Friday, 10 December 2021

Titane (2021) - Movie Review

I went into this as blind as I possibly could. All I knew about it going in was that it was a French film, a lot of critics I follow have brought it up as one of, if not the, craziest film of the year, and it was written and directed by Julia Ducournau, who also made Raw, which is one of my favourite films from 2017 (and it would’ve ranked pretty damn high had I actually written a best-of list for that year). Beyond that, I knew nothing about the plot or any potential inklings of theme, and quite frankly, I couldn’t have picked a better film to try this approach with this year. Partly because it helped make the specifics of the plot that much more bizarre (and this is pretty frickin’ weird as is), but mainly because figuring out what this whole mess is about is going to be that much more fun for me. So! Let’s dig in.

The films open on a note that definitely shows this is a brain-sibling of Raw, as this is also about a young woman coming into her own through surreal and gory circumstances. Here, said woman is Alexia, played by Agathe Rousselle in her feature debut, who we first see having to get a metal plate in her head as a child after a car crash, and then growing up into a very sexualised showgirl at a car show. Y’know, the kind that look like they’re having sex with the car in question, which is actually what happens here? Now, at first, this knowing juxtaposition is no-brainer, especially for someone who’s sat through all of the Fast & Furious movies like myself. These kinds of displays are meant to present women and cars in the same lecherous light, to the point where outsiders start wondering which ‘object’ the audience is supposed to be physically lusting for.

But as the film continues, that connection turns out to be much deeper, and to explain why is going involve some minor spoilers. The film is basically split in two halves, both vastly different from each other. The first half follows Alexia, her encounters with the other showgirls, her… vehicular excursion, and her moonlighting as a serial killer. Then, she suddenly masquerades as the grown-up version of a boy who went missing a decade earlier, being taken in by the boy’s father (fireman Vincent, played by Vincent Lindon) and basically playing the role of his son. Going from the next logical step after Cronenberg’s Crash to a low-key domestic drama is a hell of a shift (like lightly pressing on the gas and ending up smashed into a wall less than a millisecond later), but things start to make more sense once it sinks in that these two halves? As far as what Alexia is actually doing, they're essentially the same thing.

Now, there’s definitely some transgender imagery to be gotten out of this, like with the copious amounts of body tape used to cover Alexia’s breasts and pregnant belly (Yeah, that sex scene from before? It resolves in easily the biggest mindfrag of the year, no question about it), or how her body language slowly shifts to fit in more with the alpha males that make up the rest of the firefighting team. But what’s being offered here isn’t just transgender; it’s also transhuman. Almost every single aspect of this film’s narrative and its characters, in some way, shape, or form, has to do with modification of the self. Changing your appearance, adding to it, modifying it with either metallic attachments or a bit of brute force; the first half is all about the biological implications of changing one’s body. Whereas the second half deals more with the self in relation to others, with the modification being made to characters’ connections to each other and becoming what someone else needs you to be.

It technically falls into the category of body horror, given the dramatic changes that happen to Alexia throughout… except that label doesn’t feel accurate. Body horror, at its core, is exactly that: Horrifying. It’s the manifestation of having one’s own body, one’s person, warped and changed beyond their control; this is the kind of material Cronenberg has been fascinated with for most of his career. But what’s being shown here isn’t horror; it’s enlightenment. That same transformation as a means of refining the self, tweaking bits and pieces until the physical body matches what you need it for, whether it’s fitting in with your surroundings or just fitting in with your own self-perception. To quote Madoka Magica, the body is just hardware. And hardware can be tuned-up, much like a car. In that vein, it removes that kind of metamorphosis from its more negative implications and, in turn, validates the core idea behind transgenderism and transhumanism.

If any of this is sounding overwrought to you, then bear in mind that this isn’t a completely humourless affair. Ducournau not only dives deep into the idea of personal modification, but she also knows how to have fun with the concept. This honestly got more chuckles out of me than Raw ever did, like the scene where Alexia gets her hair caught in another woman’s nipple ring, or a murder scene that ends up taking way longer than Alexia expected. There’s definitely some laughs to be gotten out of how bizarre everything is on its face, but the fact that the film aims for humour and actually manages to get it on its own terms helps that surreality sit a lot easier.

To call this film unique, daring, explosive, heartfelt, or even just bugfuck insane, would all be accurate, but still wouldn’t really get to the heart of what makes this film so goddamn brilliant. It shows the same level of in-depth attention to theme as Ducournau’s Raw, only the actual theme being discussed is much more expansive and does justice to a topic that, truth be told, I honestly haven’t seen done this well anywhere else. It’s a recontextualization of body horror to highlight how such transformations could end up changing someone for the better, and its sheer success at doing so is monumentally impressive to witness.

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