Devotees of the female antihero archetype rejoice, there’s a new crazy ass white girl in town, and she’s a little twisted. As a result of a sudden, unfortunate roadside lobotomy, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle, a force of nature in her debut role) has a titanium plate surgically fitted to the side of her head. Once released from the hospital, she gives dear old mom and dad the cold shoulder in favor of giving the car a big smooch. Now a bionic woman, Alexia dances at a sexy, futuristic car show, serial-murders partygoers with her metal hairpin, and has sex with a car in a scene reminiscent of the HIGH LIFE fuck box.
After one of her victims escapes, Alexia goes on the run, changing her appearance to look like a young boy who disappeared a decade ago named Adrien, by shaving her hair, giving herself an impromptu nose job, and binding down her breasts. Adrien’s aging father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who works as a fire captain and is addicted to steroids, refuses a DNA test and identifies Alexia as his son Adrien, now a bionic boy. Vincent and Alexia/Adrien would be now free to drive home and live happily ever after as father and son, if it weren’t for one small problem – Alexia has a bun in the oven, so maintaining her drag king disguise becomes increasingly difficult as the pregnancy progresses.
Director Julia Ducournau and Rousselle have achieved a new feat in horror cinema with TITANE, crafting a pregnant woman character who is both compelling and totally unsympathetic. Alexia’s rage and violence, the core of the film, are a far cry from the doe-eyed innocence of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary. Alexia neither seeks revenge nor is she a victim defending herself; Alexia is dangerous because she is. More WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN than JOKER, there is no explanation for Alexia’s fucked up and often straight-up evil behaviors. Is it the fault of her sleazy, uncaring father, played by New French Extremity director Bertrand Bonello? Did the freak accident scramble Alexia’s brain and render her unstable, or was cold metal in her bloodstream from birth?
None of this is to say that Alexia is without her empathetic moments; with every slice, every punch, and every physically gut-wrenching moment Alexia endures (a fairly often recurrence: this is a Ducournau film after all), I winced and squirmed along with the rest of my fellow audience members. Is this visceral empathy with Alexia powerful enough to forge the emotional connection required to buy into the crux of the film, the mythic love between Alexia/Adrien and Vincent? At times, yes. In a scene that could melt even the coldest heart, Vincent teaches Alexia/Adrien how to perform CPR on a civilian, using “La Macarena” as a guide, but Vincent’s characterization falls flat, and toward the end of the film, my emotional connection to the pair began to lose steam in favor of my interest in the body horror aesthetics, as Alexia’s half-robot body drastically transforms with her pregnancy.
The physicality of TITANE is entirely magnetic, at once stylish and grotesque; it’s through the physical that Alexia connects to the audience, and also through which she connects with Vincent as he grapples with years of steroid abuse. Alexia undergoes her own transformation from Alexia to Adrien to, finally, clawing her way back to Alexia, but Rouselle’s physical look, while androgynous and sexy, is hardly groundbreaking or new. Cisgender, thin white girls with high cheekbones have been cast and celebrated by the male gaze establishment as androgynous types for decades. Ducournau’s pursuit of any kind of gender critique is surface-level. It is Adrien/Alexia’s presence that disrupts the status quo of the already homoerotic, all-male fire team (think BEAU TRAVAIL with more neon lighting), in the sense that the firefighters were vying for a kiss from daddy, but the question of her gender fluidity only makes them uncomfortable once, and not in any significant way. Remixing the female psycho killer villain by adding the window dressing of what the teens are calling “non-binary vibes” is maybe not as revolutionary as Ducournau seems to think it is, but it sure does make for a stylish film, and no one can accuse her of not being on trend.
RAW die-hards will already be familiar with Ducournau’s penchant for extreme violence, and they will not be disappointed with TITANE, as the two films are a part of “the same continuous gesture,” to borrow Ducournau’s own words. What RAW did for finding humanity in animalistic bloodthirst, TITANE attempts for sleek, dead metal, but it doesn’t quite make it there. It’s a fun carnival ride, and I do suggest horror lovers buy the ticket, but once the spectacle was over I was left without much to grasp onto.