Ducournau: Titane (2021)
Titane is such an unusual, mercurial and eccentric film that it’s hard to describe in a single summative statement – or in terms of a single unifying concept. While it doesn’t bear much resemblance to most films I’ve seen, I suppose you could describe it as a fusion of Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry with David Cronenberg’s Crash, but inflected through a more modern trans sensibility – specifically what it means to be a (pregnant) trans man. For that reason, it’s perhaps best to chart Julia Ducournau’s genre-bending, Golden Palm-winning fever dream section by section, since part of the genius of the film lies in its emergence – the way that disparate details and incidental motifs gradually congeal into a dawning vision and ambience.
The film starts with an eerie close-up sequence that takes us through the interior of a car that appears to be accelerating to an unbearable intensity. Before we can get any sense of the structure of this engine, Ducournau shifts back to the car itself, which is travelling across the French countryside. This juxtaposition already frames the car as a kind of body, replete with viscera and interior organs, and from here Ducournau introduces the main body in the film as a kind of car too. We meet Alexia, played here by Adele Guguie as a young girl, sitting in the back seat of the car, where she is droning in tandem with the engine. This irritates her father, played by Bertrand Bonello, but she doesn’t mind. In fact, she compounds this droning by repetitively kicking the back of his seat, over and over again, mimicking the revs of the engine.
In this opening scene, Alexia already seems to be yearning to converge with the car, and fuse her body with its chrome machinery. Her distractions cause her father to crash into the highway embankment, but this appears to have been her plan all along, since we abruptly cut to a graphic surgical scene in which doctors save her by inserting a titanium plate into her skull (her father is unharmed). The film takes its name from this titanium, foreshadowing that Ducournau will be especially fascinated with this nexus between the human body and machinery. By causing the car to crash, and absorbing this titanium plate as part of the wreck (in the broadest sense), Alexia has already partly subsumed herself into the automobile body.
This makes Titane a kind of spiritual sequel to Raw. Both films focus on the female body in tortured transition – on the verge of another kind of body. In Raw, it was the animal body, whereas here it’s the mechanical body, and eventually the masculine body. This fixation on torture and transition comes with an incredible taste for viscera, and an incredible capacity to dissociate viscera from violence. While the film does have some ultra-violent sequences, Ducournau’s has a real gift for the most painful possible conjunctions between bodily thresholds and intrusive objects – the waxing scene in Raw, a strand of hair caught in a nipple ring here. These visceral scenes have a kind of studied ungainliness, a refusal to subsume the female body back into orchestrated norms, that reminded me of the cybergoth austerity of the early 90s Cinema Du Look, which often revolved around awkward femme-cyborg hybrids.
In Titane, these visceral thresolds are generated by the space between Alexia’s body and the cars she fetishises. As soon as she leaves the hospital after her titanium surgery, she runs to her father’s car, strokes the chrome framing, and rubs her head against the window – aroused, rather than terrified, by the source of her accident. We then leave this prologue for the present, where Alexia, now played by Agathe Rousselle, makes her living working as an erotic dancer at car shows. While her job is to provide pleasure to male spectators, she’s driven by her own objectophilia, her erotic attachment to the cars she humps and gyrates. Ironically, this makes her the most sought-after dancer, since she’s genuinely making love to the car, almost oblivious to the men crowding around her. During these early scenes, there’s a blunt frankness to Alexia’s nudity – as if she can’t really be naked without a mechanical intermediary. Real nudity, for her, is disclosing the titanium plate in her head – or a surrogate.
Yet Alexia’s erotic attachment to cars is part of her attraction to a broader spatial scheme – a primal fusion of cars, fire and industrial scaffolding. Everything outside the car show unfolds in this abstracted masculine space, while even the more discernibly “realistic” spaces are shot with a starkness that recalls these stylised industrial voids. It feels like Alexia is trying to fuse her body with a intensified continuum of masculine space, crystallising around cars, but not entirely reducible to them either. When the main showroom car becomes sentient, and calls out to her to have sex with it, her attraction is considerably more diffuse, say, than the fetishists in Cronenberg’s Crash. In fact, she’s not really having sex with the car so much as having sex with this abstracted industrial space through it. Sex with (or through) the car becomes her way of occupying a spatial field that is coded as aggressively, hermetically male.
The first act of the film follows Alexia as she tries to absorb this masculine spatial scheme into her body, although at this stage she can only understand this project in terms of serial killing. She starts with the first mechanical surrogate she finds – a small nipple ring in the breast of one of her co-workers. From the moment she sees this small piece of bodily machinery, Alexia obsessively returns to it, eventually sleeping with and killing the woman who owns it. Yet Alexia also has a piece of bodily machinery of her own – a chopstick that she keeps in her hair, which is basically a bigger version of the horizontally shaped nipple ring. In the main serial killing scene, she makes her way through a house of strangers, stabbing them with this chopstick (or similarly shaped objects) before returning home and killing her parents with the same spatial scheme she is trying to absorb into herself. Lighting a fire in their garage, near the family car, she locks their room, consigning them to suffocate in an automotive inferno.
