Titane (2021), Why it’s not Queer, but the Horrific Reversal of a Romantic Comedy

The physical body – its desired appearance, how you care for it, what it needs, the stages it has to go through in life, the pains it should or should not endure, the amount of exercise and sleep it needs – is an expression of social cultural categories, according to anthropologists Marcel Mauss and Mary Douglas. Horror is an interesting genre in this regard, because horror portrays its scariness often in and through physical bodies. People’s bodies are dead and alive (zombie), part animal (werewolf), or there is only a part of a body (mostly seen in hands that live autonomously). One might consider horror conservative and protective of the cultural world as we know it like Stephen King does (see for example his Danse Macabre): be afraid of what lurks in the dark! Stay to the known! But, maybe horror – transgressive and deconstructive as it is – is able to break open cultural categories in new and unexpected ways. Maybe horror can have a progressive agenda.

Julia Ducournau’s Titane is often described as a queer thriller with body horror elements. Through three oppositional relations featured in this movie I will try to get a closer look at what’s really going on in Titane. Is it queer, feminist or horror?

The Relation between I and Body

The movies of Julia Ducournau can be considered as explorations between the relation between the protagonist and her body at a point of change. Merleau-Ponty, a philosopher who wanted to escape the dichotomy body and soul, rephrased the embodied human experience to: I am a body and I have a body. Both experiences make up being human. In Ducournau’s movies a girl grows up. She is a physical body. But she also has a physical body and that body is doing things on its own. Her short movie Junior (2011) tells the story of a teen girl and her changing body to womanhood. Raw (2016) portrays a young woman exploring sexuality and desire. Titane features a woman becoming a mother. The protagonist’s body starts unknown processes (Junior), shelters unknown desires (Raw) and creates something unknown (Titane). All these experiences mark key developments in our existence. In each movie the body starts out opposed to the protagonist, but is taken up and owned by her in the end. She gets to know her changing body, enlivens it, enjoys it. It is horror, so it happens with slimy skin, bloodthirst and birthing a hybrid car-human-baby. This is not about exposing cultural assumptions, but about making us – men and women – feel how all of that is like: the arena of horror.

The relation of the female protagonist with boys or men is at its core uncomplicated in Ducournau’s movies. Especially in Junior and Raw boys are there, they are friends, romantic interests, sometimes more annoying, sometimes less so, but they are always fellow human beings. Boys are people you can know, relate to, desire and befriend. In Titane it is slightly different, because there is an explicit play on sex and gender, but there is no ‘otherness’ surrounding men.

The Relation between Man and Machine

Titane shows a young Alexia and her father in a car crash. Right before it happens Alexia makes car sounds. Then she turns around to get away, her dad tries to grab her and looses control over the car. Alexia gets a titanium plate in her head. She is now a hybrid human or a cyborg, part flesh, part metal. When she leaves the hospital she hugs and kisses the car, enforcing the idea that she has a special bond with cars.

Titane doesn’t refer only to titanium. It also refers to Titanes, or Titans, Greek mythological gods. The Titans consist of 6 brothers and 6 sisters, born out of Uranus (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth). They are a mixture of two spheres and would overthrow their parents and rule.

Adult Alexia works at car shows. She dances erotically on cars. However, for Alexia the car she dances on is more than a prop for her to be sexy. She is really into the car. And her feelings are mutual. After a show, the car calls Alexia, it dances and woos around her. Alexia answers the call. They make intense, physical love. The car makes her pregnant. Two spheres creating something new, like Sky and Earth before them. A new Titan will arise from Man and Car. Alexia will become the parent of a new god.

This is definitely classic horror material: the mixing of spheres, the inanimate becoming animate, hybrid lifeforms of a biological machine.

Relation between Male and Female Gender Roles

Little Alexia in the opening scenes is not a sweet little girl. She is not even an innocent little girl. She annoys her father openly. When he tries to evade her noise, she starts kicking him in his back. She tries to escape and he grabs her to try to save her. He is the good guy. She is not a good girl, but she is still a girl, a child.

