Titane: Not for the Squeamish? Not for the Heartless

I hyped myself up really hard before watching Titane. I’m a pretty squeamish person and I usually don’t enjoy anything remotely close to body horror/body transformation horror, so I told myself after the film won the Palme D’Or that I’ll just sit this one out. However, after seeing how well it was received around the world and giving myself time to brave myself up, I headed to a screening near me.

Me before watching Titane

Interestingly, before watching Titane, I ate at my favorite pizza joint nearby: Joe’s Pizza. I wrote about how I would burn the roof of my mouth eating a classic New York slice sometime, but this time, I ate it so much faster that a piece of my retainer fell out. I felt the little metal piece stick out from the back of my teeth, poking my tongue every time I took another bite. I tried to push it back with my finger, and as I tried multiple times and feel its sharp end leave a mark on the tip of my finger, I realized that it’s never going to return to its original position. I usually forget that I wear a retainer, but this moment is just one of those moments where I am aware that I am wearing an extension of myself clutching one of my organs. A piece of metal wire, hanging, supporting the structural integrity of my teeth, while at the same time, waiting for its time to strike.

Of course my metal contraption means nothing compared to the titanium contraption we see in Titane’s main character, Alexia, but it sure reminded me of it. As a kid, Alexia was involved in a car crash and needed a titanium plate surgically implanted on her head for her to survive. Flash forward some years later and as an adult, Alexia works as an erotic dancer in a motor show, but at the same time, is wanted for a string of murders in southern France. To conceal her identity, she pretends to be a missing young boy and “returns” to the boy’s father. She does all of it while coming to terms to her pregnancy.

If someone were to choose one genre for Titane, body horror would be the first genre to come in mind. We see Alexia’s body transformed in different ways; besides a transformation in gender, we also see a transformation in physical material. Besides Alexia, the characters around her are constantly physically transforming. Director Julia Ducournau sprinkles the idea of transformation everywhere in this film, in means we consider socially acceptable–hormone injections, for example–to means we consider surrealist and strange–like Alexia’s titanium implant. Watching this makes me realize the materialistic modifications we make to our own bodies–the retainer on my teeth, for example–and what it means to be flesh and bones. Even though the transformations in the film might seem extreme for us, Ducournau portrays this in a very sympathetic way. You squirm for these characters because you feel the pain that they’re in as they transform. And, surprisingly, squirming for them makes you sympathize for them more, and even though they might do vile, atrocious acts in the beginning, you just can’t help but to root for them.

Body horror is traditionally a masculine genre, and some will say that you are “tougher” and “more manly” if you don’t close your eyes to these films. Ducournau flips our expectations of the genre in Titane by serving a big fuck you to the masculine assumptions of body horror. Ducournau writes in the perspective of a cis woman who goes through so many phases of transformation in their lives, and they see through their own eyes how our flesh transforms and spits out material foreign through our eyes–from puberty, menstruation, popping out zits, sex, to pregnancy. Ducournau understands this and makes this a big aesthetic and thematic message in the film. In one of the first scenes, we see Alexia performing in a motor show, reminiscent to images of masculine desire we often see in pop culture–sexually promiscuous women and muscle cars. Ducournau stretches this further by asking: What happens to the women and the cars after the male desire? Men would see women being sexy next to cars and would stop as soon as women undergo their bodily transformations.

One of the most important transformations in this film is pregnancy. Alexia’s youth of murder, sex, and subterfuge is halted due to this physical transformation. Her pregnancy is a central point to all the anxiety in her life, and with the added elements of physical materiality, Ducournau’s approach to pregnancy/parenthood reminded me of David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead. In Eraserhead, surrealism is a key metaphor’s to the main character’s anxiety around fatherhood, which involves making the baby an indistinguishable creature spitting out unrecognizable substances. Ducournau uses a similar technique by way of the titular titanium, however, Ducournau’s perspective of motherhood adds the body to the narrative. Parenthood requires the mother to bear all the pain, and naturally the emotional toil that is tied to the body is way more visceral. Ducournau not only invites but makes sure the audience feels the toil Alexia faces by using the body horror genre as a vehicle.

However, to categorize Titane as a straight-up body horror movie overlooks the essence of the film. It’s really hard to pin down an overarching mood to this movie; sometimes it includes comedy, tragedy, drama, horror, and thriller elements. However, it’s still really cohesive and well-constructed. As Alexia forms a bond with the grieving father, our assumptions of the character dissolves. She is no longer a heartless half-metal killer we often see in dystopia movies. At the end of the day, Titane is a far cry from a midnight madness movie made for the consumption of film bros to see who can keep a straight face throughout the film. It has a strong emotional core running through every character in the movie–something I didn’t expect at all coming into the film–and there are some beautiful moments that will make you reflect on humanity’s innate goodness. Besides motherhood, the themes of unconditional love and chosen family run very strong in this film. Surprisingly, Titane will make you realize that humans have an innate empathy and a need to love and to be loved, and that everyone is redeemable and everyone deserves to be loved.

As of now, my retainer’s position hasn’t changed–there is still a part of it hanging loose, sometimes poking on my tongue. However, on every poke it gave me, I am reminded of all the changes I experience in my body, and rather than making me more like a machine, it makes me more human.

(If all of that doesn’t convince you to watch Titane, its banger soundtrack sure will.)

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