Titane (2021)

Titane movie review: Cannes winner is a boundary-pushing body-horror film  with more than blood on its mind | Entertainment News,The Indian Express

Julia Ducournau’s Titane repeatedly bruises and shocks the viewer with the reversible relationship between sensuality, intimacy and untrammelled violence; a slippage concretized in the primped high-performance cars on whose streamlined bodies its central character, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), writhes erotically at the motor show where she works as a dancer.

While our digital devices, with their responsive haptic interfaces, seduce us with the promise of infinite pleasure and presence from technology that is just a cute and stylized extension of the self, the automobile remains massively ambivalent, as J G Ballard recognized. With the sleek ‘body contours’ of hypersexualized corpses, cars are designed to reconcile our fantasies and ergonomic demands, balancing ingress and egress targets, H-point and road visibility. But road travel remains a few attentional lapses away from serious injury and death. The sensuality of the automobile remains a metonym for the disproportion between fragile human tissue and the vastly complex technical systems and technological landscapes we craft and inhabit.  

This violent disaffinity is coded in the automobile crash of the opening scene which young, obstreperous Alexia induces by ripping away her seatbelt and distracting her glacially estranged father (Bertrand Bonello ) as he drives. Her injuries result in the damaged sections of her skull being replaced by the titanium plates alluded to in the title; her ears framed now by surgical scars like the labial involutions of some speculative sexual organ.

Titane' Trailer: Julia Ducournau Returns After Raw | IndieWire

Alexia’s infant cyborgianism excites a latent attraction to the smooth, machined bodies of cars and perhaps nurtures her addiction to exorbitant violence. Early on we discover she is a serial killer, responsible for a numerous murders in the south of France. Moreover, she always wants to bite her lovers, to deform then, to consume them – as when she violently rips her snagged hair from the nipple ring of her co-worker, Justine, while they shower together at the Showroom.

Like the creature in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein Alexia’s murderous aggression stems from her disconnection from the human, above all from her emotionally, and perhaps sexually, abusive father. As if her desires exceed safe human tolerances; as if her childhood injuries propel Alexia into a technome whose erotic focus is the contoured, decal-adorned canopy of the high-performance muscle car on which she dances at the showroom (Here, note, the car functions directly as sexual object rather than the symbolic frame for a cyborgian sexuality, as in Ballard’s Crash and Cronenberg’s film adaptation.)

The soft mammalian bodies of the protagonists in the film thus condition erotic violence through excess as well as affordance; liberating desire for the ecstatic self-shattering Alexia experiences with the Cadillac; and, inevitably, for death.

To use Darian Meacham’s term, it is as if Alexia belongs, like other psychopathic serial killers, to a different ‘phenomenological species’ unable to prereflectively concern herself with the feelings, fragility and needs of others.[i] However, whereas the psychopath is globally indifferent to others, Alexia is selective.[ii] She is emotionally disconnected from the soft-bodied but erotically fixated on the hard-bodied. It is not, then, that she cannot feel or respond to the desire of the ‘other’, but that the other to which she is inexorably drawn is not animate.

Titane, by the way, is only a film about queer sexuality if we remark ‘queer’ not as an extension of representational politics but as anti-representation – a counter-politics; no longer concerned with reconciling the kingdom of ends, but the morphological potential of the human within its ramifying, ultimately inhuman, technological envelope.

As if to indicate the inherent fatality of this desire – to give/receive life/death – the foreplay to her erotic consummation is the murder of an oafish fan who stalks and sexually assaults her in her car. In a spectacular premature ejaculation, the would-be rapist foams at the mouth after Alexia stabs him in the ear with a long metal hairpin. This leads her to return the shower in the auto-showroom and, finally, to abandoned sex with the muscle car, naked, her arms bound by the red seatbelts in its rear seat as both she and the car convulse in ecstasy.

She is penetrated and somehow ‘inseminated’ by the car, since we subsequently learn that Alexia is pregnant, bleeding motor oil from vagina and nipples and slowly forming a gleaming titanium carapace around her womb. Unlike the drill-sex-death scene in Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 Tetsuo, the automotive analog of the penis is only implied, not shown.   

Technique does not dominate or oppress us – it is not, I have argued, a quasi-subject – but the iterative extension of desire/action beyond reflection or subjective identification. This cannot be mediated by any situated ethics or democratic politics. It can only explored through the cultivation and exploration of biomorphic potentials. Alexia’s living-death drive thus lacks any human ethical valence. Her murders, while cruel to us, are inconsequential; for she has, at the opening of the movie, already disconnected from our social passions.

The death drive is implicit in posthuman politics because, unlike the humanist politics of Marxism, it is not oriented towards the domination of external nature, or the mediation of the second nature of oppressive social institutions, but towards the ramifying ‘third’ of the Technosphere. Here, complicity outruns any intentional content, for the effects of technique are constrained neither by functional demands nor social norms.

Yet, Titane evokes an ethical relation and tenderness in the strange regard and love that develops between Alexia and the divorced fire captain, Vincent (Vincent Lindon,) after she eludes capture by the police by posing as his missing son. Vincent recognizes that ‘Adrien’ is not her son – he refuses a DNA test at the police station – testifying to his desperate loneliness as to his need to nurture and protect.

Vincent is afflicted by body dysphoria, obsessively pumping his ageing body with anabolic steroids to increase his muscle mass. Vincent’s failing hold on masculinity is technically mediated, his body bruised, damaged and in constant pain from the steroid injections. Like Alexia, desperate to terminate her machinic pregnancy by stabbing her womb with her steel pin, her preferred murder weapon, he is at odds with his unattainable masculinity yet touchingly committed both to loving false Adrien and to saving the lives of those he helps in his profession. As if, the inescapable consciousness of physical frailty opens a space for a paternal love that is unconditional and erotic.

Vincent Lindon Worked Out for Two Years to Prep for Cannes Hit Titane |  IndieWire

I don’t think this is a story about salvaging the humanity of its notionally inhuman protagonist, or even the redemptive power of love. While everything that occurs to Alexia can be naturalized as a coping mechanism for or sublimation of abuse, this reading simply domesticates her sexuality by positioning her as victim, contrary to Ducournau’s intention, or to the most consistent reading of the narrative. Alexia does not stand in need or redemption or seek it. If she discovers a capacity to return Vincent’s love before she dies giving birth to her ‘cyborg’ baby this suggests only that love and eroticism need not be human-human relations. Perhaps Vincent’s steroid dependency affords him the status of a failed machine and thus an adequate love object. In the end, Titane is both about the xenophilic desires enlisted by death-driven technological systems and the multiple impacts and scars of love as bodies of all kinds, human, animal and machinic, circulate and collide in the Technosphere.  

[i] Meacham, Darian. “Empathy and alteration: The ethical relevance of a phenomenological species concept.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 39, no. 5 (2014): 543-564.

[ii] Roden, David. “Aliens under the skin: Serial killing and the seduction of our common inhumanity.” Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology (2015): 9-20.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s