Yet these two gestures aren’t enough to satisfy Alexia – they don’t converge her with the masculine spatial field of the film in the way that she desires. She expresses this wandering dissatisfaction by drifting towards the broader landscape within which these industrial voids unfold – a kind of abstracted and generalised dockland that stands in for any wider sense of a city or community. Only when she has entered this space does she decide what she needs to do. Heading to a public bathroom, she cuts her hair and brutally disfigures her nose so that she can pass as Adrien, a young boy who vanished from the docklands more than a decade before. Amazingly, when Adrien’s father Vincent, played by Vincent Lidon, shows up to collect Alexia, he immediately and unflinchingly “recognises” her as his Adrien, and takes her home.
This ushers in the second act of the film, which takes Alexia’s longing to become one with the masculine continuum of cars, fires, and scaffolding, and frames it more specifically as an allegory of trans masculinity. While we’ve become used to depictions of trans women in recent years, trans men still don’t have that much visibility in cinema – let alone pregnant trans men. Yet that’s just what Alexia is here, since her one-night stand with the car has filled her belly with a growing entity that she can’t fully process or comprehend. Much of this second act thus involves trying to envisage a pregnant trans man as a cinematic character, and all in all, it’s probably the most powerful filmic vision of trans men since Boys Don’t Cry.
Part of what makes this second act so compelling is the way that Vincent immediately recognises Alexia, now Adrien, as his son, indicating that we are in for a very different vision of how to parent a trans child from the cold indifference of Alexia’s own parents. Ducournau remains so elusive about how much Vincent “knows,” and how much he “mistakes” Alexia for Adrien, that she quickly complicates any sense that he is merely “midsidentifying” her by treating her as masculine from the outset. For the first few moments, this resonates quite beautifully in terms of the gap between a missing and recovered child, which stands in for the cognitive dissonance involved in discovering the gender of your child wasn’t what you once assumed. Trans people here are a kind of missing child, who can only be restored by affirming their elective gender, even if that produces a dissonance or disorientation for their parents.
To some extent, Vincent recognises Alexia as Adrien as part of this broader reconfiguration. However, he also sees a kindred spirit, since he, too is fixated with the same masculine spatial field. Not only is he a fire fighter, but he runs a fire fighting crew – a considerable source of anxiety, since he’s getting old enough to lose some of his physical fitness. Against a warehouse of fire engines that looks like a direct sequel to the opening warehouse of muscle cars, we meet Adrien struggling to complete push-ups with a desire to escape his own body that’s every bit as pronounced as Adrien’s. He’s not averse to artificially augmenting his body either – just as she breaks her nose deliberately, he harms (and heals) himself by injecting his buttocks with steroids before his nightly workout. The first time we see this whole routine, it’s bookended by Vincent finding Adrien’s chopstick, and running his hands over it in curiosity, as if prescient that it reflects a deeper and more inchoate synergy between them.
None of that is to say that Vincent is also trans, but that even as a cismale he is also trying to pass for male – that the fantasy of masculinity is so potent that it has to be performed by cis and trans men alike. Watching these fire station scenes, I was reminded of The King of Staten Island, Judd Apatow’s last film, which follows a loosely fictionalised Pete Davidson as he wanders through Richmond County for the first act, and then hooks up with a group of fire fighters in the second act. Like Titane, Apatow’s film presents the fire station as a source of surrogate fatherhood, but it was the precise point where the film also lost my interest, since Davidson’s wandering questions about masculinity are more or less shut down by the old-school camaraderie of the older firemen. By contrast, Titane sees the fire station as the place where masculinity is affirmed as a performance above all, rather than as an authentic truth.
In that sense, Vincent becomes a fascinating father-figure hybrid – masculine enough to retain the presence of a father, but prescient in a new way that his presence is performative in itself. Whereas Alexia’s original father couldn’t understand her as his son, Vincent affirms Adrien’s gender from the very beginning, going on to reiterate time and again that “They can’t tell me you’re not my son.” For much of the film, Adrien manages to hide his breasts, and strap in his pregnant chest, but when Vincent sees them it only solidifies his conviction that Adrien is and always has been his son: “I don’t care who you are – you’re my son. You’ll always be my son.” Next time they head to a fire together, he can’t remember either of their names, and it feels like he can’t remember their genders either, beyond what they are at that precise moment.
