One of the most common critical responses to Titane, Julia Ducournau’s strange, endlessly evolving followup to 2016’s Raw, is to oversimplify it; the headline of a BBC review called it “the most shocking film of the year”. From that moment on, the idea that Titane is a film that’s all about shocking audiences has become pervasive, both in reviews and on social media. Titane has already been frequently labelled a “provocation,” something shocking for the sake of shock, diminished to the one line summary “a woman has sex with a car.” And don’t get me wrong, someone does have sex with a car in Titane, but to assume that this one act of transhuman fucking defines the whole film is a gross oversimplification. So to is the assumption that Alexia, the film’s automobile-erotic protagonist, is a woman.
The scene where Alexia, played by Agathe Rouselle, has sex with a car not only goes to the heart of Titane’s themes about keeping control over your body and the relationship between blood, oil, chrome, and skin, but about a strange lineage of body horror. Titane’s obsessions with cars, technology, and the going beyond basic, binary limits of human gender and sexuality, captures a trans narrative that forks off in multiple strange, compelling directions not only regarding gender, but the transhuman relationship between humans and technologies.
The first thing that comes to mind when watching Alexia and her car get intimate with each other is David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash (1996), which, in its own visceral and hypnotic way, brings together ideas about desire and technology, and what they say about our bodies’ limitations.
In Crash, the cars that the characters drive, crash, and derive pleasure from, act as a kind of extension of their bodies.The car-crash itself becomes a sexual act, but one that would have no eroticism or meaning if it weren’t for these specific people being behind the wheel; the cars are literal vehicles for change. The first major collision in the film brings these ideas – and the eternal themes of sex and death – crashing into one another as James Ballard (James Spader) collides with a car, inadvertently killing the passenger. The fronts of their cars still fused together, as if they were two bodies fusing into one, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the newly widowed passenger of the car that Ballard crashed into, flashes him. The bruising on her neck is vividly visible, highlighting the techno-infused sadomasochism of desire that runs to the heart of Crash.
Dr. Robert Vaughn (Elias Koteas) is at the centre of a group of people who fetishize and recreate car crashes – most notably with his first appearance where he recreates the crash that killed James Dean – and describes himself as being driven by the “reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” This idea defines the ways in which technology-informed body horror narratives are driven by the possibility for a new, changed body. As the genre itself develops – culminating in Titane – so do the ways in which body horror narratives explore trans identity, informed by gender as much as technology.
At first glance, Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 film Tetsuo: The Iron Man*, has no concerns with gender, instead exploring the ways in which technology can run rampant; taking over bodies, cities, the world. But with a character known as The Metal Fetishist (played by Tsukamoto himself), there’s some shared DNA with Crash, with both films looking at ways in which we relate to technology, and what happens when that relationship becomes symbiotic.
Tetsuo uses technology in a way that allows it to explore darkly queer ideas of how a transhuman narrative can impact ideas of sexuality and gender. While the Salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) slowly transforms into the eponymous Iron Man, he dreams of his girlfriend dancing with a strange, technologically created phallus before she fucks him; later, as his body continues transforming, he develops a drillcock – which is exactly what it sounds like – for Tetsuo, the influx of technology into biology blows up traditional understandings of gender and sexuality, as if Cyborg were a gender unto itself, putting the Trans in trans humanism. While Crash doesn’t fuse blood with chrome as literally as Tetsuo, Vaughn’s idea of reshaping the human body with technology is taken to its – liberating, horrifying – nth degree by Tsukamoto. Both of these films exist under the hood, in the DNA, of Titane.
In both Crash and Tetsuo technology functions as an extension of the self – of the sexual self in the former, and as an overpowering alien presence in the latter – and the fetishization of technology planting a seed in humans, turning them into something else entirely. This idea exists in Titane as well, but in a way that’s more contemporary: it’s not only the relationship between human and technology that creates trans narratives, but the openness of gender itself, and what it means to control your own body, ensuring that it’s perceived in the way that you see yourself.
Titane is a film of two distinct sections: in the first, Alexia dances, goes on a killing spree, and goes on the run. In order to hide themselves from the police, they change the way that they present themselves in order to look like a young man, whose face they see on a missing person’s report. Alexia cuts their hair, binds their chest, breaks their own nose. This scene moves from the more “traditional” ways of changing appearance – haircuts, binding – to the brutal, self-inflicted nose breaking that the film doesn’t shy away from showing. This kind of grueling, physical transformation from one physical self to another takes the transformational narratives of body horror films from the 80s and 90s, but in a way that feels more contemporary, more in tune with how we understand gender now. Alexia’s transformation includes changing their name to Adrien, but none of these physical or nominative transformations alter their identity; instead, they reveal it.
Alexia – now moving through the world as Adrien – integrates themselves into the life of Adrien’s father, Vincent Lindon, a lonely fire station captain who’s been desperately searching for his missing child; clinging on to the obviously false idea that Alexia is the son he wants, desperate for connection, understanding, unconditional love. But there’s one problem standing in the way of Alexia/Adrien’s new quiet, masculine existence: the car they fucked at the start of the movie knocked them up. While this sentence might seem to add credence to the idea that Titane exists purely on the level of provocation, instead it highlights the complicated, messy relationship that the film has with gender, and what it means for your body to be beyond your control.
The characteristic that’s most strongly shared between Alexia and Vincent is the desire to keep their bodies under control. While Alexia tries to hide and rail against their pregnancy, Vincent injects steroids into his ageing body in order to maintain the image and ability of a certain kind of man, even as he grows older and weaker. In contrast to Vincent’s desire to show himself to the world as masculine and strong in archetypal ways, Alexia’s relationship with their body is also challenged by stereotypical markers of the feminine in the form of their – monstrous – pregnancy.