However, nothing much has changed between them over the years. Alexia still lives at home and she is still annoying her father. He tries to have a nice breakfast, she eats vulgarly with the intent to spite him. She sits on the couch, skimpily dressed, watching tv like an uninterested teen (and watching an item about one of her killings). But she is far from being a teen. Her father takes care of her, providing for her. She provokes him. She has a tummy ache (due to her pregnancy, which works somewhat differently when a car is the father) and he, as a doctor, is asked by his wife to check on her. He complies, but as he retreats Alexia tries to get his hands back on her tummy. She provokes, she crosses boundaries.

Alexia is completely at ease with her feminine body. She moves it freely and does whatever she wants. When she is followed by a male fan to her car, you are immediately alarmed: a man following a woman. He wants an autograph, and he wants a whole lot more, but he asks for it. He states that he is into her. He doesn’t seem to be a bad guy, although his tactics are questionable. He tries and hopes for the best. And she starts to eagerly kiss him. This seems too good to be true. And it is; she kills him with her hair pin. She kills a whole lot more people. Men and women alike. She doesn’t kill for revenge, or because she was done harm, she just kills. No reason. Alexia does not have a mission or a grand plan as a killer. She kills like someone would kill a mosquito: you don’t set out with a plan to kill these three mosquito’s on a particular night, but when they turn up and wake you with their buzzing, things can happen.

Alexia gets seen. Her picture is on the news and each billboard she comes across, she needs to run. Finally she has to leave her parental home. Adrian, a missing person for ten years, a boy lost at the age of seven, is in the news too with reconstructed pictures of how he could look now. Alexia breaks her nose, shaves her hair and eyebrows, hides her female and pregnant shape with bindings, goes to the police and tells them she is Adrian. His father Vincent comes to the bureau, identifies her and takes her home with him.

The moment she starts to live as a boy, the tone of the movie changes. This is also reflected in the trailer, the music changes to lighter tones for the events in the last part.

Alexia refuses to talk to Vincent. He takes her everywhere he goes. He promises to always be there from now on. He is a fireman, so now she is a fireman too. The other men have suspicions about Adrian, and one sees the resemblance with Alexia who’s picture is still all over the news. Vincent doesn’t even want to hear it. He tries to connect to Adrian/Alexia, probes her around, wants to dance, wants to talk. But most of all Vincent wants to accept Adrian, be there for him. Vincent injects himself with steroids, trying to stay the strong man that can save the world. Save the world from fire, and especially save his child from dangers.

Alexia finds him passed out. She ponders about killing him but she can’t do it.

Is it the new role as a man that prevents her from doing this? She is now a man, or more specific, she is a boy. A feminine boy that belongs in a tribe of men, simply by being the son of Vincent. She is no longer a woman, no longer in that role. I suggest that this should be understood as the reversal of a type of romantic comedy where a man needs to portray as a woman for whatever reason, and learns how it is to have a female perspective and becoming a better man because of it. And finding love. Alexia needs to play the role of a man, take that perspective, and becomes a better woman because of it. And she finds love.

Men are there for you. Men are good. Men protect. Not in a priestly way, her father openly has issues with her, the male fan is stupid in his approach, Vincent is injecting steroids like a maniac and is lucky to still be alive, but they care, they try. And this behavior Alexia takes on the moment she starts acting to be Adrian. She stops killing. She starts to care. She starts to be there for Vincent. Vincent is a tormented father like her own father. Both fathers are loyal. It is Alexia herself who takes on a new role. As a man instead of a woman. As a son instead of a daughter.

Later, during a party with the firemen, one of the guys wants to make fun of Adrian/Alexia and puts her on top of a fire truck car to dance. Of course, for Alexia dancing on cars is something she is used to and she starts to dance as a woman. But now she is, in the group, Adrian, son of Vincent. Getting turned on by a woman dancing on a truck is something almost obligatorily fun for a group of macho firefighters, but what to do when a boy dances like a woman? Even if most of them think that she is not really Adrian, that she is an imposter, they she might be a woman, in the group she is the son of Vincent. They feel uncomfortable watching. Vincent drops in too, he looks and walks away. He doesn’t send her away, he doesn’t discuss it. Even when her towel falls in the bathroom, and Vincent sees her breasts, he quickly covers her and states that he, Adrian, will always be his son.

