I think we’re all perhaps innately perverse, capable of enormous cruelty, yet paradoxically our talent for the perverse, the violent, and the obscene may be a good thing. We may have to go through this phase to reach something on the other side. It’s a mistake to hold back and refuse to accept one’s nature.
You know that common refrain from imperious film critics who sniff and write I just didn’t feel anything? Well, Julia Ducournau’s Titane induces plenty of feeling, mostly adrenalised anxiety and surges of raw disgust. About a quarter of the way through, the visceral ordeal of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth sprang to mind when Alexia, the antagonistic protagonist (lanky and alluring newcomer Agathe Rousselle) repeatedly slams her face into the edge of a restroom sink, then delights in her newly disfigured, bloodied nose.
By this point in the narrative, Ducournau has established that Alexia has many screws loose. She is sadistic and murderous. Initially spurred by suffering an attempted sexual assault, she treats anyone who shows romantic interest in her as a menace to be lethally stabbed with a metal chopstick she keeps nested in her hair. The only glimpse of genuine affection we see her display is towards the car that almost killed her as a young woman, and that left with a titanium implant in her brain and a grisly scar by her ear. As the mayhem mounts, Ducournau tests how far she can take her viewers without a familiar moral compass to assess her anti-heroine’s deranged behavior.
Though the story is set in a grimy underbelly of present-day France, screens, smartphones and laptops appear only fleetingly to ramp up the tension of a phantasmagorical journey, and Titane’s emphasis is on the mechanical, applied as a metaphor for more invisible technologies and pathologies. To this end, the film draws from myriad conspicuous influences. While stylistically very different, David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash presents an obvious thematic link, and Ducournau has cited Sam Mendes’s hectic epic single-take war movie 1917 (2019) and John McNaughton’s cooler, slow-burning Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Titane’s goopy opening credits, showing auto parts and engines in extreme close up, also recall Shinya Tsukamoto’s body horror classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).
While it may be sensible in our climate-threatened world to regard cars as unrestrainable pests choking and exhausting the planet, cars are routinely celebrated in popular cinema as portals for escaping drab reality, their sleek bright surfaces offer a glistening promise of transcendence. Yet Titane conveys a passion for automobiles surging beyond mere commodity fetishism, and an acute hostility toward people. Sexual feelings for these machines are hardly a new cinematic conceit. Consider for instance John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine (1983), or Geoffrey Wright’s Metal Skin (1994), to say nothing of the Fast and Furious fast food chain. And who can forget Cameron Diaz’s pantiless grinding against a Ferrari in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (2013)? All of these movies crystallise a desire for intimate psychic and/or bodily fusion with auto parts.
In Titane, this familiar dynamic is complicated by the arrival of a techno-immaculately conceived baby, giving a new meaning to Ballard’s proclamation that ‘The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event.’ While the film’s first half gives us car straddling and deadpan gore, the story shifts into an uncanny family drama as the supernaturally impregnated fugitive takes on the identity of Adrien, the long-lost son of grieving firefighter Vincent (played with raw vulnerability and a jacked-up aging body by Vincent Lindon). The fireman becomes an unlikely protector, a cracked surrogate father, as Alexia/Adrien desperately masks her changing body from his tender regard. They are a damaged, cyborgian match made in post-industrial hell, constantly at odds, particularly when Adrien performs a hypnotic come-hither dance on top of a firetruck for an audience of Vincent’s bemused coworkers.
It’s no wonder that Ducournau eschews the Crash comparison in interviews, while acknowledging Cronenberg as an undeniable influence. Crash is a psychological chamber piece, almost plotless—an episodic sequence of stylised erotic sex scenes set in and around cars, punctuated by a few dramatic collisions and building to a self-destructive chase and smash-up on a rain-wet expressway. The central characters’ seeming indifference amounts to a kind of nerve-shot desperation, a substrate of emotional burnout also on display in the cult of crash survivors who get off on the spectacle of other crashes, other victims. But the people in Crash are affecting, and their actions are chilling, because they follow from clear-eyed intentions—a definable death wish. Titane’s Alexia, on the other hand, appears to be winging it, driving without brakes or a working steering wheel, not knowing what she hungers for beyond mere survival, even as she’s extremely skilled at thoughtless, intuitive careening. The intercourse between Alexia and a vintage Cadillac is cartoonishly BDSM, ‘raunchy’ but also, for want of a better term, corny.
Where Crash is fundamentally about obsession and acceleration to a climax, Titane’s plot seems more attuned to a structure of deceleration and of being possessed by rampant hormones and other, shall we say techno-mystical, forces.
Whether left- or right-leaning, accelerationism is premised on the idea that capitalism can be pushed harder and faster toward its own destruction. The term first appeared in Roger Zelazny’s 1967 sci-fi novel Lord of Light and is often associated to the belief in the technological reincarnation of the mind. This merging of the technological and the human coincides with concepts extending back to theologian Teilhard de Chardin, variously transmitted today by visionary hustlers such as Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Nick Bostrom, and Peter Thiel, who are all preparing to ride out the afterlife in digitised and/or cryonic preservation. The most compelling expressions of transhumanist and accelerationist thought undermine utopian inclinations, and in Titane there’s a comedic dystopian cruelty in the way Alexia spares no one, killing without prejudice. Like Bostrom’s ‘Paperclip Maximizer’—a thought experiment involving the seemingly innocuous utility function of artificial intelligence— Alexia is an accelerationist apparatus par excellence, an emotional machine gone rogue, a human stapler puncturing people indiscriminately.
The film’s messy/miraculous ending suggests that transhumanism could be our salvation, as well as a solution to Alexia’s underlying core problem, which is hardly hers alone: that of existing while not truly connecting with other human beings. You don’t have to be affected by pathology to feel this: not when we suffer of cultural stagnation on one hand and technological overdrive on the other, with private consciousness routinely pressed flat between the two, both undernourished and overloaded. In a recent Harvard lecture, Laurie Anderson paraphrased American cryptographer Bruce Schneier:
Technology will not solve our problems. If you think that, you don’t understand technology—and you don’t understand your problems.
In the end, Titane is unlikely to make you feel less gloomy about our techno-fused future, even as Ducournau chooses to conclude her aggressively loony nightmare with a ray of late-breaking light, presenting us with the residue of defenseless humanity while spawning the possibility of a debaucherous sequel.