Transgenderism When You're Pregnant with a Car Baby ('Titane' (2021) dir. Julia Ducournau)

Lockdown has provided me, like a lot of people, with plenty of time to look inwards. This culminated in a break-up with a short-term girlfriend when I came out as a transgender man.

Romance begins from within; we learn to love ourselves after recovering love in childhood from those closest to us- parents, siblings, and friends. But when you dont feel like the person they love, when you come to terms with your true identity, you have to build that inner romance up again from scratch, sometimes without the unconditional love from your family.

'Titane', possibly on of my favourite films from 2021 (or indeed all time), is the second movie of Julia Ducournau following her directorial debut, 'Raw'. In part, it's a body horror piece, but it's also a surreal journey through murder, family, and gender. Its themes of transgender identity have seemed blatant to me; viewing the film with a cisgender, heterosexual friend, and again with a queer, non-binary friend yielded wildly different viewing experiences.

The film's subject matter is disturbing, some of its scenes shocking and bizarre; a sexual escapade with a Cadillac resulting in pregnancy, graphic and intense murder scenes. Its protagonist, a woman called Alexia who later assumes the identity of a boy named Adrien, is far from what people would consider a wholesome representation of the trans identity. They are a difficult character to empathise with, their actions so morally bereft that reading a trans allegory into their arc might seem laughable and even at worst offensive, as other people have pointed out.

So, the situation is precarious. It reminds me of a subject hotly debated amongst my friends and I. Last year, an iceberg chart originally intended to showcase horror films but becoming known as the 'disturbing movie iceberg' achieved viral status in online film and horror circles, with multiple YouTubers also commenting on it. For those unfamiliar, an iceberg chart is a type of listing meme which normally places its subject matter ranked from least to most known. In this case, it was a list of movies ranked based on how well known/disturbing they were. The top tier of the iceberg being well-known horrors that could be considered disturbing, the bottom tier being mostly niche and obscure clip-compilations of real death and violence.

The source of contention among me and friends is that, on the third tier, nestled amongst 'The Human Centipede 2 (full sequence)' and 'Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom' sits 'Pink Flamingos'.

'Pink Flamingos', considered the most well-know of gross-out queer director John Water's filmography, seems to me wildly out of place amongst such brutal horror films. Sure, 'Pink Flamingos' has subject matter that is far from clean- a rape is played for laughs, there is an unsimulated oral sex scene, animal death, and a man with a singing, um, orifice. Still, watching drag queens and obscure queer icons vie for the title of 'filthiest person alive' was for me and the queer group I viewed the film with, funny! The film is an important piece in queer cinema history, and to me its subject matter is far more palatable that other films in the same iceberg tier.'Pink Flamingos' seems to say, to me at least, 'if they think the gay lifestyle is disgusting and immoral, we'll show them disgusting and immoral'. Queer people will always derive their own readings of films. One person's disturbing horror film will be another person's reclamational satire or coming-of-age movie; their chance, among blood and eyebrow raising-sequences, to see people like them.

What do I see in the protagonist of Titane?

At the beginning of the film, we see a young Alexia bothering her father while he drives. She kicks the back of his seat, she makes loud noises, she takes her seatbelt of. We can all agree that this is a nightmare child, but a normal child. All kids are like this, in part. The extroadinary part of this story is that Alexia's actions inadvertantly lead to a car crash. Her father, irritable beyond belief, turns around to yell at her. The car flips, and a scene later, Alexia is having a metal plate surgically grafted to her skull.

We learn a few things right away- far from being a tolerant and patient parent, Alexia's father, whom she was alone with in the car, is quick to anger. Alexia has not received unconditional love from her parental figures. As a substitute for the foundational love, Alexia projects love onto mechanical objects, notably cars. As she leaves the hospital, she strides toward the family car, embraces and kisses it. The family car, which was the catalyst for an honest reaction from her father. Something that changed her life.

Love is protection, a saviour to most children. The metal plate in her head is the thing that has kept her alive. Truth and honesty are also the cornerstones of love. A car-crash laying bare her fathers contempt for her, the vehicle viewed as a saving grace. Metal and mechanics as love.

However, an inkling of this as an unsatisfactory substitute already peaks through. These mechanical items obviously cannot truly love Alexia back, and therefore, she has no gauge for self-love; perhaps she never did. After coming away from a car crash, most children would be scared to get back into a vehicle again. Alexia doesnt seem to care about the danger factor. The intensity is enough for her- love and pain can be the same thing. This coming years after Gillian Flynn wrote in 'Sharp Objects': "a child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort."

Children are difficult, but they are distinctly themselves. Alexia acting out shouldnt be a fuse to a switch that turns off parental love. Parent's shouldn't love an idealised image of their child, because that is not their child.

The film then skips toward to Alexia in adulthood, now a showgirl at a car exhibition; the perfect job for someone who blends sexuality with the inanimate. She dances atop a Cadillac in a bikini. After her shift, she is followed by an overbearing fan to her car, where she kisses him then stabs him with her hairpin.Going back inside her work venue to clean up, she then has a sexual encounter with the Cadillac, and weirdly enough becomes pregnant. So we have all of our themes laid bare in one sequence- one-sided love, sexuality, murder, parenthood, and metal.

