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Titane

The year 2021 is winding down, and the pandemic-induced bottleneck is finally breaking. Almost two-thirds of the nation is vaccinated (here in the Portland metro area, the adult vaccination rate is nearly 80 percent), and we’re all learning how to get back to some semblance of normal, with ample assistance from mask and vaccine mandates.

For my part, this has naturally resulted in a massive influx of parties, concerts, and live events that had been postponed for the past 18 months. One of them is my own live theatrical production, a modern female-driven adaptation of “Jekyll and Hyde”. Rehearsals just started last week, we open in November, and I’d be more than grateful if you’d like to chip in a tax-deductible donation.

(Side note: The program will be online, and we’re offering hyperlinks to our crowdfunding backers. So if you’ve got a website, a business, or some other project you’d like to direct the audience toward, send in a tax-deductible donation and we can put your hyperlink directly at the fingertips of our patrons.)

More to the point, I’ve got at least half a dozen films on my watch list right now, and they’re cycling through multiplexes faster than I can get to them. But before I can get to any of the bigger titles, I simply had to drop by Hollywood Theatre (Portland’s friendly neighborhood non-profit theater!) for this oddity.

See, Titane is a French film written and directed by a woman, namely “body horror” filmmaker Julia Ducournau. And it’s about a woman who gets impregnated by a car.

Yes, you read that correctly. I hope your prescriptions are all up to date and you’ve brought your tinfoil hats, because we’re in for some weapons-grade crazy tonight, folks.

Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) got injured in a car accident as a young child. As a direct result, she has a titanium plate in her skull and a distinctive scar above her right ear. Maybe twenty years later, she’s now a grown woman living with her parents and working as a showgirl at motor shows. So basically, she’s a dancer who gets paid to wear the bare minimum and grind her hips on sweet-ass cars.

Long story short, things progress from there until Alexia gets naked in the backseat of an especially beautiful Cadillac. It’s not exactly clear how this results in Alexia getting pregnant, but um… how do I describe this? You know those cars that jump up and down on hydraulic lifts? Imagine that, but with a moaning naked Alexia in the backseat, gripping onto the seatbelts for dear life. That’s basically what we’ve got with this I-can’t-believe-it’s-a-sex scene.

In short order, Alexia comes down with the typical signs and symptoms of pregnancy. The main difference is that instead of blood and breast milk and the other viscous bodily fluids typically produced during pregnancy, Alexia is somehow excreting motor oil. Alexia then attempts to self-abort with the use of her hairpin (Yes, you fucking heard me; and yes, we see that onscreen in graphic detail.), but the crude attempt at a self-induced abortion fails and she has to carry the… whatever it is to term.

I imagine at this point, you have many hundreds of questions, most of which will go defiantly unanswered by the movie. But among those questions, you might be asking why Alexia doesn’t go to a proper abortion clinic or seek professional medical help. Well, first of all, what would she tell them? Second and more importantly, Alexia can’t get conventional help because she’s a serial killer. Yes, seriously.

Alexia’s hairpin is her weapon of choice, using it to stab people as she’s in the process of seducing them. No joke, this movie treats us to a scene of Alexia’s hair getting caught on her love interest’s nipple ring, just before we watch one of Alexia’s victims die a slow and horrible death at the point of her hairpin, and that’s all before the fifteen-minute mark!

Anyway, one of Alexia’s attempted murders goes sideways and now she’s on the run from the law. Her bright idea is to disguise herself as a boy who’s gone missing for the past ten years. To repeat, the pregnant woman is trying to pass herself off as a man. More than that, the woman with freaking motor oil pouring out of every orifice, whose sketch is on wanted posters all over the nation, is trying to avoid detection. But then, you haven’t met the missing boy’s father yet.

Vincent (played by Vincent Lindon) is a fire captain whose marriage has collapsed in the wake of his son’s disappearance. I might add that he regularly injects himself with steroids in an effort to keep himself strong and handsome and youthful. Put simply, Vincent is a delusional hypocrite. He’s willing to overlook everything and justify anything to keep on living in his own alternate reality. He doesn’t just want Alexia to be his missing son, Vincent pathologically NEEDS Alexia to be his missing son.

