Hot Wheels

Beatrice Loayza on Julia Ducournau’s Titane (2021)

Julia Ducournau, Titane, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 108 minutes. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle).

IF YOU’VE HEARD ANYTHING about Titane, it probably involves someone getting fucked by a car. Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner—a mishmash of grindhouse tropes doused in that transgression-conferring, liquid neon color palette du jour known as “bisexual lighting”—is an onslaught of sensationalist imagery and discordant textures: oil-slicked flesh gliding over strips of metal in the opening titles, a lock of hair snatched out of a nipple ring, a woman’s head resting on a man’s bare chest still oozing from a third-degree burn. Behold an incessant smashing of dichotomies—the hard and the soft, the mechanical and the biological, the masculine and the feminine. The film, proposes Ducournau, is also “a journey of someone toward her own humanity and toward love.” So let’s try to take this proposition seriously.

Titane begins with an origin story: As a kid, Alexia busts her head open in a car crash and a titanium plate is fixed in her skull, literalizing the emotional abuse wrought by her distant father (Bertrand Bonello, another Gallic “provocateur”) and visibly branding her wrong in the head. In adulthood, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a parodic manifestation of the alarmist narrative that holds modern culture responsible for the corruption of our children into psychopaths and sex fiends. We see her on the job twerking at a car show in bimboish cosplay before an audience of gawking bros, and we wince as she remorselessly jabs metal hair pins through the skulls of hapless would-be lovers. It’s not a sustainable lifestyle, so when her latest rampage yields a conspicuous number of corpses, she’s forced to skip town, stealing a bitter glance at her father before she hits the road.

The automobile—a symbol, cultivated in no small part by cinema itself, of sex, danger, and freedom—looms over the film, steering Alexia’s psychosexual development into a blunt fetishism. Alexia’s always been into metal—it’s her guttural humming, mimicking the sound of the car motor, that caused dad to swerve his sedan off the road. Post-surgery, she lovingly embraces the vehicle, not in spite of its traumatic associations, but because of them. Over the years, innocent caressing devolves into rough sex with strange cars, a fixation that flattens the psychic textures of perversity into risqué but ultimately facile images: Alexia pumping away, her hands wrapped in seatbelts like bondage ropes, while the camera cuts to exterior shots of the automobile, responding with a hydraulic bounce.

Naturally, Alexia is impregnated by her inanimate lover, a flame-licked lowrider, after a late-night romp in/with the backseat. Her condition only complicates matters when she disguises herself as a particularly ghoulish-looking teenage boy named Adrien, who “reemerges” years after being abducted. Having found safe haven from the authorities with the lost boy’s melancholic father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a roided-up fire chief, our protagonist must strap down her breasts and growing belly, leaking black fluids through ever-widening skin gashes. Her once-fetishized feminine body is transfigured into something alien, brutalized, grotesque—closer to “humanity” per Ducournau’s dualistic approach, which privileges abjection as the more authentic form of existence over the pathological alienation of the Alexia we first encounter.

Julia Ducournau, Titane, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 108 minutes. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle).

For all its freakshow titillations, Titane does try a little tenderness. Vincent refuses to take the DNA test that would prove the legitimacy of his newfound child—“Don’t you think I’d know what my son looks like?” he tells the folks at the police station. The gag, of course, is that his “son” is actually a pregnant fugitive, though the truth—for Vincent, as for the film at large—is inconsequential. Feelings and sensations are key. When Vincent grows agitated over Alexia/Adrien’s refusal to speak, he plays a record and shimmies along, inviting his child to commune with him on the level of touch, rhythm, gesture. It’s an overly precious scene, albeit one given some depth by Lindon’s rugged vulnerability, and Ducournau repeatedly falls back on the same mode of wordless expressivity that easily registers as profound: a dreamy dance party at the fire station in which Vincent and Alexia/Adrien finally enjoy a moment of father-son bonding; a strobe-lit mosh pit filled with shirtless revelers; Alexia/Adrien swaying effeminately atop a firetruck as the other members of the squad look on in repulsion, a “queer” echo of the commodified femininity of her earlier car show performance. 

When, midway through the film, Adrien/Alexia sits opposite a young Black woman being heckled by a gang of men sitting in the back of the bus, she is reminded of What It Means to Be a Woman. Men are pigs, after all, evinced earlier in the film when an aggressive fanboy tails Alexia to her car through an empty backlot and delivers a confession of love, to which he expects prompt sexual reciprocation.

“Love is a dog from hell” reads a tattoo on Alexia’s sternum, a reference to the title of Charles Bukowski’s 1977 poetry collection and a billboard-subtle announcement of the film’s glib through line: Love—real, unconditional love, the kind that throbs—is fucked up, man. I put this prosaically because Ducournau’s calculus is comparably insipid, a parade of superficially radical iconography that draws its power from the cobbling together of liminal experiences and opposite extremes. Titane is certainly a joyride, but truly unhinged it is not, circumscribed as it is by its own autophiliac enthrallment to extremity. Once you access its wavelength, the ride quickly begins to feel numb.

Titane opens in US theaters on October 1.