Industrial Labour: On Titane (2021) (Written by Ana Saplala) (SPOILERS AHEAD)
|The mouth agape: Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) lies halfway down the stairs|
Perhaps no film has been so successful at titillating and disarming festival audiences in 2021 quite like this year's Palme D'Or winner Titane. Following Alexia (Agathe Rouselle), a 34 year-old showgirl whose attraction to cars transforms her anatomy into a machination of her identity, the film begins with her younger self having a titanium plate fitted into her skull upon sustaining severe injuries from a car crash. Years later, she finds herself wanted for serial murder. As she alters her identity, she finds inescapable solace in the hands of a fire chief (Vincent Lindon) plagued by the delusion of his missing son.
Julia Ducornau's sophomore effort is far too tameless to really be deserving of thoughts that can be easily accessed by the general public, mine included. Titane is as its title suggests - resistant to its filmic corrosions, yet completely affected by the tides of gender conformity despite the physical and moral flexibility of femininity itself, as well as the weight of bearing the unreal altogether. Though never entirely clear in the messages it attempts to unify, Titane is all the more richer for its ability to allow Alexia to be embraced by Vincent's empathy, as ridden by illusion as he seems to be, and as degraded as she continues to be upon being physically, mentally, emotionally repressed from within.
Having attended TIFF's Midnight Madness screening for this film, I had completely lost track of the words that I wanted to put to this experience as the credits began to roll. After nearly two hours of audibly reacting, the lights were still dim, and my hands touched the sides of my head for perhaps the umpteenth time.
Despite continuing to draw numerous comparisons to Cronenberg's infamous 1996 Jury Prize winner Crash, Titane remains its own cinematic engine altogether, its provocations brimming with visual flair and a fair share of dark humor. However, what ultimately separates it from its supposed predecessor is the fact that it broadens the spectrum of humanity by making room for its deteriorating characters to feel loved.
Most of all, it interacts with its own engine as a journey through the engine itself, rather than merely allowing the engine to exist as a vehicle of pleasure secondary to humans themselves. Crash is as metallic as Titane is, but its vehicles are heavy and dead through and through, and don't react to its human counterparts. Titane's automotive personifications do, and to anything above the eyes and below them. It beats any perverted iteration of the Knight Rider there is - this one in particular being silenced by a paint job and tasked with an entirely different function altogether.
To even compare Titane to David Cronenberg, let alone draw more comparisons to it, feels more of an impairment than a solid description of Ducornau's style, which draws more from turn-of-the-century Claire Denis. While Durcornau herself acknowledges the Canadian's influence on her work, she has mentioned numerous times that her work doesn't fall under the same genre as his, let alone be classified as body horror.
Most of all, this ignores the contributions Denis has made as one of the first and few women within the New French Extremity, a pinnacle of contemporary cinema and horror films that has both honoured her work and overlooked its influence. To even bring Cronenberg into this conversation eclipses the seismic effect that Claire Denis's contributions to body horror has had on Ducornau's small but unfailingly tremorous body of work - the same tremorous sensibilities that resulted in many of Denis's works coming under outrage and scrutiny.
In numerous conversations, David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Wong Kar-wai, and Luca Guadagnino are often heralded as cinema's greatest sensualists. And yet, it is Claire Denis whose filmography has mastered sensuality at its most difficult and confrontational, and her influence on Ducornau that further proves this point.
As Titane re-articulates dominant representations of gender and identity by dismissing them altogether, four of Denis's works come to mind: J'ai pas sommeil (1994), Nenette et Boni (1996), Beau travail (1999), and Trouble Every Day (2001) - the latter being the film which caused her ejection from that year's edition of Cannes. Each of these films are just as crucial in understanding the purpose of Ducornau's most recent film, as well as the crux of Claire Denis' filmography. Given these, there is much to be said about how Denis and Ducornau have approached themes of spatial dislocation, violence, and the human body. Most notable is the fact that this specific period of Denis's filmmaking finds its thematic and contemporary culmination in Titane.
|Laurent Grevill as Le docteur and Richard Courcet as Camille in J'ai pas sommeil (1994)|
To begin, J'ai pas sommeil's atrocities are as secondary to the film as the real-life identity of its main character Camille (Richard Courcet), while loosely inspired by the serial murders of Thierry Paulin. As viewers come to the realization that the rest of the film's characters have direct or indirect connections to his murders, there is still discomfort to be found in the degree of sympathy with which they are presented. Nonetheless, its intersecting stories are reflective of the disconnect and desolation of living as an immigrant in Paris.
While made with the intentions of exploring the intolerance of indifference, J'ai pas sommeil has received misinterpretations of being homophobic and racist towards its links between homosexuality, immigrants, and serial murder. Likewise, Titane's first half is predominated by the senselessness of Alexia's killing spree, and yet it is this senselessness that reveals a state of loneliness that is far from humanly resonant, and one that is only alleviated by her desire towards the immaterial.
