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, one of 2021s charming oddities, is the second movie of Julia Ducournau following her directorial debut Raw. Its a body horror piece. A surreal journey through murder, parental love, 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 films subject matter is disturbing, some of its scenes shocking and bizarre; a sexual escaped 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 by the blanket term of disturbing 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 Waters 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. Queer people will read different meanings into the same films. One persons disturbing will be another persons 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, leading to a car crash which results in Alexia sustaining injuries that a metal plate in her head rectifies.
We learn a few things right away- far from being a tolerant and patient parent, Alexias father 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.
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.
However, an inkling of this 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. Parents shouldnt 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 shuns the creepy advances of a male fan, kissing him and then stabbing him with her hairpin.
She has a sexual encounter with the Cadillac at the motor-show, and weirdly enough becomes pregnant.
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 dont have? With no internal love, Alexias relationship with Justine seems doomed. Alexia comes off as borderline sociopathic. 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 parents.
Now on the run, Alexia sees an digitally-aged portrait of Adrien Legrand, a seventeen year old boy who has been missing for ten years, and senses some familiarity. She decides to assume his identity.
This is the turning point of the film that is truly unexpected. Its the make or break moment that alienated a few friends Id 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 familys tragedy to evade the law.
Ive 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 characters 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 her identity on him.
Im 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 attempts to alter her appearance to better disguise herself as Adrien. How much of my childhood was spent looking in mirrors, wondering what I would change? 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. Still, self-mutilation as inspiration. At least its a 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 Vincents love does seem to be wearing them down, seeping through the cracks, they still cannot accept it as they 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. Im thankful that my childhood was fortunate, but I always felt my parents loved someone I was meant to be, but wasnt. 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 isnt completely oblivious to who he has let into his life. A beautiful line from him; I dont care who you are, youre my son. Youll 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, doesnt 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 Alexias true gender identity is left unclarified, but I feel thats 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.