Titane (Review)

I distinctly remember being stunned by the trailer for Julia Ducournau’s Titane. It was hardly surprising, really, her debut feature, Raw, is one of my all-time favourite films. My prevailing feeling from Titane’s trailer was one of wonder: how could this staggering barrage of imagery all fit into one film? Unfortunately, this reaction turned out to be prescient. It turns out the barrage of imagery doesn’t all fit into one film; it turns out the spiralling madness of Titane does not coalesce and that the film is a fascinating failure.

The initial issues with Titane easily arise through comparison with Raw. Both films are, to an extent, coming of age tales focusing on the female experience — specifically the hardships faced in patriarchal societies, as well as the need for close bonds. Both are also extreme films, body horror spectacles in addition to their intimate narrative cores. In Raw, all the extremity was carefully tied to a clear intent, to an emotional resonance. Every scene was clearly in service of something else. It was a shocking film, but the shock was used as a tool — the way shock should be used. Titane learns the wrong lessons from this, pushing the provocation further but with no underlying purpose. What the viewer is left with is an onslaught of calculated discomfort for its own sake, or for no reason at all. Though discrete moments do exhibit real purpose and meaning (this is still a film with some spellbinding and resonant moments), the vast majority of the movie feels utterly insubstantial at best, offensive at worst.

It all comes down to a lack of cohesion. Though, you could argue that the incoherent elements of the film allow it to be a better character study — as our central figure, Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), is defined by her disonance and trauma, a purposefully ill-defined and enigmatic character. Yes, the film matches her perfectly: it is cold and sporadic, often random; yet, this does not make it interesting or successful. In evoking her structurally, the film falls prey to the issues with her as a character: she is not compelling and is used to little end. This is first evident through the film’s opening act, a distinct section that is only narrowly narratively linked to the majority of the film. This beginning section is a pseudo-slasher. Alexia is first defined by a violent act enacted to her; she is then defined by an act of violence she commits (in self defence) and then moves from this to becoming purely violent. There is a jump here in connotation; her first kill makes sense, containing a sense of violent catharsis and clearly commenting on gender dynamics (power dynamics specifically). The moment begins with a sequence that seems part way between a moment in Irreversible and the street chases in The Third Man (large shadows dominating the frame, giving it a bit of noir flair). The climax here is incredibly violent, and is protracted. Yet here is another example of Ducournau knowing how and why to shock, something the rest of the film lacks.

This moment is an initial domino, though. The subsequent moments can be explained as an exhibition of how Alexia’s traumatic past means she can’t connect with people; also, it is implied this lack of connection was apparent from the start. Again, keeping her solely as enigmatic, as a vessel for the viewer to impart meaning on, ends up merely as a problem. In practice, however, these moments seem disjointed and unjustified. Ducournau wants to transgress, but the tools she uses to do so are often troubling. The inserting of a sexual encounter between two women seems to be there as another example of the extreme, expressing a — hopefully inadvertent — reactionary core that underpins far too much of the movie. The opening act just becomes a collage of taboos, thus re-contextualising each moment. This sexual moment also becomes another moment of extremity and danger, again implying that queerness is used as another transgressive tool from Ducournau’s belt (uncomfortably so). But the disjointed nature continues to upset the film: scenes lack internal logic, in one scene a woman is abused in an uncomfortable way but is only used as a pawn to push away and pull towards her aggressor. The emotional rhythm feels manufactured and false, undercutting the film’s realist sensibilities (this awkward dichotomy between the surreal and the real continues to hurt the film). Other scenes, and this happens throughout, just end at random or feel randomly inserted (one even subjects the viewer to having to sit through a lot of sexualised threats, but does nothing with this at all). Early in the film, a very intense scene builds to a moment of peril for Alexia, and then we cut to her being totally fine and just somewhere else with no explanation. Yes, it matches character in a way but it is also deeply unsatisfying. Moments start to lack friction or impact and the creeping realisation of a lack of foundation takes hold.

It is the extreme violence here that starts to put the film in peril, as an extended scene (that’s really well pulled off, though contains some uncomfortably presented dynamics) becomes a clear, defining moment for Alexia. Yet, the rest of the film is so separated from this. To an extent, it is a challenge to the viewer: a character will do this and we will still make you care for them. This, again, feels regressive — and ultimately uninteresting — but is complicated far further by the eventual coding of Alexia’s character. At this stage, Alexia is monstrous and upsetting, an antagonistic force with no empathy. Yet, due to a specific plot reason, she feels the need to adopt a male identity (primarily to aid her escape). This is where the film entirely falls apart. On one hand, it just becomes a new film and sits awkwardly with the first section. It morphs into a story about a father who lost his son (for reasons the film intelligently hints at) and becomes fixated on Alexia (presenting as male) as the person who will fill that void, even if it couldn’t make sense. This dynamic is fascinating, a man so defined by grief and emptiness, by a feeling of complete impotence — he is defined by failures that would be viewed as masculine failures, especially in the deeply patriarchal world that he is a prominent figure of (he’s the captain of a group of all male firefighters). But, this exists in the same film where a woman gets impregnated by a car?

