Film still from Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau, 2021). Image courtesy of NEON.
The following review contains spoilers.
My friend has a phrase she likes to use about her new dog. “I look at him from across the room,” she says, after talking to me about all the piss pads littering her apartment floor, “and I can tell he’s having bad dog thoughts.” Something about that little glint in his eye, the urge coming upon him.
I think of this phrase a few weeks later, when I am sitting in the theater as Titane begins. I know next to nothing about the plot except, of course, the infamous car fucking, though there’s no evidence of that yet. It’s only the opening credits—the hot, black underbelly of a car, rumbling and dripping, slick with oil. The color of oil is the kind of black that feels wet with rot. Still, it glistens, and I catch myself leaning forward in my seat, peering in studiously at the leaking pipes, the engine’s thrum. It comes back to me then: bad dog thoughts. The movie’s having them, and I allow myself to be invited to have them, too.
Yes, I want. But what do I want?
Directed by Julia Ducournau and winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, Titane follows Alexia, our protagonist, from a brief glimpse into a childhood car crash to her life now: living at home with her attentive, but complacent, mother and distant father, dancing in auto showrooms at night. Following a near assault, a murder, and a sexual encounter with a car, Alexia’s entire life changes, as her body begins to undergo an extreme transformation. Alexia is pregnant—with what seems like the car’s child.
When Alexia is being fucked by the car in its backseat, in euphoria gripping red seat belts that wind down her wrists, we catch a glimpse of a tattoo on her chest: “LOVE IS A DOG FROM HELL.” In his poetry collection of the same name, Charles Bukowski wrote of people: “so tired / mutilated / either by love or no love.” There is no good in the world because of how people treat one another, Bukowski observes, and yet we persist and we ask for more. “Who put this brain inside of me?” he asks. “it cries / it demands / it says there is a chance.”
Titane specializes in mutilation. The film’s first 40 minutes consist of steady, often excruciating, violence. Alexia shoving her hair pin through a man’s ears until he foams at the mouth. Alexia pushing the leg of a stool into a man’s throat until his bottom jaw is pulp, and the stool’s leg hits the floor with a thud. The back of his head is obliterated. In the middle of her murders, Alexia rests on the stool for just a moment, exhausted.
In an interview with Deadline, Ducournau notes that while Alexia is a psychopath, she still was interested in finding a way to make her audience connect with the character. “So I thought if I can’t empathize with her mind,” Ducournau says, “then I’m going to try to create some form of physical empathy for her body, meaning that the audience is going to feel what she feels.”
Post car-fucking, Alexia wakes up with bruises on her inner thighs. Later, vomiting at the water’s edge, she finds her stomach distended unnaturally, and she sticks a hand inside her underwear to find black oil leaking from her vagina. Her experience with the car that could otherwise be interpreted as abstract is now anchored in the reality of her body. Even the audience cannot shrug off her encounter as a dream or a hallucination. The body, Titane announces, always tells, and it always bears, whether we want it to or not.
Once Alexia finds herself at odds with her body, she becomes reckless. Then again, it’s so easy to write it off like that, isn’t it? Feral. Inhuman. We don’t have to spend time justifying Alexia’s violence as a viewer because the film doesn’t care to. The violence is about doing what you have to do. It’s genital mutilation in your hook up’s bathroom. It’s slaughtering a houseful of people and burning your family home with your family inside of it. For Alexia, it’s about survival.
The police are on the hunt for Alexia, and she needs a total reinvention in order to escape. Noticing missing posters hung up for a boy named Adrien, Alexia reshapes herself as closely into his image as possible. Shaved eyebrows, cut hair, a broken nose, and her breasts and stomach wrapped till they’re flat. To the viewer, there is no resemblance—only a hope that Alexia can pass, even for a moment, as Adrien.
Regardless, the father of Adrien—Vincent, an aging firefighter—identifies Alexia as his son and takes her home with him.
The relationship between Vincent and Alexia is born out of necessity. Alexia’s identity as Adrien allows her to be someone else, and Vincent willingly engages in the fantasy out of desperation and the possibility of a solution to his grief. Everyone around Vincent knows Alexia is not his son—from his firefighting crew to Vincent’s ex-wife, who grips Alexia’s chin and demands that she promise to take care of Vincent, no matter who she is, even as Alexia lies on the floor, naked, in pain, and leaking oil from her nipples.
The fantasies we create allow a safe space for us to explore thoughts and emotions. Vincent needs to play out his grief on a physical level in order to move on. Alexia lives in Adrien’s room. She wears his clothes and lets Vincent mold her in his son’s image. Vincent approaches Alexia with caution and tenderness as he brings her into the bathroom and bandages her broken nose and cuts her hair. Looking at Alexia—now bearing a half-shaved head, a firefighter’s uniform, and a metal-covered nose—Vincent declares, “There. You’re starting to look decent.”
The truth is that I’ve seen Titane three times now and I still find it difficult to talk about.
What was it that Titane was exposing within me? I felt lonely in a way that left me undone. I wanted intimacy. I wanted to imagine it in a new light—one uninhibited by the gender I was born into, by the expectations the anatomy of my body creates for me.
