FEBRUARY 18, 2022
JULIA DUCOURNAU’S TITANE opens with images of the hard edges and round whirring disks of gleaming steel and metal as “Wayfaring Stranger” by 16 Horsepower provides the soundtrack. Humming along to the car’s engine, in the backseat, is a young girl with a determined face. Her father, visibly annoyed behind the driver’s seat, turns up the radio to drown her out as she kicks at his seat and he yells at her to stop. Irritated, she frees herself from her seatbelt; the father turns to grab her, loses control, and the car veers off the road. This is the last (and only) semi-predictable thing that happens in this remarkable film that won the Palme d’Or at 2021 Cannes, making Ducournau the second woman to be honored with the prize (the first was Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993).
The narrative is easily followed but totally bonkers. As a result of the car accident, young Alexia gets a titanium plate inserted into her skull. As she and her parents leave the hospital, Alexia hugs and kisses the car. In the next scene, she is grown up and working as a dancer at an auto show where girls and cars merge as objects of desire. A fan follows her to her car to profess his love and beg for an autograph and a kiss. Alexia (played brilliantly by newcomer Agathe Rousselle) pulls him into the car with the kiss, retrieves the thin long needle from her hair bun, and pierces his ear straight to his brain. His insides dribble out of his mouth onto Alexia’s shoulder.
Are we watching a feminist revenge film? Alas, Alexia’s next victim is a sister-dancer with whom she hooks up. Alexia seems to have no motivation for killing other than a quick and strong irritation that flashes like a red light during potential moments of intimacy. Simply because they are there, she kills all the dancer’s roommates and burns down the building, having first taken care to lock another innocent couple inside. For some of these kills, she uses her trusty hair needle; for others, the leg of a chair (inside her victim’s mouth); and for others, blunt and sharp objects that she grabs from around the house. Multiple online zines, articles, and stories document women using knitting needles to kill in horror films and in real life: Alexia expands the repertoire.
Is she a sociopathic serial killer? The apartment massacre is accompanied by joyful music (“Nessuno Mi Può Giudicare” by Caterina Caselli), and there are welcome moments of humor between the scenes of gore. Surprised to see yet another housemate who asks her if the bathroom is occupied, Alexia asks with exasperation, “How many of you are there?” He answers: “There’s Cri-Cri, Romu, Jiji, and me. Are more coming?” Exhausted, Alexia says, “Hope not!” As she embraces this man who offers her his bed for a nap, Alexia stabs him in the back.
Fleeing a police hunt, Alexia notices her resemblance to a missing boy on a poster in a train station who would now be about her age. She shaves her head, breaks her nose, and tries to pass as the lost boy, Adrien, with his father (played by Vincent Lindon in a stunning performance). Is this a film about gender trouble? The father is willfully oblivious to the fact that Alexia is not his son. He refuses a DNA test; he looks away on several occasions to not catch a glimpse of her naked body; and he professes his full belief in her identity as his son, no matter any biological or visible evidence to the contrary. (And there is a lot!)
Over time, Alexia grows visibly pregnant from a sexual encounter with a car after her first on-screen kill. The car “calls” her with its thumping sounds; she gets in the backseat and rides to orgasm. Straps in hands, car lights blinking and the front of the car bucking, both Alexia and the car seem to desperately need the encounter, although it is neither erotic nor tender. What kind of lovemaking is this?
Needless to say, neither car nor Alexia used protection! Later on, we see Alexia painfully binding her breasts and her pregnant belly. She leaks black oil from her breasts and vagina, her belly bulges and shifts as the car/human baby grows inside her. She appears horrified by her body’s changes, having failed to kill the fetus with her trusty hair pick. Is this abnormal behavior for a pregnant woman? In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir cited Isadora Duncan, who lamented that, with pregnancy, her “beautiful marble body” became “softened and broken and stretched and deformed”; she felt like a “poor animal in a mighty trap.” And in 1970, Shulamith Firestone upped the ante, quoting a friend who said that giving birth is like “shitting a pumpkin.”
In a course I teach on feminist film, I have taught Ducournau’s first film, Raw (2016), with uneven success. Centered on a young woman veterinary student who goes from vegetarian to cannibal, the film is “about” hazing on campus, female sexual desire, sister solidarity, racial tensions in contemporary France, and more. Many (not all) of my students get turned off by the body horror of seeing the heroine snack on the finger of her sister or cause car accidents in order to feast on the bodies of the victims. I teach Raw with Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), another film “about” cannibalism and sexual desire, and when it works, we discuss the monstrosity of female desire, its dangers, its posing of trouble for rules of gender and racial binaries and the ways we organize and structure our world.
But I am struggling now as I think of how to teach Titane on my eclectic and constantly changing feminist film syllabus. In conversations with my students, we ask whether a film is feminist if it flips the scripts from male to female, if it helps us get inside the heads of women characters, if it helps us understand women’s subjectivities and perspectives, or something else. Sometimes we are stymied by the rules for feminist film and the ways certain films both fit and resist. Creating these canons in the classroom shapes the conversations of subsequent generations of feminists, cinephiles, and educators alike. The “problem” films, like Titane, expand the conversations and force us to think carefully about how art undoes the rules, and can undo us too.
Consider the Bechdel rule. This is the feminist “test” introduced in 1985 by graphic artist Alison Bechdel in a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. In one installation, titled simply “The Rule,” two lesbians debate which movie to watch, a perennial dilemma. One says to the other, “Well, I have this rule […] I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” The Bechdel rule is a very low bar, and yet, most movies — Hollywood, at least — fail to pass. They cannot find a movie, so they go home to make popcorn. Titane seems to pass the Bechdel rule, but invariably, just after the talking (not about men, but about nipple rings), there is killing. Does this mean it passes or fails the Bechdel rule?
