What to make of TITANE. a sprawling study of female rage meeting toxic masculinity? Certainly filmmaker Julia Ducournau presents it in all visceral glory, eschewing the depiction of few bodily functions as she explores gender identity and the overwhelming need for affection in a world where making the wrong choice about either can be fatal. Be warned, there are images that are deliberately disturbing. Gratuitous, yes, but also designed to twist gender norms (not to mention body parts) in such a way that the film becomes experiential for the audience. We are being dared to look away.
Our heroine is Alexia (Agathe Roussel in a fierce and complex performance). As a petulant child, she goaded her father into an automobile accident that left her with a titanium plate in her head. As an adult, with the face of a pre-Raphaelite angel, she shows off the scar, coiled like the prefrontal lobe of her brain, she has become a serial killer. While her family is comfortably upper middle-class, she rebels by performing exotic dances with classic American cars instead of a pole in front of an adoring crowd that cannot begin to understand the depths of her damaged psyche. No one can. Not the hapless co-worker who finds her nipple-ring tangled in Alexia’s hair, nor the smitten fan who can’t take a hint.
Through it all, Alexia evinces a proper French ennui, becoming irritated rather than anxious when her latest murder becomes complicated by too many roommates. Her affection is limited to cars, from the vehicle in which she was injured, to the Cadillac that, and I’m not using a metaphor of any kind, seduces her after a killing. That changes when her crimes threaten to catch up with her, and she takes it on the lam, only to find herself adopted by Vincent (Vincent Lindon), an aging fire chief who is convinced that she is the son abducted from him 10 years previously.
For a film that weaponizes nudity with impunity, this is a distinctly non-erotic oeuvre. Alexia’s body, so potent in conquering others at the start, quickly turns into her enemy. Read into that how a woman’s beauty can work against her in a world in which she is disempowered with cultural objectification.
Disguising herself as a boy with shaved eyebrows, close-cropped hair, and broken nose, Alexia’s secondary and primary sexual characteristics still threaten to give her away to the authorities. Her belly, tumescent with a surprise pregnancy, becomes a torture as she binds her body daily to continue the deception, her flesh’s gaping sores and lacerations attesting to the abuse that the binding inflicts and that her safety requires.
Ducournau spares us none of that abuse. From the brief but close-up shots of brain surgery that start the film, to the various ways that bodies can be mangled on the cusp of pleasure and pain, this is not for the faint of heart. The body she presents is a tool that betrays, and sexual desire is a complicated affair that can render its victims disturbed by the feelings that bubble up from an animal instinct. The scene of straight firefighters letting off steam rave-style at the station suddenly presented with Alexia’s sinuous and suggestive moves from her dance routine is a pungent précis on what happens when the cerebral and the id find themselves at odds. The bemusement is funny, knowing what we know about Alexia’s true gender, but there is that moment where we and the characters are caught up short in pondering why this is so disquieting for them, and so funny to us.
TITANE presents the carnal as an intellectual exercise, vicious and unremitting in externalizing cultural violence about gender norms in a stylized satire that will leave you suitably discombobulated. Yet, in the midst of the amorality of its protagonist, it finds an unexpected surcease in the one thing that would intuitively be the worst sin of all in this universe: vulnerability. If you can stomach the first 20 minutes, TITANE provides a compelling allegory that lays bare the aggressions of society that hide in plain sight, embracing the victims with savage compassion.