The Cathode Ray Mission: Titane and Fashionable Transgression
Spoilers for Titane
I use this space generally to write about movies I greatly enjoy or find intellectually stimulating in some way. That usually ends up manifesting in writing about genre films, often involving a recurring group of directors that I can’t get lodged out of my brain—Cronenberg, De Palma, Hitchock, et al. Titane, the new film by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, who directed the excellent 2016 cannibal film Raw, is a more complicated case. Titane has earned itself a reputation since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it saw screenings marked by vomiting and fainting and walkouts but still managed to come home with the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. It’s certainly an unconventional-seeming awards winner, and has since been showered with praise by the contemporary film critic cognoscenti, often along the same lines of how super subversive and transgressive it is, exemplified by hack critic David Ehrlich writing in his review for Indiewire that it’s “the most fucked up movie ever made about the idea of found family”. Beyond this kind of eye-rolling, breathless hype, there’s been other praise leveled towards the film that I’ve found far more attractive and meaningful, particularly in the filmmakers that it’s been likened to, including the aforementioned Cronenberg, Shinya Tsukamoto, director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and Claire Denis, director of Beau Travail and the more comparable Trouble Every Day, which I have unfortunately not yet seen. These are three filmmakers I personally put in the pantheon, the artists behind some of my all-time favorites, and so a film that seems to draw on them all as source material, as Ducournau has outright stated, should be a homerun, right? …Right?
Titane is ultimately a very mixed bag, but the reason I find the need to write this column about it is because I find the reasons why to be troubling when paired with the response it’s achieved. This review on Letterboxd by Adam Nayman helped me put into words some of my problems with it, but I want to use this space to try and expand on what it is that frustrates me about Titane. I want to start first with Ducournau’s freshman effort, Raw. Ducournau is obviously a child of the French New Extremity film movement from the turn of the century, characterized by filmmakers like Gaspar Noe, Catherine Breillat, and even Denis. The efforts of these films were to push the boundaries of taste to the extremes, marrying an arthouse form to exploitation content and often courting controversy as a result. Raw is perhaps not as confrontational as its predecessors, as it offers a much more palatable deployment of extreme violent imagery and bodily mutilation in service of a fairly simple coming-of-age metaphor that, in my opinion, works tremendously well. Ducournau shows an immense talent for managing tone, directing actors, and exploring the film’s central metaphor in a visually compelling manner. For as upsetting as much of the imagery is, the film is digestible (and unexpectedly kind of sweet), committing to its ideas without obfuscation or excessive flourish. Titane, however, trades in excess, both in imagery and, more problematically, ideas.
Not to say that Raw isn’t indulgent in its cannibalistic action, but it looks quite restrained in comparison to Titane’s violent moments. Roughly the first half hour of the film follows a woman, Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), as she apparently spontaneously goes on a killing spree against aggressive suitors, romantic partners, and unfortunate bystanders. This is the film at its worst, as Ducournau’s primary impulse appears to be to shock the audience, but is too afraid to be a straight exploitation film a la I Spit on Your Grave or Ms. 45, as it’s papered over with various metaphors and shallow pathologizing to lend the imagery supposed credibility. I hate to take this tact, as it makes me sound prudish, but there’s a sense of Ducournau wanting to have her cake and eat it too with this part of the film. It wants to show you a long static shot of a man’s dying convulsions and bile leaking from his mouth, it wants to have a woman fuck a car, but simultaneously be a Serious movie about identity and transformation and love, and the attempted fusion of these two modes rings very hollow. The marriage of extreme violence with stabs at more typically arthouse styled contemplation here feels deeply dishonest, borderline cynical, designed to create a reaction, to generate both the pull quotes about how fucked up it is and critical adulation, and while I don’t buy its attempt at being both high- and lowbrow, it has broadly found success in its strategy, evidenced by both the walkouts and the Palme. This is not a new phenomenon of course, but since the days of the French New Extremity it feels as though this kind of attempt at transgressive costuming has become very calculated, and if I were feeling really negative I would say it feels essentially like a marketing technique, where filmmakers include one or two shock moments to generate word-of-mouth about how you have to see “the most fucked up movie ever made,” and Titane feels like the latest culmination of this style of faux-transgressive shock movie that nonetheless lacks any risk, neither for the filmmaker’s reputation nor for the audience’s established worldview.
After the film’s first thirty or so minutes, it reveals its actual self, and fares much better. After her killing spree, Alexia finds a way to lose the heat by disguising herself as a missing boy and ingratiating herself into the care of the boy’s struggling, ‘roided-out father Vincent (Vincent Lindon). The rest of the film functions as a surprisingly sentimental study of unconditional love and family formation, as both Alexia and Vincent dance around the increasingly apparent truth for the sake of their own emotional survival. There’s little by way of the extreme violence of the first act throughout this portion, with Alexia’s car pregnancy taking the place as the gross out factor (more on that in a second), as the film becomes much more focused on the emotional nuances of the situation, with a lot of heavy lifting credit due to Lindon’s terrific performance. The central relationship is the film at its most effective, and without the attempts at genre stylings it’s also at its least pretentious, settling for simplicity in its scenario and nuance in its emotion.