In its own way, this second act provides a simple piece of advice for how parents can commune with a trans child – by acknowledging that their own cisgender identification is every bit as contingent. The later stages of this father-son trans communion involve Adrien helping Vincent to augment his masculinity, injecting him with the steroids as if they’re a kind of cisgender elective surgery. No surprise that this is the first moment when Adrien speaks to Vincent, after a largely silent second act, nor that he becomes more overt about sharing the transitional space of his body, which is covered in scars, but scars that feel strangely productive – like the lines that have been mapped out for future breast removal or reduction.
As the second act reaches its climax, Adrien and Vincent both commune, more specifically, around Adrien’s imminent pregnancy – and the possibility of male pregnancy more generally. As Ducournau frames it, all trans people give birth to a new body – their own – meaning that coming out as trans is an immensely generative experience, a new and improved way of giving birth. Of course, that means that Adrien’s mother, who is the first to see his breasts, finds it harder to conceive of him as masculine, and falls back upon the most TERFy rhetoric we see in the film: “If you couldn’t mourn your kid, what would you do?” Yet her rage just makes Vincent all the more staunch in affirming Adrien as male precisely because of his pregnancy.
This emergent paean to trans pregnancy – and trans as pregnancy – crystallises the various dance scenes that have marked the key moments in the film. For both Alexia and Adrien, dancing is a critical way of affirming their body in space and recalibrating their proprioceptive limits according to their elective gender. We first meet Alexia dancing on the car. Later on, Adrien is about to kill Vincent, when he invites her into a dancing-fighting match in the middle of his living room – a surreal fusion of “feminine” (disco) and “masculine” (boxing) dance sequences that encapsulates the transitional process in a single shifting communion. Having encouraged Adrien to stop destroying his body (and other bodies) to deflect transition, Vincent uses the Macarena to teach him how to save a life – and this is the first moment in the film that Adrien can refer to Vincent as his father, and imagine himself as his son as well.
This leads on to two magnificent dance scene that close out the second act. The first occurs just after one of Vincent’s co-workers “recognises” Adrien as Alexia from a news report, in what should be a sinister or ominous moment. Instead, the film suddenly swells with a lush synth refrain that’s different from anything we have heard before, as Ducournau shifts to a mise-en-scene that’s different from anything we have seen before too – or at least crystallises what we have seen into something far greater than the sum of its parts. All of a sudden, the industrial voids have coalesced into a field of purple light, full of dancing fire fighters, whose bodies twist and welcome Adrien into their collective masculine communion. For the first time, he smiles and exhales – this in itself almost makes it feel like a different film –as the synthwave score suggests his transition has gone beyond his co-worker’s misidentifications.
This leads, in turn, to the most raucous, primal and masculine dance sequence of the film, which takes place back in the fire station, on what appears to be Bastille Day. In a spiritual sequel to the closing scenes of Beau Travail, Ducournau fuses cars, fires and industrial scaffolding into the space that Alexia and Adrien have always longed to inhabit – the haptic connective tissue between men, which is where the most productive part of masculinity unfolds. Yet at the very moment when Adrien is about to be absorbed and assimilated into this proprioceptive propinquity, at the very instant when the dance is about to converge with the masculine machinery it is celebrating, he climbs to the top of a fire engine and gyrates ambivalently, splitting the difference between this dance and the opening dance on the car.
In other words, at the very moment when trans men simply become men, Adrien insists on the singularity of trans men, without for an instant eschewing the category of man either. This is his final gesture – to insist that trans men are both trans and men, and it leads on to an abbreviated third act in which Vincent’s newfound conception of the body takes a more literal turn. In one more brilliant provocation, Ducournau suggests that parents of trans children have to give birth a second and symbolic time, and that fathers of trans children have to conceive of themselves as being able to give birth to properly understand what transition means. Accordingly, as Adrien goes into labour, Vincent sets himself alight, trying to understand the agony of childbirth precisely as a function of the film’s primal spectrum of flame, car and industry. And Adrien acknowledges the symbolic potency of this gesture, laying her head down on Vincent’s pregnant chest, and venturing “I love you” for the very first time.
This, then, is the final stage in coming out as a trans man – helping one’s own father give birth. To get there, Ducournau has to traverse a field that often plays as body horror, but is really more invested in the idea of embodiment itself as a kind of horror for those that don’t identify with the bodies they occupy. The film ends by dissolving bodies into so many provisional and partial objects, from the mechanical spine of Adrien’s baby, to the brief glimpse of the metallic womb we get through his ripped skin, to the exhausted dissociation of Vincent as he helps him give birth. Like the revelation that Alien was about being trans all along, this final scene is so familiar yet so strange – like the body itself by the time that Ducournau’s done with it.
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