However, it is the state of ruin in which Alexia has had to live her life that keeps her and Vincent intrinsically and emotionally connected. And despite the sincerity that comes with both of them achieving the fullness of love despite their emptiness, it is incredibly difficult to ignore the preceding discomfort experienced in the face of shared tenderness.
It is all the more telling when this film is led by a chronicle of Alexia's journey, and made all the more discomforting through its own conscious knowledge of her exploits (most notably of Vincent) remaining equal to its audience. Nonetheless, the viscerality of Titane is far less reminiscent of Cronenberg's primal fascination with every tangible and intangible entrail, and moreso around the lines of Denis's emphasis on the role that bodies play in establishing the spatial importance of tactility.
That's why the opening scene to Beau Travail immediately came to mind when I became drawn in and enamoured by the camera gently floating around the clan of firemen at a small bar, lost in the active fragility of Future Islands' "Light House" - a needle drop that, at the surface, feels like a cheap choice of synthpop to fulfill the increasing demographic of contemporary arthouse consumers. However, it gradually becomes none of the aforementioned once one becomes accustomed to the firemens' bulky yet fluid movements gracing the frame. It is an acknowledgement of fluidity as a release from rigidity, and fluidity as possibility, however temporary it may be.
It's no wonder that what appears to be a minor part of Titane harkens to this opening scene of Denis's magnum opus, in which a group of military trainees are welcomed with a night of dancing at a small club. The film eventually follows the story of Galoup (Denis Lavant), a sergeant leading a small band of French Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti. Amid azure waters and sunbaked desert landscapes, Galoup sows the seeds of his own ruin through the emotional reminiscences of his obsession with a striking young recruit in Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin).
But for the first three minutes of, Denis's group of soldiers are equal to everyone else around them as Vincent's horde of firemen, and the reality of them being men fades away. As aware as they are of their appearance, their hardened masculinity is freed from the carnal trappings of an inverted triangle. Iron and bone move like silk, pulled by foreigners and melodies as if they were a light breeze of wind embracing the possibilities of self-expression, and the unity that follows. There is Alexia in awe of the freedom that Vincent feels around his men. The weight of loneliness that comes with her transformation is temporarily lifted by passive admiration, albeit cut short when Vincent takes her for a nauseating spin. Then there is Sentain being seen for the first time, walking through the crowd and only partially aware of the freedom he is being offered to enjoy, yet motionless at the sight of it all.
Furthermore, both films contain contrasting depictions of male bodies in motion - both in the ephemera of freedom and the convergence that makes up their everyday. There is a scene in Beau Travail comprised of a single tracking shot of Sentain walking through the desert area as training troops lock and release behind him. That this particular act of convergence is so distant from his own repressed desire to be more than what he has built himself up to be, and yet that is exactly what he cannot do. Before we know it, we're hit with snapshots of Sentain engaging in this routine, passively rethinking the premise of this exercise while simultaneously remaining within its initial intentions.
Where Galoup's shadow looms over Sentain's awareness of the fragility of his good nature, Alexia's increasingly visible pregnancy aims to shatter all visible knowledge of her presentation as Adrien - something that becomes troubling when she is dragged by a pair of drunken firemen after failing to keep her distance from a moshpit. Where this is confronted by the tenor of Sentain's muted submission to Galoup's piercing stare, Alexia performs a striptease to the confusion of the drunken firemen who coaxed her to jump from the top of a firetruck - the safety within her androgyny proudly withering away, if only for a moment without worry.
And somehow, there is as much of Galoup within Vincent, hardened by experience and distant from the collective spirit of younger men under their wing, yet broken down by the physical repression of intimacy with others and oneself. Both characters are ultimately stripped and validated by vulnerability, and find redemption and refuge in their eventual suffering. To the greatest extent, both men confront their subjects of admiration in the most threatening manner, capturing an initially intimidating feeling whose cathartic release is euphoric beyond compare. As Galoup is a significant other amongst his troops and the Djibouti locals, Vincent's urge to maintain his own appearance becomes a contributing factor to his alienation rather than the alliances that he facilitates within his field of work.
Given this, Titane is able to draw from the tonal poeticism of Beau Travail, showcasing male bodies as homogenous and equal physical surfaces. Most of all, it unflinchingly presents the significant loss of the identity of the other - in this case, femininity as a whole - through the reinforced integration into formally masculine structures. Julia Ducornau is able to reshape the politics of the human body in a way that projects the kinds of boundaries dictated and intentionally broken as a result of physical and cultural displacement, which continues to be a universal experience to those who abuse and are abused by any form of physical, mental, and political power.
