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by Karenna Umscheid

It’s strange how men seem to find more kinship with cars than women do. There’s something very automotive about womanhood—the constant grooming, the style, the need for male attention. Men want a shiny new car all the time, with a fast engine and nice detailing. They treat their cars like prized possessions, caring for them preciously. And in bouts of revenge, women like to smash these cars — taking a Louisville slugger to both headlights, slashing the tires and keying the sides. 

Yet in Titane, it’s the car that has the affinity for the girl. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has a titanium plate screwed in her head from a childhood car accident. Now, she’s a showgirl, dancing provocatively on cars and obliging to take photos with male fans. Soon enough, the neurological dissonance surfaces, and she’s revealed to be a serial killer, with her signature hairpin as her weapon of choice. She appears to feel no warmth or love, killing without remorse and living without any personal connections, not even to her parents. She has only a kinship with automation, fitted with titanium and ogled all night by men. A Cadillac decorated with flames seduces Alexia better than any of the men that harass her and the women she meets in the shower. For her, flesh is too soft and malleable — and Alexia is more metal than human, anyway. 

At the 8:45pm showing at AMC Boston Common, an audience member passed out at a particularly disturbing scene. I was covering my ears and squeezing my eyes shut. Had I not seen the film with a friend, I may have left the theater. The horrors of Titane are always in the foreground, in your face and inescapable. It’s one of the most phenomenal theater experiences I’ve ever had. To squirm and groan in a room of other viewers is almost comforting. A few of us joked that it was likely an entirely Emerson student showing, because who else in the area is going opening night to the horrifying French body horror from Cannes?

Alexia’s womanhood is dark and vile. The machinery in her head lives throughout her. She has a passion for killing, displayed at one point in an almost comedic sequence I wish I had the stomach to open my eyes for. She’s nearly violent in her sexual exploits; she’s dangerous in every sense. I was prepared to cover my eyes in any scene she was alone with another character, for fear of what she may do to them. Alexia is recklessly feminine, sexual, and quite evil. 

As her erotic encounter with the Cadillac seems to have impregnated her, grotesque imagery surrounding her bodily transformation follows. Like a car crash, it’s horrifying, but beckons you to look. Eventually, Alexia’s murderous habit seems to catch up with her, and a sketch drawing of her face appears throughout the city, and Alexia’s serial killing side-hustle has landed her in constant suspicion. She burns her past bridges, and moves to live on the lam. 

Detailed spoilers for the film follow here.

The most shocking part of the film is the genuinely sweet emotional core at its center. When Alexia assumes the identity of Adrien, a boy who has been missing for ten years, his father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), seems to believe it. He’s extremely lonely, with a longing for youth and an addiction to steroids. Alexia-as-Adrien refuses to speak, inviting suspicion from those working at Vincent’s fire department. Vincent may either be naive or willfully oblivious, but he does not allow suspicion of Alexia to get to him: he protects who he sees as his son. Alexia binds her breasts and growing stomach, retreating from her bold femininity in order to appear more androgynous. She pains herself to keep her cover. Her entire physical presentation is far less overtly gendered, with only the occasional motor oil leak to serve as a reminder of her womanhood. 

Her androgynous appearance and overall departure from the rigidity of gender normativity entices homoeroticism in the fire station. Alexia, with a more male appearance, dances in front of her male coworkers like she used to as a showgirl, being met with confusion and arousal. But Titane is a film without binds and labels. It’s the false fatherhood Vincent feels with Alexia, despite her deception of him. Alexia’s motherhood is suppressed physically and emotionally, and though she is the one to carry a child biologically, it is Vincent who will raise her child. There are no rules or roles set in their scenario — it’s only Vincent’s love, and Alexia’s growing warmth and openness that creates the unconventional family. 

But bearing biological children is not what creates parenthood. Vincent is not biologically related to Alexia and yet even as he learns her identity, he stays to help her. And although she attempts to kill him and flee, Alexia decides to stay after seeing the intensity of his addiction, his loneliness. In a nearly violent dance/fight set to She’s Not There by The Zombies, Alexia attempts to kill him with her signature hairpin. He fatherly refutes it, and tells her to “fight like a man.” To drop her weapon, and use only her hands. This is the first time we see her attempt to kill someone, and fail. From this, comes a genuine connection between the two. 

When Vincent’s ex-wife, who is also Adrien’s biological mother, arrives to meet Alexia, she is immediately suspicious. She walks into her room to see her naked, in pain from the pregnancy, and seems to pity her. She tells her that she doesn’t know what scheme Alexia has created, but tells her to stay and care for Vincent. As Alexia goes into labor, Vincent stays with her. She reveals her real name, and gives birth with Vincent’s help. The action kills her, and as Vincent takes the child in his arms, he reassures them, saying “I’m here.” His genuine love for Alexia warmed the titanium in her, the humanity thought impossible in her brought forth by his simple care. It’s a brilliantly unconventional love story. 

I was left stunned and teary-eyed at the end of the movie, partially because of how beautiful and striking the story was, but also because I was in awe of the brilliance of the film. It’s, at once, horrifying, disturbing, tender, and sweet. Forget a sophomore slump, Julia Ducournau has made a masterpiece. This film is one that will outlive us, like every machine that’s built to last.