Alexia might be seen to be drawn together by the fact that each of them experiences a painfully unfulfilled desire, the former in the shape of her ‘aberrant’ objectum-sexuality, and the latter in the form of his desperate longing to be reunited with his son.
Titane is about all these things, I think, and it is also about nothing – it is a beautiful provocation built to house a series of ingenious and upsetting images, and I mean this as the sincerest compliment. In recent years, there has been a move in so-called ‘elevated horror’ towards making each film into a fully-fledged allegory for some real and painful aspect of our actual lives, so that it’s possible to point to Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and say ‘this is about trauma,’ or to David Bruckner’s The Night House (2020) and say ‘this is about grief,’ or to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) and say ‘this is about mental illness,’ et cetera et cetera. There is something infinitely more interesting at this stage about a horror movie that toys with a plethora of themes, teaching its audience nothing in particular but sparking uncomfortable feelings, provoking debate, igniting something hot enough to burn. More refreshing still: Alexia is not an avenger or a girlboss, and the film – despite being the creation of a woman – is neither a feminist statement nor an un-feminist one, merely a statement. A machine, by its very nature, cannot be a hero or a villain. What truly drives Alexia remains mysterious, her frightening opacity as difficult to penetrate as steel.