For the same reasons that Titane had won the Palme, Trouble Every Day would be marked by notoriety. Furthermore, Claire Denis reiterates the use of borders and boundaries to draw attention to limits, using violence as a vehicle to explore the excess of desire and its physical materialization. In a similar light (and on the other hand), Titane is Julia Ducornau briefly acknowledging these boundaries before allowing them to combust with the power of consequence, and the consequence of power, whether reclaimed or revoked, and regardless of the span of time at which either one occurs.
Deviating from post-colonial themes for the first time since Nenette et Boni, the 2001 film also explored the boundaries of desire alongside the potential consequences of technological advancements. In the case of Denis's film, it investigates the effects of a virus that turns its hosts into cannibals hindered by the sexual arousal of victims. The film follows infected newlywed Shane (Vincent Gallo) as he returns to Paris and reunites with Coré (Beatrice Dalle), a fellow host who has been locked away from her husband as an attempt to stifle her violent acts of sexual deviance.
While Ducornau's 2016 debut Raw seems more fitting to discuss along the lines of Trouble Every Day, only cannibalistic tendencies seem to draw the two together, alongside a recurrent intrusion of the body. However, it is hereditary development that causes Raw's intrusion, rather than the substantial conveyance of pregnancy in Titane.
|Still from Nenette et Boni (1996)|
Similar lines can be drawn between Titane and Nenette et Boni, as both Alexia and Nenette's pregnant bodies further embolden their bodies as a site of disgust, rejection, and invasion. As their respective pregnancies become progressive intrusions and violations of the body, Alexia's pregnancy is an intrusion that has consumed her inhuman desires and the space where she can freely project them, whereas Nenette's unwanted pregnancy is an intrusion of both her already fragmented adolescence and her brother Boni's living circumstances.
For Denis, succumbing to desire equates to the inevitability of its detrimental effects - that which Ducornau is never a stranger to. Even Raw's ending demonstrates this as an open-ended form of closure between Justine, who has inherited her mother's cannibalistic tendencies, and her father, who has had to cave into his significant other's desires to consummate their marriage.
In the case of Trouble Every Day, the overconsumption of Core's desire causes her death, and the same can be said of Alexia's eventual death in Titane as caused by her pregnancy, which transforms into an act of labour that is sacrificial more than celebratory. Alexia's surviving child is not only the result of her desires being released into the world, but the reason why her desires have consumed her will to continue to live.
Ultimately, the films of Claire Denis reflect Ducornau's work in the present day, and I'm sure that neither High Life nor Titane dictate either director in their final form. Both are visionaries in their ability to go beyond horror's standard creations in order to define the palpable, and its boundlessness within the tactility of bodies and human flesh. Although I believe Denis's long-serving cinematographer Agnes Godard said it best:“The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies: I like to look at people, to look at them in order to love them. It’s like dancing with someone, except with a camera you don’t touch them. I just want to tell them that I’d like to put my hand on them.”
For all that Titane is worth, and for how valuable it has been in contributing to the bodily landscapes that inhabit the world in (as well as and) ourselves, Julia Ducornau's approach to the human body is equal parts understated and provocative. It is never overly brutal in its displays of human anatomy, nor are her films excessive splatterhouses of sorts. Rather, it is the unpredictability with which the human body reacts and evolves, and ultimately, how it grows before us, that asks us to come face to face with difference.
Titane is an intrusion of the body, of borders, of desires, of laws and limits. It is as unwillingly inviting as its premise, and allows us to observe the transgressions activated by every line that it chooses to cross. It forces us to front and eventually adopt what we might not otherwise.
In doing so, Titane resists the projection of an idealized other in Alexia and Vincent, but leaves room for both to express empathy while silently grappling within their parameters in a world that is boisterously fixated on observation. Alexia's silence is to that of Nenette's - symptomatic to sensitivity. We know nothing outside of their desires and our assumptions of their motivations are constantly being proven wrong.
If not for the near-hour between Alexia's last words and her first words as Adrien asking Vincent if he's sick, Titane would not be as complex as it already is. Rather than developing our knowledge of their otherness, we are only left to determine what their subjectivity might be, even after the life within it has departed its vehicle.
No one is doubting how incredibly uneasy it is to watch this film and feel any better about the future, or at least entirely, considering the increasing significance that industrialized cultures place on the importance of sensual experience, and the substitution of human contact with the instant gratification of material fulfillment. No one is denying the consequences of these supposed innovations either, with the obvious exception of its own creators who are continuing to make a fortune to avoid that extent of self-awareness.
Be it on four wheels or two legs, let's just say that they're going to keep making some pretty lifelike mannequins these days, and we're all going to have to get used to the emptiness of being treated like machines.
But bodies lock, and they may tend to break. Yet this new flesh is metal, and it is very much one, alive, and reborn.
Titane gets an immediate 11/10!
Titane is now in theaters. Watch the red band trailer here.
Writer's note - I recently saw this film for the second time. It was a completely different experience.