So Vincent conveniently overlooks Alexia’s odd androgynous appearance and her refusal to speak. Of course Adrien doesn’t look the way he did after ten years, and of course he’s traumatized after ten years of God knows what. And perhaps most importantly, of course Vincent won’t allow Adrien to escape his sight after so many years away.

Funny enough, this is the beating heart of the movie. Alexia is a nymphomaniac sociopath with a terrible childhood marked by trauma, and here she’s learning how to be part of a loving family. Trouble is, we clearly see that Alexia was living with her parents before she went on the run, and that whole situation seemed to be okay. They were more than willing to deal with all the medical issues and expenses after the car accident, after all, and while Alexia didn’t seem to be on the best of terms with her parents, they all seemed to be civil enough with each other. This is a serious mark against the movie — we really needed more antipathy in Alexia’s birth family to make a clearer contrast with her unwitting surrogate family.

The contrast is much more clear with regards to Alexia herself. As the film continues, Alexia’s hair gets shorter, her muscle mass decreases, her eyes get this hollowed-out look, she breaks her own nose (again, this is shown in graphic detail) to get it all swollen and crooked… by the end of it, there’s no trace of the sexed-up bombshell she was at the start of the film. Couple that with her bizarre and genuinely hazardous pregnancy, in addition to the social quirks she uses to keep isolated and withdrawn, and there are multiple times when Alexia barely seems human.

In all practical terms, Alexia is an alien living among mundane humans who are gradually teaching her how to be human. What’s more, she’s a woman in mortal need of help, and it’s nice to see her getting some degree of compassionate concern. Incidentally, if you’re feeling unsympathetic towards the unrepentant serial killer, I’ll remind you that she’s pregnant with an unknown cyborg hellspawn and thus beyond the help of nature, science, or maybe even God himself. Trust me, by the end of the film, she’ll have suffered more than enough for all of her sins.

It bears repeating, because I can’t possibly stress this enough, the film establishes early and often that this is hardcore body horror. This is body horror to such a hardcore degree that through many scenes, I couldn’t tell if I was sexually aroused or sick to my stomach. This is body horror so hardcore that I spent at least a third of it cringing in physical pain at the sights on the screen.

I’m so grateful we’ve got a dedicated body horror filmmaker who’s a woman, because no man could’ve written or directed this film. Pregnancy and childbirth is itself a work of body horror beyond any fiction, and it’s such a deep well for gut-churning material that could never be done justice by any male filmmaker. (see: False Positive) Moreover, I have to commend Julia Ducournau for approaching this subject with some measure of heart and humanity without compromising the fucked-up nature of the body horror. Indeed, body horror simply can’t be effective unless it’s outrageously over-the-top, and “impregnated by a car” is about as over-the-top as one can get.

I honestly don’t know if Titane is a good or a bad movie, because it’s one of those films that clearly wasn’t interested in being judged as “good” or “bad”. Hell, I’m not even 100 percent sure there was supposed to be any deeper artistic meaning, and maybe I’m reading too much into the Alexia/Vincent dynamic in some desperate attempt at making sense of all this. All I know for sure is that the film was clearly made as an attempt to parlay the nonfictional body horror of pregnancy into a work of fictional body horror. Beyond that, the film might be seen as a commentary on the use of female sexuality in advertising (for cars, in this specific case), it could be a statement about the mercurial social construct of family, it might even have something to say about what it means to be human.

It’s hard to tell, and I’m open to the possibility that some linguistic/cultural barrier is getting in the way. But more likely, the film is nothing more or less than straight-up goddamn sweet and sour Christ on a crash cart cruh-HAY-zee. The film is cringe-inducing in the best way, and it’s undeniably effective as a unique work of body horror. If that’s all you’re looking for, check it out.

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