Agathe Rousselle

Titane“, the new film from French provocateuse, Julia Ducournau, is in a genre that has been called body horror, and that certainly fits. In this case, the horror is centered on sex itself. Ducournau seems to feel that sex isn’t, and maybe never can be fun. But that doesn’t’t mean it can’t be sexy. And the more painful the experience, the sexier it becomes. Ask Alexia, the main character, who has the scars and bruises to prove it.

We first meet Alexia at age six (Adele Guigue), kicking at her father from the back seat while he’s driving. This leads to a crash, with a serious brain injury for the child. Doctors have to put a titanium plate in her head to restore her body control. It works, but the side effects are extreme. She loses all emotional connection to her parents and the rest of the world. In fact, her only joy comes from an erotic attraction to cars.

Now skip twenty five years. We find Alexia, now played by the amazing Agathe Rousselle, as a club dancer with a cult following for her very erotic dancing on the hood of a car. Actual sex, however, makes her sick. But she desperately craves love, and is drawn into painful sex experiences, which end violently. Finally, after five brutal murders, she sets fire to the house, locking her parents inside, and sets out on her own.

All this in the first half hour. While the remaining hour and a quarter has no more murders, it proves even more of an ordeal for the audience.

After she is posted as a murder suspect, Alexia arrives at a possible solution. She will pretend to be a man named Adrian, who had disappeared as a child over twenty years before; from a poster drawing, she sees the facial features are similar. And it works: the father, Vincent (a superlative Vincent Lindon), leader of a fireman troop, is overjoyed at the return of his son. The mother had left years before, finding it torture to live with memories of her son in the house, but Vincent never lost hope. He even accepts Adrian’s refusal to speak, at least in the beginning, owing it to readjustment problems.

Vincent Lindon and Agathe Rousselle

Ducournau very skillfully leads us into an entirely different story, which succeeds mostly from the intensity of the two leading performances. As Vincent, Vincent Lindon delves deeply into a man who has used his dedication to his dangerous job as a way to protect himself from the unbearable truth about his son. Pushing his men to take enormous risks, they stand in awe of him, especially one of the youngest (a fine young actor, unidentified) who is ridiculed as a “brown nose” by the others.

But Agathe Rousselle is equally memorable. The emotional strain of pulling off her scheme becomes especially painful. She finds herself responding to Vincent’s incredible warmth and patience. He feels such joy from  the delusion that his son is back, that she can’t help but share in it. Gradually, we can sense that she is allowing herself, against her better judgment, to feel love for another person.

Then, Ducournau injects the one element that catapults the story into pure delerium: Alexia is pregnant. Since we never witness her in recognizable sex, we are meant to believe that her condition resulted from actual copulation with her car, a Cadillac, just before she flees home. In a cacophonous scene, we see her screaming and moaning orgasmically, having strapped herself into its back seat, as the vehicle jumps and humps in metallic ecstasy.

So how does this play out? Better than you might think. We share in the growing affection between these two people, and suspense is maintained with every detail that Vincent denies about Alexia/Adrian, in spite of what he sees with his own eyes. Desperate to maintain the illusion, he even turns against his own men when his adoring disciple tries to tell him the truth about Adrian. In a shocking scene, he hands him a can of gasoline, in a raging fire, saying “Here, hold this”. But Ducouranu simply refuses to let us pass judgment on Vincent; her empathy for him won’t allow that.

And she extends that empathy to Alexia, whom we’ve seen kill innocent people brutally. As Adrian, she has to strap herself in painfully in order to hide her pregnancy, but we see that the pain is also emotional. By continuing to deceive Vincent, she is also denying herself any way to express her growing love for him.

The climactic final scene is meant to resolve all the themes satisfactorily. Alexia finally speaks to Vincent, for the first time, when he helps to deliver her child. Finally, their mutual need for each other’s love is expressed. The actors superbly convey the relief and joy of that moment, and it is undeniably moving. But, disturbingly, the moment is also somewhat chilling.

The basic problem with the story remains. This is not “Rosemary’s Baby”, which we can just shrug off as a good scare about a mythical Satan. Alexia’s pregnancy is not just a metaphor about our relationship with machines. Science has advanced to the point where we are seeing the replacement of nearly all our body parts with inorganic material. Since childhood, Alexia has lived as part machine herself; Ducournau even titles the film with the metal inside Alexia’s body. Ducournau clearly believes that science is treating human sexual reproduction as just another barrier to get rid of. If we can reproduce using only a machine, why do we need two humans to do it at all? Or, as the song says, what’s love got to do with it?








Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

Michael A. Scott has been watching movies for as long as he could walk down the sidewalk by himself (and even before). I don't always love every movie, yet I founded this website to share my love of movies with people throughout the world.