The problem as the film goes on, however, becomes trying to square it all into something coherent. Not only is it difficult to gel the first and second part on the basis of content and tone (not to mention the ending, which I’ll get to), but the film is thematically all over the place. Raw is obvious with its metaphor, but to a fairly clear end; Titane is similarly lead-footed but to a far more multivalent end, to the degree that it feels like a million ideas and none of them are explored in an interesting or distinctive way. For a brief run-through, Titane is alternately about: deep-seated trauma, bodily destruction, bodily transformation, human/machine hybridization, gendered violence, technological fetishization, familial love, incest, masculinity, femininity, gender nonconformity, homosexuality, transsexuality, codependent relationships, family formation, abortion, the possibility of redemption and reconciliation, and parental obligation; it’s got a fucking lot going on, and that’s not a problem in itself, but none of it really gets the time that it needs. It’s likely that Titane could be broken down into 2–3 separate, high-quality films, but Ducournau’s reach far exceeds her grasp, and it does unfortunately end up feeling like a greatest hits collection of influences and ideas, wherein no new ground is tread that Crash or Tetsuo or presumably Trouble Every Day have not already explored, and to greater effect. To explain further, I want to look in more detail at the film’s key sequence that everyone makes sure to bring up: the car fucking.
The opening of the film is a brief scene where a young Alexia and her father get into a car crash, leaving Alexia with a steel plate in her head. This event inexplicably warps her cognition, spawning an erotic fixation on cars and, it’s vaguely implied, destabilizing her enough to cause her to become a serial killer as an older woman. She ends up having sex with a car early in the film and becoming pregnant, and aside from being kind of a silly image in a film that’s otherwise operating realistically, it’s a thuddingly obvious metaphor of trauma, sexual catharsis, and bodily transformation. This is all perfectly coherent, but the issue then becomes threefold: first, the pathologizing of Alexia is incredibly shallow, little more than a tossed off, “X happened, therefore Y” kind of justification for Alexia’s actions that goes basically unacknowledged as the film progresses past its initial auto-eroticization. Unlike Crash, there’s a lack of commitment to exploring the pathology fully, and unlike many in the horror/exploitation genre it shies away from leaving things unexplained, offering instead an easy screenwriting hack to explain away character motivations, when in fact an opaqueness of motivation would render Alexia a far more potent and upsetting character. Secondly, the film swiftly abandons the line of metaphor introduced with the auto-fetishization, switching gears entirely both for the rest of Alexia’s killing spree and her adoption by Vincent, leaving the imagery and the metaphor of the car fucking to feel out of place until it’s rushed back in at the end of the film; and finally, Ducournau continues to use Alexia’s pregnancy resulting from fucking the car as a recurring plot point, but without the continuing auto-fetishization to contextualize it and tie it to the earlier metaphorical meanings, it becomes a loaded signifier without anything to clearly signify, and for a film as embroiled in the symbolic as Titane is, metaphors without meaning leads to incoherence.
This incoherence reaches its apex at the film’s finale: the truth has been revealed to Vincent, but he chooses to still accept Alexia as his surrogate son because it’s finally giving him something to live for again, and Alexia chooses to continue playing that part because she has finally found a place where she feels safe and genuinely, unconditionally loved. This happy ending is interrupted by Alexia finally going into labor. Vincent tries to help her through it, but she ends up dying in childbirth, and the final image we’re left with is Vincent cradling her newborn child, who we can see is in some fashion a human/machine hybrid, with a metallic spine poking through the skin. It’s certainly intended to be a moment of cumulative transcendence, but the actual meaning the moment is intended to carry is confused. There’s obviously something being communicated about some sort of human evolution, but how that slots into everything that has occurred beforehand is completely indecipherable, and particularly its relation to the bulk of the film—the relationship between Vincent and Alexia—is tangential at best. It’s a coup de grace for the sake of ending on a potent image, one that is totally out of step with what the film has really been interested in and that ends up feeling unnecessarily cruel, failing to satisfy but not unsatisfying in an interesting way. Writ large, this is the struggle with Titane: potent images gesturing towards significance that are ultimately superficial.
The whole thing ends up being kind of a mess. There’s certainly filmmakers that can get away with making very messy movies, but I don’t think Ducournau is at that point yet, she’s trying to juggle so many disparate ideas and never really succeeds at getting a hold on any of them. This would be less of a problem if there was a formally interesting angle that the film takes, but the most involved formal decision seems to be “look at how unpleasantly grisly I can make this,” which is a very low artistic bar to set for a filmmaker as clearly skilled and creative as Ducournau. For a film that is as obviously caught up in its own seemingly transgressive qualities as Titane is, there’s a lot of gesturing towards taboo images and ideas but very little that actually follows through, and while I’m unbothered that people are enjoying it, it does make me a little sad that it’s seemingly being held both as a new benchmark in horror filmmaking and as an extreme position on the spectrum of taste, when it’s ultimately neither, just a rather middling, overhyped movie with a lot of undeveloped ideas and some unpleasant images.