Wait, did I mention that yet? Well. It’s actually remarkably easy to forget, as the whole car thing ultimately has no real bearing on the plot outside of being just weird. In magical realist fashion, in the opening act, Alexia is impregnated by a car. You see, she fetishises cars, a fascination shown from the very start but also a fascination that is quite worryingly coded (there is the implication that an operation has diminished her humanity, pushing her in the Tetsuo the Ironman direction. Hey, it works in Tetsuo, but it doesn’t work when it’s an actual operation that is done to people. The real life implications here are upsetting and ill thought through). This does open up a transhumanist angle, but it is one that is barely touched. This is the film in general, though. Whereas Raw was so coherent, so singular and beautiful, this just throws everything at the wall for the sake of being provocative but there’s nothing for it to stick to. And it just keeps throwing things. The actual reason for the pregnancy (it really does not need to be a car) becomes another deeply uncomfortable part, which gets into the film’s most upsetting aspect: its presentation of gender.

Ultimately, the film uses a trans framework for its separate transgressions, and does play into transphobic myths and rhetoric. Alexia’s (the name she ultimately claims, so the one I will use) enigmatically defined existence could also ultimately play into horrific attempts to deny trans existence. The core issue is that Alexia is a serial killer and disguises herself as another gender as a way to evade capture. This is far too close to propagated fears that people will disguise themselves as another gender as a way of causing harm. It relies on the same logic and it wouldn’t be an issue if the gender switch felt at all meaningful. But, it is just another ‘weird’ thing to happen in a ‘weird’ film. Moments of shaving and the use of binding link the experience very specifically with transitioning, or the things people do to actually live as themselves. In this film, binding is shown as torturous, used as a body horror motif to imply a sense of self mutilation. Which brings us back to the pregnancy problem, which cements the film as deeply gender essentialist and obsessed with bodies as denotations of gender. For most of the film, the pregnant body is used as a ticking time-bomb, a secret that needs to be covered up and will be found out. This relies on the belief that pregnancy equals femininity, in fact the film continually uses pregnancy as a strict denotation of the feminine. It defines Alexia’s gender by her body, and uses it as an image of disgust. She is made to seem horrific when stepping outside of stereotypical gender norms, a really upsetting idea.

On the surface, the film pretends to be a fluid exploration of gender but is actually completely rigid. There is no liminality, there is no spectrum. Alexia’s gender is defined externally, not internally, and established through problematic imagery. And this is especially a shame because when the film explores masculinity, it does so beautifully. At points, Ducournau’s picture exists in the same lane as Claire Denis’ work, with a clear understanding of how masculinity is defined through bodily performance and repeated rituals. Posturing and dancing is used to show these men try to present gendered stability, and is brilliantly used to show an actual instability. Vincent Lindon is the highlight of the film as the father figure (the captain). His body is focused on in a very different way to how Alexia’s is (and in a way that is never an issue because it doesn’t evoke the language of fluidity before betraying it). Lindon’s character is physically imposing, defined by muscle and heft. Yet when we see him as visually strong we always see him as physically weak. We see him fight off a fear of irrelevance with drugs; we see him fail to perform feats of strength. The film really understands the internalised failure he feels, and how it comes from masculinity. There is also a brilliant mirrored moment, where a dance done by Alexia at the start makes men go wild; the same dance done at the end (while passing as male) causes a very divergent reaction. It is the one moment where the gender flipping works, because it is targeted: it is unpicking the fragility of toxic masculinity and its relationship to sexuality.

But, this is ultimately not the film. The film is this weird flirtation with something like Possession, and also Irreversible, and also American Psycho. At no point does it feel derivative, in fact the inflections are satisfying and cine-literate, it is just that it never feels coherent. It wants to push towards something ethereal and strange like 3 Women, but also wants to have the grit of an Irreversible (even the most outlandish moments are given a sense of real world heft, the film goes out of its way to establish verisimilitude). One overhanging shame is that Raw felt like it had left the French Extremity movement behind, that it was its own beautiful thing built off of that but not constrained by it. This feels like a return to French Extremity, with parallels to Haute Tension in terms of how queerness is manipulatively and conservatively used. Ducournau wants to shock, and she does. But why? There are really troubling complications in the Alexia and father figure relationship, but for no real reason. The film, despite its focus on rigid imagery, feels unstable. It never latches onto anything nor does it point in a coherent direction. Its strongest suit is a sharp reveal of the masculine, but this is undercut by the rest of the film. Alexia’s storyline overwhelms and contradicts these strengths. We also have moments of musical brilliance, clever needle drops make for transcendent moments. But then we have the climactic moment of the film scored with an industrial cover of Sarabande from Barry Lyndon. Which is so inadvertently hilarious because all you can think is… Wait… That’s the tune from Barry Lyndon… Why?

But it’s another moment to talk about, because that’s the film. It is a provocative collection of talking points with too little thought given to the cumulative effect. Because that’s what sinks the film: when you start to consider how its parts come together, every conclusion is upsetting. And that’s because it doesn’t feel like it was planned that way. It’s a singular film in terms of having no contemporaries, singular filmmaking for sure, but it also feels completely discordant and builds up to nothing… Hey, remember how weird that film was? So weird, right? Yes, but let’s take a moment to think about from where this weirdness is gleaned, and how. And, ultimately, why?

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