She enters into a brief relationship with Justine, a co-worker, but after a sexual encounter where Alexia focuses on Justines nipple piercings and the pain they can inflict, Alexia seems to be reminded that the people around her are not confused to the mesh of pain, pleasure, and metal.How can you give something you don't have? With no internal love, Alexia's relationship with Justine seems doomed. Alexia comes off as borderline sociopathic.She has nothing to give. She tells Justine she is pregnant, and as Justine tries to console her, Alexia emotionlessly kills her and two of her housemates before going home and similarly dispatching her own parents.

Now on the run, Alexia sees an digitally-aged portrait of Adrien Legrand, a seven year old boy who has been missing for ten years, and what he would look like now at seventeen. Sensesing some unexplained familiarity, she decides to assume his identity.This is the turning point of the film that is truly unexpected. It's the make or break moment that alienated a few friends I'd viewed this film with from Alexia entirely. Even myself, on the first viewing, was having a hard time empathising with someone who would insert themselves into another family's tragedy to evade the law.

I've watched the film a few more times since then, and now that the shift in storylines is less jarring, I appreciate it a lot more.

Part of the experience of being a trans man, for me, has been modelling myself on figures in fiction I admire. You see this a lot on certain social-media circles, actually. People tweeting photos of characters saying that they give them gender envy, accounts from cosplayers saying that dressing like their favourite character's made them realise they were trans. What would Alexia see in the 7-year-old Adrien, apart from their similarities in appearance, that would make her want to model a new identity identity on him.

I'm sure theres something to be said about Adrien going missing at age 7, around the age of Alexias car-crash, from which she has been absent of personality since.

Alexia, in the bathroom at a bus station, attempts to alter her appearance to better disguise herself as Adrien. How much of my childhood was spent looking in mirrors, wondering when I would become recognisable to myself, asking what I would change if I could? The bathroom scene in 'Titane' is teeth-grittingly awful, but at the same time, so, so good. Watching someone smash their face off a sink to break their own nose. Self-mutilation as inspiration. At least it's by choice. Everything I do to myself is more me than what I was born with.

Adrien soon reunites with his father- fire captain Vincent Legrand- who immediately disputes any possibility that this person may not be his son.

Throughout the next act, Alexia-as-Adrien grows close to Vincent. Originally intending to kill him, Adrien eventually assimilates to life at the fire station. Hypermasculine practices are used as a space for bonding, and as Adrien, Alexia gets the unconditional parental love he never had. However as the pregnancy progresses, he seems to find it harder to perform gender affirming practices that will keep his previous identity a secret. The pain of binding with bandages is fully-realised, as well as the body horror of an unwanted pregnancy.

Alexia/Adrien, no longer identifying as female, is not fully comfortable as a man either. Although Vincent's love does seem to be wearing them down, seeping through the cracks, they still cannot accept it as there is still an element of pretend.

I remember when I was younger, I always had the distinct feeling of an aura of love from my parents, but it never really touched me. I'm thankful that my childhood was fortunate, but I always felt my parents loved someone I was meant to be, but wasn't. They were looking at a picture of me, praising it, while I stood on the sidelines and watched. It seemed easier to pretend to be the little girl they loved. Every fight over wearing a dress was draining.

I can imagine the same for Alexia at this point. Years of performing hyperfeminime practices might have become the norm, something reliable and inescapable- but, we remember, without love from anything human. When faced with performing the opposite, and being loved for doing so, Alexia begins to feel something so affably human compared to how they were in the first act. Guilt. Guilt at accepting this love that is not theirs. The guilt says to me that Alexia is also beginning to develop a clearer sense of self and self-worth. The inner romance.

However, Vincent isn't completely oblivious to who he has let into his life. A beautiful line from him; "I dont care who you are, you're my son. You'll always be my son, whoever you are,". Vincent managed to fill a gap in his life, got a second chance to raise a child- and like any good parent should, doesn't care who this child will grow up to be, because their bond will remain the same, and he will always love them.

Alexia acts accordingly; they perform the same sexualised dance they once did at the car show to a crowd of confused firefighters, and shortly after, they begin to give birth.

They seek out Vincent for help. Vincent seems shocked at first at the full weight of discovery that this is not Adrien, but when Alexia reintroduces themselves, he fully accepts it and helps them through the delivery.

Alexia does not survive the birth. Vincent lies with the baby- part mechanical- draped across his chest, reassuring it. Its metal spine seems to show where Alexia has been, but a new birth represents a fresh start, a new journey, total truth. And to be loved unconditionally with a fresh face.

With an ending this jaw-dropping, it seems redundant to say that Alexia's true gender identity is left unclarified, but I feel that's beyond the point. Its about the right to become whoever you want, to discover and love yourself, and be loved regardless of who that person is.

Queer identity and horror seem to go hand in hand often. 'Titane' is tricky because it is an understatement to say it is disturbing, but its themes of transitioning are so heartwarming to me. As a queer person who is also a horror fan, seeing grotesque body horror as well as a protagonist you can project any gender identity you want onto, while not everyones cup of tea, is something so crucial to my being that I want to inject this film directly into my veins.