There something human in the way Julia Ducournau handles the inanimate car in Titane. The opening shots of the innards of the machine approximating a person’s intestines; human blood and bodily discharge turning into motor oil or the heroine Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) brushing, stroking, grazing, fondling, cuddling, and spreading herself to try and embrace the car and surrendering to it in an act of passionate love.
To the contrary, mechanization is at the core of Alexia’s being. With a titanium plate fixed in her head after a car accident in her childhood, it’s as though a robotic beast has come to possess her, clinging staunchly to the chaos raging within. It makes a deviant out of her—a masochist and misanthrope who maims and kills others and harms her own self mercilessly till she insinuates herself into the world of the aging firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon) as his long-lost son Adrien. After battling through the stormy sea of life, is he the port that her ship needs to dock into? In turn, does she mirror Vincent’s own lost soul?
Ducournau crafts a peculiar, grotesque tale centred on these man-machine and human-beast contradictions. What’s more, the film, that got Ducournau the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is France’s entry for the best international film Oscar (though it failed to make it to the shortlist), is itself balanced on artistic paradoxes—it is at once revolting just as it is mesmerizing.
To be honest it’s not a film for the faint-hearted. Viewing Titane is like going through trial by fire, experiencing slabs upon slabs of extreme violence and unthinkable perversities but, eventually, in its own twisted way, the journey with Alexia also makes you reach the heart of tenderness. It’s like peeling layers of savagery and brutality to arrive at a kernel of warmth and affection in the Alexia-Vincent bond.
There are moments so nauseating that they force you to look away and wonder at the gratuitousness of it all. At one point, the ceaseless tension also gets unexpectedly punctured with laugh out loud black humor. Tired of killing one roommate after another Alexia asks, “how many of you are there”.
On the face of it Ducournau may not be normalizing or prettifying violence, but is she fetishizing Alexia’s showgirl act (as well as the car), as she dances away surrounded by and framed within the lustful eyes of the crowd of men? Is the filmmaker questioning this objectification of the woman or merely deploying it like yet another titillatory image and pandering to the male gaze? Is it all about giving a subversive, feminist twist to the body horror genre or carrying on faithfully with its age-old traditions? It’s a thin line that the film seems to be treading on here.
Ducournau tests the limits of the viewer, is persistently provocative. But she also wrings your heart with lines swarming with grief, with pain: “If you couldn’t mourn your kid, what would you do?” Or, as Vincent tells Alexia: “I don’t care who you are. You are my son”.
Rousselle’s Alexia is feral in her androgynous persona. Lindon as Vincent is battered, weary, crumbling yet resilient, and makes a profoundly tragic as he goes about reassuring Alexia and her newborn in the finale: “I’m Here”.
At the end of the tunnel of torture, there’s hope, of giving and finding unconditional affection and understanding, however brutalized the individuals themselves might be. However deep the scars might run, they could heal. Whatever be its form, there is no denying the possibility of finding love, redemption, and grace. “Love is a dog from hell”, is a line scrawled on Alexia’s body. It could well be the logline for Titane.
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