I feel weird and bad that I struggle to recommend Titane, because actual critics seem to like it and it won the Palme d’Or. And I loved director Julia Ducournau‘s other film Raw. She clearly knows how to push boundaries with body horror but via an entertaining film, and Titane does tick all those boxes. But parts of it feel…problematic.
Our story is thus: after a childhood car accident, Alexia gets a metal plate in her skull. On her way out from the hospital, little Alexia stops at the car and then…hugs and kisses it. Flash-forward to adulthood, where she sports an undercut designed to show off her prominent scar, and works as some variation of adult modelling in which she simulates sex with cars to sell them. She does have sex with that car later, in a scene that manages to sell it without crossing over into absurdity (bringing to mind the darkly funny yet awkward deflowering scene from Midsommar). Through lurid colours, a booming soundtrack and gorgeous tracking shots, we are thrown into Alexia’s grown-up world of cars, sex, and body positivity, and it’s here that I thought the film was going somewhere new, somewhere hyper-human.
Instead, it switches gears to a crime story, the aftermath of a brief but shocking murder spree that happens without any build-up. Alexia then poses as a missing young man to hide from the police and it’s here that things feel icky in their execution: She binds her breasts with stretchy bandage – things trans men have had to do in the past (pretty old-fashioned now, but I guess I’m not surprised the movie didn’t look into that), which is visibly, unbearably painful. She punches her face to give herself two black eyes, and brutally slams her nose onto the sharp edge of a metal sink to change its shape – which evokes and seems to exploit the common abuse hurled at trans people that they’re ‘disfiguring’ themselves. There’s also an overall treatment and depiction of various human bodies via lingering shots of repulsive, wrinkled, flabby, obsolete flesh that seems at odds with earlier scenes.
I would be fine with leveraging trans themes if they were being used appropriately but, much like the repeated and offensive exploitation of trans bodies in the book Frankissstein, us cis people seem really fucking bad at incorporating anything trans-related in art (unless it’s being used to get a Best Actor/Actress award). It’s tone-deaf fetishising at best, and mining-for-borderline-offensive-humour at worst.
But I can see that there’s already some mild Oscar buzz about this film, so I guess the consensus is that this kind of thing is still OK, or maybe people feel positively assaulted by its otherwise-compelling extremes. It has a fantastic, fucking fascinating aesthetic, and Agathe Rousselle‘s performance is certainly award-worthy, but both deserve better surroundings.