Titane takes the idea of pregnancy as a kind of body horror and brings it up to an 11, rebelling not only against ideas of gender, but of humanity. By replacing her human fluids with more mechanical ones, the pregnancy of Titane reaches towards a language for bodies that challenge binary notions of gender; finding a way to say that pregnancy doesn’t make you female; that looking a certain way, sculpting a certain kind of body, doesn’t mean that you’re male. The heart of Titane is a far cry from the violence that defines its opening act: at its core, it’s a film about connection, and family, and forgiving yourself. Even as it becomes increasingly obvious that Alexia isn’t Vincent’s missing child, he still insists that they are; the first time Vincent sees them, he says “he’s my son,” and is confident in this that he doesn’t request a DNA test.
Whether or not this person is related to him by blood, Vincent decides that the Adrien they found will be, if not his former son, then a new one; someone for him to love. When Vincent’s ex-wife arrives, and confronts Alexia about this she says “whatever your reason for exploiting his fucking folly, I don’t care, just take care of him.” While there might be an impulse to assume that the world of Titane doesn’t make sense, that everyone’s acceptance of Alexia-as-Adrien is too sudden, and that Vincent is too full of folly, this ignores so much of what the film is about, and so much of how the world has been built even before these moments.
When all illusions are disposed of, Vincent still says “I don’t care who you are. You’re my son. You’ll always be my son. Whoever you are.” Titane, like Tetsuo, concerns itself with the constant addition and mutation of metal, until it reaches a critical mass. In Tetsuo, two men fuse into a tank-like monster and plan to make over the whole world in chrome. Someone who thinks of Titane as a provocation might be inclined to say that it builds up to the only ending it ever could, that people will power through its uncomfortable violent first section, and uncharacteristically slow second one, all to see what the car-baby looks like. But Titane isn’t about that, just like Tetsuo and Crash aren’t about their most shocking moments.
While Titane is driven in part by the relationship that exists between a human body, and the layers of technology added to it, these alterations from blood to metal don’t create a mask for Alexia to wear. Instead, this dynamic offers a kind of intimacy; a way of moving beyond traditional understanding and expectations of gender. There’s something utopian about Titane’s trans narratives; less pessimistic than Tetsuo, less masochistic than Crash, Ducournau’s film offers a new approach to gender: Alexia’s movement between their life before and after going on the run captures an approach to gender that’s fluid. Nothing about them changes when they take on the guise of Adrien except the way that they look.
These three films exist in a lineage informed not only by the changing relationship that exists between humans and technology, but also by the ways in which people have begun to understand that gender isn’t as simple or binary a concept as it may have once appeared to be. Tetsuo’s queering of gender is driven by a somewhat binary understanding; it focuses on ideas of “manhood,” and takes these to almost comical extremes through hoses and power drills that turn into transhuman cocks.
The latter transformation – the Salaryman’s girlfriend developing a phallic hose between her legs before pegging him – takes place in a nightmare, one that captures decades-old anxieties around the relationship maleness and power have with sexual pleasure . At its core, there’s a focus on binary ideas of gender and their signifiers; like so many other interpretations of bodily power, Tetsuo comes across as being a little too obsessed with what people have between their legs. And in Crash, while gender isn’t one of Cronenberg’s chief concerns, it still brings to mind a one of his lines from the 2000 documentary The American Nightmare – which put the horror films of the mid-late 20th century into the appropriate political context – that his characters derail biology, and “to derail biology is of course to derail destiny.”
The narrative arc of these three films can be seen as developing along these lines in a way that offers an increasing amount of agency to those who find their concepts of their – gendered – bodies being challenged. These three films all have the same concern at their core: how to react when your own perceptions of gender, sex, and desire, are turned on their head by the invasive presence of technology. In Crash, it’s the eponymous collisions, littered with physical and mechanical detritus; in Titane it’s Alexia’s transhuman pregnancy. But as the films get more contemporary – from the late-80s Tetsuo, to the 21st century Titane – there’s one key factor that changes with the time: the more contemporary the film, the more agency the characters have over their own bodies, and how they respond to the changes within them. Where the Salaryman in Tetsuo has this transformation forced on him and Ballard in Crash finds himself going deeper into the underground after an accident, Alexia’s narrative is one defined entirely by agency and the choices that she makes.
Her limits – and the agency she has over her own body – being violated tend to be what prompt her to react violently, and their transformation into Andrei feels like a grasp at agency as their chevy-induced-pregnancy threatens to take control of their body. Everyone in these films is fighting for control, and the ways in which they relate to technology, and gender, informs how they try to hold on to it, and what happens when they let go.
Titane is, in so many ways, a provocative film. It provokes ideas around technology, performance, and gender. By creating a world where anything is possible, it’s able to speak to ideas of trans experience without needing to deploy the language that we use; Alexia’s movements through degrees of gender – and degrees of humanity/technology – capture something true about trans existence; about what it means to continually redefine yourself, and to challenge those definitions.
The power and provocation that exists in Titane doesn’t come from shock value or explosions of violence, but from the fact that it’s so difficult to define; the storytelling resists easy classification in the same way as the characters; Alexia can always be Vincent’s son, but in a way that doesn’t inherently gender them. To reduce it to a film about car-sex is to strip away the glorious mess that makes Titane so rewarding, as it dives deep into the messy contradictions of how we want to be seen, how the world perceives us, and the agony and ecstasy of bridging that gap.