Perhaps what makes a film feminist is the debunking of what Simone de Beauvoir called myths of “the eternal feminine” or the idea of Woman — what could be called the “realism” rule. Documentaries often operate with this logic, as do some narrative films. But the reach of documentaries is limited, and “lessons” of didactic films are quickly forgotten. Although Titane portrays the specific perspective of a female character and certainly laughs in the face of the “eternal feminine,” Alexia’s murderous and selfish actions, her lack of empathy, her cold and calculating gaze could just as easily serve to buttress, rather than undo, the Medusa and other female monster myths.
So, maybe what matters most is a woman director and diverse female characters. We can call this the “diversity” rule. In this rule, who directs the film, who is on screen, and whether and how she is a role model is what is most important for calling a film feminist. From the diversity vantage point, a woman director is essential, and the characters need to represent a broad spectrum of women, a previously marginalized category of women, a woman in a new role as a superhero or a villain, or a woman courageously or against all odds triumphing against a social problem.
Alexia’s diversity could be categorized as “becoming-machine,” a new kind of monster. We could say that Alexia’s story expands our own capacities for compassion. But Titane is driven by plot and image, rather than by Alexia’s subjective experience and point of view. Spectators are not invited into Alexia’s thoughts, and we are left in utter ignorance about the world from her perspective. But even more significantly, the diversity rule fails to capture what is so thrilling and maybe feminist about this particular viewing experience.
To assess the importance of this glorious film, I think about some of Ducournau’s compatriot French and Belgian auteurs: the brilliant Chantal Akerman, who said of her hyper-realist films about ordinary life made strange, “I don’t have an idea. I have a feeling that I try to express”; or Catherine Breillat, whose daring use of images of female bodies in pain, ecstasy, and gross, unappealing yet beautiful excess, populates her impressive cinematic oeuvre. Like these auteurs, Ducournau is willing to explore the strange, to show us our own bodies, soft and hard, that surprise and fail us, that are the source of pain and pleasure, leak strange fluids, grow old or ugly, exceed and break the rules of gender, and are just simply never in our control. She pushes against what we think we know about who has power and who is vulnerable, and in which situations; she shows us how we fail to connect in almost every instance, and how it is like a miracle when we do so.
But most of all, we feel these things watching Titane rather than our coming to know or understand them. At times, it is profoundly uncomfortable to watch, but at other times it is pure joy. Ducournau’s images touch our bodies and trigger our emotions. What was hitting my eyes and ears made me cringe, look away, look back, tune out, tune back in, and peek through squinted vision. My skin got itchy, I felt nausea; my emotions veered from ecstasy to deep sorrow. I mostly didn’t understand what I was feeling or why I was feeling it.
Vincent Lindon as Adrien’s father is a revelation. He is a firefighter, “god” to his men (he tells them to think of Alexia/Adrien as “Jesus” and forbids his co-workers from ever talking with him about his “son”), but he shoots hormones or steroids into his butt every day in order to keep up his diminishing strength and virility. He has been gutted by the grief of losing his son, rendering him willing to completely deny reality to accept Alexia as Adrien. His ex-wife, herself still grieving after a decade, (of course) knows immediately that Alexia is an intruder, but she implores her to take care of Vincent nevertheless.
The most moving scene in the film is of Vincent and Alexia/Adrien dancing together in the kitchen after Vincent had begged her to speak (which she doesn’t) and noticed her breasts were leaking. Vincent swears he won’t hurt her; Alexia/Adrian runs from the table as Vincent turns on “She’s Not There” by the Zombies and begins to dance:
Well, no one told me about her, the way she lied
Well, no one told me about her, how many people cried
But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know? Why should I care?
Please don’t bother tryin’ to find her
She’s not there.
The lyrics capture what is so perplexing about Alexia. She lies, she kills, she makes people cry, she hides herself. But to her “father,” she need not say she is sorry, reveal, or explain herself. I read “she’s not there” as the “she” we expect to be there. Alexia is someone else, some creature of the next world, someone Vincent accepts and loves unconditionally. The dancing begins as sweet; it turns to aggression, and ends with Vincent on the floor with Alexia/Adrien holding the needle above him going in for the kill. A breathless Vincent says: “What’s that for? You in a knitting club? Wanna fight? Fight like a man!” But the threatening words belie his behavior. As the music swells, Vincent holds Alexia/Adrien in a bear hug and says: “Why do you always want to leave? You are already home!”
This may be the most transformative father/son scene in all of cinema and literature, breaking every rule written about inheritance, gender, family, and love. Even Alexia seems to feel it. From this point on, she is no longer a killer.
The film saves itself from veering too far toward typical redemption by closing with one of the most vivid and difficult birth scenes in cinematic history (Catherine Breillat is a contender with her scene of a baby’s head crowning in her 1999 Romance). Alexia’s story ends here as Vincent’s starts a new chapter. He is a new kind of parent (can we call him a cyborg mother?) to a new kind of being — a car/child with a steely spine — a little future that he will nurture.
Maybe the feminism of this film makes us feel the possibility, indeed the necessity, of leaving behind the selves we were and are to become something else entirely. New beings, new forms of kinship. Bearing witness, this feminist spectator felt a new world coming into sight.
Lori Marso is the author of several articles and books, most recently Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter (Duke, 2017), editor of Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge, 2016) and co-editor of Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier (Oxford, 2016). She is Doris Zemurray Stone Professor of Modern Literary and Historical Studies at Union College in Schenectady, New York, currently living in New York City, and writing a book called Feeling Freedom in Feminist Film.