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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

‘Rebel against the flesh and bone’ – Love, Gender, and Bodies in Titane

Lucy Vickers reviews Titane (2021) and its understanding of gender

There is a moment that comes an hour into Titane’s (2021) runtime that perfectly encapsulates Julia Ducourau’s stunning second feature-film. Our main characters – Alexia/Adrien (Agathe Rouselle) and Vincent (Vincent Lindon) – are sat on the bathroom floor, Vincent slumped in a steroid-induced haze upon Adrien’s lap, and both look visibly unhappy. Yet they remain in close proximity, clinging to this early moment of intimacy between two still unfamiliar characters. Unhappy at the world, at each other, and at themselves, yet content in each other’s arms.

Awarded the Palme D’or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, Titane tells the story of a father reuniting with a long lost son, and the trials and tribulations the pair go through in an attempt to find a connection. The film is directed by Julia Ducournau, notable for her horrifically excellent coming-of-age debut feature Raw (2016) which is similar in its reliance on the cinematic institution of body horror. However, off the back of Raw’s success, Titane had a much larger budget available, reflected in the much larger scale of the project. The film also develops Ducournau’s directorial style, which she stated was inspired by her wish to challenge herself to talk about love. Ducournau’s masterful direction and storycrafting is enhanced by a handful of superb, distinctively physical, performances – Agathe Rouselle (an acting debut) is haunting and brilliant as Alexia/Adrien, and Vincent Lindon (a well-respected French actor) is painfully real in his portrayal of Vincent. Titane’s soundtrack is similarly impeccable: ‘Doing It to Death’ by The Kills as Alexia performs seductively atop a Cadillac, ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ by 16 Horsepower over the opening sequence, and then again during the firetruck dancing scene, and, best of all, a section of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion over the finale, featuring self-immolation, graphic scenes of birth, and a cacophony of crossed boundaries. 

In the bleak setting of an isolated French fire station, Titane explores the beauty and hideousness of the human body, of being trapped within fleshy walls that are assigned determinate (gendered) characteristics by virtue of their specific gender presentation, just as Alexa/Adrien is trapped at the station. Visually, the film is grotesque and bizarre – littered with shots of bones breaking, skin ripping, cartilage crunching – all gut-wrenchingly realistic, and all speaking to the question of what it means to be meat, and what it means to be a machine. Alexia/Adrien has a strangely intimate relationship with cars as a result of a childhood accident shown in the opening sequence of the film. Yet, within the first twenty minutes, this relationship is queered even further; she gets impregnated by a Cadillac, penetrated by a machine to become a machine – a machine for producing children. As such, Ducournau has much to say about the way society reduces pregnant women to the biological and the mechanical. Ultimately, though, Titane wants us as an audience to marvel at the horrific mutations of Alexia/Adrien’s body, all depicted intensely realistically by the special effects team. The film then uses that rapture to critically interrogate the themes of love, gender, and sexuality. It is Ducournau’s experimentation with these themes that makes Titane a masterpiece.  

Despite the shocking nature of Titane’s body horror, what lingers with you on viewing are the tender moments, the value of human compassion and the overwhelming sense that it is a tale of love and of family. An ode to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) it may be, yet Titane takes the strange premise that there is a connection between sexuality and cars, and crafts it into a work that explores an extreme form of love without words. Ducournau asks: how far are we willing to go to achieve a meaningful (familial) connection, to love somebody, and where might this kind of love take us? We learn of Alexia/Adrien’s daddy issues early on, and see the character start to deal with them as she learns to bond with Vincent in a fatherly way, as opposed to dealing with her trauma through sex and violence. Vincent, on the other hand, uses Alexia/Adrien to fill the gap left by his missing son, beginning to resolve an issue he had never been able to get over (interestingly set up against the cold attitude of his estranged wife). They bond through increasingly tender moments of intimacy, and through a shared love for dancing, culminating at the climax of the piece – in a finale Ducournau curiously describes as ‘a very happy ending’, though I would personally describe it as biblical, and a little insane.

Working within and across the theme of love, in the world of Titane, gender becomes almost meaningless. Ducournau harnesses a Judith Butler-esque vision of gender as performative, and as a social construction resulting from a society restricted by the need to see ourselves through our differences to others. The journey followed by Alexia as she becomes Adrien is physical, emotional, and mental – and all underpinned by an interrogation of the necessity of gender. Ducournau describes her narrative structures as having no definitive beginning or end  – ‘I prefer the idea of shedding skins, and movements, in order to get to the truth’. This is never more explicit than in Titane: in almost every scene Alexia/Adrien sheds a physical aspect of female self – hair, clothes, voice. It is a total and complete deconstruction of gender, dismissing it as a useful frame of reference, and celebrating the moments when gender is queered and the borders of masculinity/femininity become porous. 

Titane is risky, confrontational and unrelenting, fraught with elemental flashes of metal and glass, the visceral crunching sounds of bodily mutilation, and highly uncomfortable scenes of intimacy between father and son. On my first viewing at the 2021 London Film Festival, the experience was memorable for the frequent gasps from every single audience member, and the way my friend and I clung to each other through the particularly nasty scenes. Yet it is a vital contemporary story of tender familial love and the futility of binary gender expression. You may want to watch it again as soon as the credits roll, and you may never want to see it again, or maybe both? But what is undeniable is that Ducournau is a novel and exciting storyteller, and I cannot wait to see what she does next. 

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk. Image credit: phtorxp//Pixabay

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