I saw Titane, the second picture by French director Julia Ducournau, at the Castle Cinema in Hackney on my birthday. I was originally booked to see Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, which was TERRIBLE, almost impressively crap; I forgot most of it the second I left the cinema and was glad I did. But when I looked at the programme earlier in the day and realised this would be my last chance to see Titane on the big screen, I squeezed it in just beforehand, in a fun cinematic double bill. And it was a very excellent decision. I knew I was going to love any film in which a character bleeds sticky black engine oil. And any film where the lead actor – and the supporting cast – spends most of the film naked. But I still wasn’t expecting to love it this much.
The film follows Alexia, a strange woman who, when she was a (quite horrible) child, was involved in a car accident. She had a titanium plate fixed into her skull in the following surgery, which seems to have given her an affinity with machines, specifically cars, as we see her connecting with engines and metal much more than with human beings. As this connection develops into an erotic fascination the film almost swerves into a female version of J. G. Ballard’s Crash, made into a 1996 film by David Cronenberg which stars the excellently sleazy James Spader. However, after the first few scenes the film is very clearly something else, and after doing that for a bit becomes something again very different. At about the point Alexia is attempting to escape justice in a late night bus station I realised I had no idea at all what direction the film would next take, and I never would have guessed.
One of the images from the first half of the film that sticks in my mind the most involves an encounter with Alexia and a fellow exotic dancer who has nipple piercings. We see the dancer, Justine’s delicate flesh colliding with unyielding metal, in a display of vulnerability and violence. Alexia shows an animal attraction to her friend’s nipple piercings to the point she twice nearly rips them right out of her, stretching the skin to the limit (incredibly uncomfortable to watch). Alexia herself is like a cold hard bullet, ripping through the soft flesh of every body she comes across.
I cried a lot at one particular scene, the one in which the firefighters are having a party after a long shift. I thought it was one of the most moving scenes I’ve watched in film for a long time. There’s a group of beautiful young men in their uniforms, dancing and smoking and drinking in a firestation softly lit by luminous purple light. The Captain, played by Vincent Lindon, and Alexia, are pulled into their revelry. You can feel the tension that has been building throughout the film seeping out of their bodies, watch their emotional catharsis, as they start to move with the music; the scene is like a long exhalation. There is no speech, nothing, just swaying and moving to the music. It is just a small normal act, a moment of peace, of hope, of pleasure, of connecting.
Earlier on, after Alexia takes a pregnancy test, we watch her trying to abort her foetus on the toilet with a knitting needle, the same knitting needle she has used to stab a man in the ear with. After this attempt fails, she goes on a killing spree, again with the knitting needle, in a kind of frenzy of frustration as she starts to realise that she is losing control of her body to this parasitic supernatural entity inside her. The baby’s refusal to die, its insistence on surviving despite everything she does to herself, as it gradually takes her over and forces her to submit to a will other than her own, is the catalyst for Alexia’s emotional journey. She apologises tenderly to her body and her baby which she has been abusing; she tells her adopted father she loves him. For a character who is silent for much of the film and whose actions are mainly characterised by violence, these simple words have a huge, and very moving, impact.
Alexia is exactly what I want my own characters to be. Womxn who are violent, unrepentant, narcissistic because they are allowed to have the depth of character as individuals to be evil. They don’t have to represent anyone or anything, have any political agenda, be appealing aesthetically or sexually, although they may be or do all of these things incidentally. They have their own mysterious motivations, their own power, that may or may not align with societal or cultural values. They have the capacity to change, transform, and therefore to survive.
The transformations of Alexia are dramatic, her identity an unstable and volatile landscape. She transforms from a woman in her 30’s to a teenage boy; her body swells and mutates with her developing pregnancy, unruly flesh bursting out of bandages and clothing; she is slowly consumed by irrepressible new life. Her name, her face, her sexuality, all change. Ultimately, she is transformed from a titanium-plated, engine oil-bleeding cyborg to real flesh and blood, from unfeeling machine to human, by real unconditional love. The film has been called by critics a wordless story of truly unconditional love. A love which is brutal in its own way.