In Titane, it’s gender fluidity that allows for Alexia as Adrien to perceive and experience intimacy.
After a fight with Vincent, Alexia leaves his house and gets on a bus. A woman sits in the seat across the aisle from her, then a group of men pile into the bus, yelling and talking loudly about sex, harassing the woman across from Alexia with inappropriate comments. “A hole is a hole,” the men tell each other. Alexia and the woman exchange fearful glances. We’ve been witness to gender-specific trauma for Alexia already—she is nearly sexually assaulted by an overzealous male fan in her car in one of the first scenes of the film. Here, though, the identity of Adrien affords Alexia some protection. Overwhelmed, Alexia exits the bus before it starts.
It’s this event that makes Alexia commit to her life as Adrien. Back at Vincent’s house, Alexia shaves off the other half of hair still left on her head. In doing so, she commits to her role in Vincent’s life and to this new identity. She kneels down next to an unconscious Vincent, undone by his desire to be younger and stronger. Alexia as Adrien revives him, calling out, “Papa? Papa?”
For Ducournau, Alexia’s shifting gender mirrors her own. The director has stated that for her, “gender was something that is purely a social construct and it somehow limited me as an individual . . . Having a character that evolves beyond gender was absolutely normal.”
Though I think there are scenes that confirm Alexia-as-Adrien has moved beyond the gender binary, Alexia’s body is constantly pulling her back. Integral to Alexia’s journey are the multiple scenes of her unwrapping and re-wrapping her chest and pregnant stomach in order to live her life as Adrien. For every day that Alexia and Vincent live inside of their fantasy together, Alexia’s body collects the consequences—the reddish purple lines that cross her torso, the swell of pain as her body decompresses, and the short-lived rush of relief.
And then, of course, there is the baby who, up until this point, has remained a terrifying and unknown point in the narrative. While Alexia is showering, the baby presses its hand to the wall of her womb: the audience can see the impression of one small fingertip and then another press outward, onto Alexia’s skin. Alexia presses a hand back to the baby, smiling. Bracing herself on the sink in her final wrapping scene, she whispers “I’m sorry” to her baby, and begins the process again.
The body is futile. It exhausts, needs, hungers, demands, and catalogues. It doesn’t offer explanations. (Bukowski: “Who put this brain inside of me?”) Why do we not give up when our body begins to dissolve around us? What little tether yanks us forward into the future inch by inch?
It’s love, isn’t it? Hard to look it in the eye sometimes.
In a film with frames so full of motion and physicality, the two spaces Alexia experiences her most life-changing shifts in are, startlingly and very much so, lonely and empty. In the car-fucking scene, the warehouse Alexia enters is empty except for the car, lights on and rumbling. Similarly, Alexia first starts to feel contractions in the firemen’s garage, empty of people in the light of the morning, the shot framed with trucks and drooping party banners.
Both times, Alexia is naked, an organic element approaching an inorganic one. Part titanium since she was young, now bearing the child of a machine, she exists in between the binary of person and object. The Alexia we knew at the beginning of Titane—petulant child, impenetrable dancer on the car’s flaming hood—is so far from who we see now. Ripping and cracking at the seams, Alexia’s body fights to accommodate something new. As she heaves and pushes, her skin splits open to reveal slick metal, blue lights glittering.
Alexia needs support. She crawls back to the house.
The suspension of disbelief had already started to crumble between Vincent and Alexia. A few days prior, in a quiet moment in the bathroom as Alexia tried to re-wrap her body, Vincent burst in at her sounds of pain. The truth will be revealed whether they want to know it or not.
Adrien as Alexia when the towel slips and his bruised breasts are revealed. Adrien as Alexia in his boy clothes with a yellow maternity dress overlay, stomach bulging. Adrien as Alexia in a firefighter’s uniform, white t-shirt breasts leaking two damp circles. Adrien as Alexia as Vincent carefully shaves his hairless cheek.
“I don’t care who you are,” Vincent insists. “You will always be my son.”
Titane culminates in the dark of Vincent’s bedroom. In a test of Vincent’s promise, Alexia approaches Vincent in her most vulnerable moment. With the switch of a light, Alexia and her broken body are brought into focus, and the film’s central questions are revealed. Could I love you still, naked and vomiting black in my bed? Could I love you at the very edge of yourself? Will I love you, still, during every transformation, whoever you are now and afterward?
The answer is a resounding yes. Vincent holds Alexia, coaching her as she gives birth. While their bodies remain unforgiving and temporary, their love has gone beyond fantasy and come out the other side. “I’m here,” Vincent tells Alexia over and over again. That’s all they will have. It’s enough. This is Titane’s bad-dog desire—to find love at the end of the world and refuse to let it go.
Melinda Freudenberger graduated from The New School with an MFA in Poetry in May 2020. Their poems have appeared most recently in Anomaly, Always Crashing, Spectra Poets, and New Delta Review. You can find more of their work at melindafreudenberger.com.