Even when Alexia comes in his room, and tries to find physical comfort, he rejects her sexually but he doesn’t let her go. He helps her give birth, and then she tells him her name is Alexia and he accepts that too. He calls her by her name. Alexia. She has found love.

She dies. Vincent holds the baby. A titan. A son to protect. He promises to never leave him alone.

Titane: Queer or Horror?

If queer refers to non-heterosexual portrayal then having sex with cars might be queer. Although I am not a fan of immediately pointing out the symbolic meaning in horrific imagery, I do think Alexia’s fertile relation to the car would be better understood as a symbolic portrayal of pregnancy than of queerness. Alexia does act as Adrian, the opposite sex: this might be seen as non-cisgender, but she does this to stay out of the hands of the police, not to explore inner non-cisgender feelings. Alexia does kiss and kill both men and women which might be queer, but these actions do not seem to be of any importance to her, she treats everybody bad equally. She does change when she has to take on a different gender role. This makes Titane like a feminist movie, but with a twist. The turnaround of the romantic movie where a man is ruthless and into cars, who is changed by the love and the good heart of a caring, dancing woman. This turnaround somehow became horror.

Mixing up categories and turning things around is a trademark of horror. So is being scary, but Titane is not scary. Usually the protagonist in a horror movie is like us, living in a world like ours, and then the protagonist encounters dangerous things, beings or situations that cannot be real. It is partly this point of view that makes horror scary: sharing the viewpoint of the protagonist and encountering unknown dangers in the dark. Julia Ducournau does something different: her protagonist is not like us. We don’t get much to know about Alexia either, she is the silent type. We are more like the people she kills, but since we follow the protagonist, we are not the ones in danger.

Horror is also a genre that is hard to watch: you want to look away from the screen. In this regard Titane shows it belongs to the horror genre. Maybe the viewpoint of Titane shows something about women in society as well. After watching it I thought of an article I read a long time ago about role playing in video games. If I recall correctly, it seemed that if given the choice to pick a characters from all types of sex and species, men statistically chose a little bit of everything. Men as a whole played as women, men, robots, animals, you name it. Women on the other hand stuck – by far – to female characters. Didn’t they want to try something else out virtually, did they feel that being female determined who they were? I wonder what’s behind this tendency. And I wonder if female directors are more likely to make horror about feeling trapped in their female body, and more likely to create protagonists that don’t face the darkness out there, but confront the darkness within.

7 thoughts on “Titane (2021), Why it’s not Queer, but the Horrific Reversal of a Romantic Comedy

  1. That’s a very bright and complete analysis of “Titane”, I’m really impressed.
    The film earns this consideration because it’s exploring many existential question, just as the myths does (your comparison with the Greek Titans is very true). It’s a kind of gender horror movie, something hybrid, that’s one point I wrote about in my review too.
    I need now to see it again in the light of what you’ve written.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! There is so much going on in this film, and I do not feel that I am done thinking about it yet. It all started out with wondering what the audience would think of Alexia is she was a boy to start out, (kicking his mom in the back in that car, getting metalmorphosed (beautiful expression!!), and then living in a women’s world).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Finally got to see Titane recently after just getting to a long awaited re-watch/evaluation of Raw, and I am blown away by the consistency in Ducournau’s themes and stylistic flourishes. Definitely want to get in a few more watches to find all the hidden flourishes (ex: the way the flames recur from the hood of the car, to the flames that kill her parents, to the ones she ends up putting out, etc) to do a more thorough evaluation, but the scene that your analysis makes me think most of, after the firetruck dancing scene, perhaps as a counterpoint, is the one where Alexia is sitting in the bus adjacent to another woman as a group of horrific men loom behind them making overtly sexual statements. Both Alexia and the other woman make eye contact with another, rapidly increasing that contact as the men continue their comments.

    The glances are telling because Alexia feels like the comments could be directed at her even though it seems like more attention is being given to her neighbor, mainly due to the latter’s more apparent womanly appearance. As the men’s comments get more gratuitous, Alexia makes the decision to get out of the bus and find another way out. There is a threat towards woman that can be actualized and she responds to it. However in the firetruck dance scene, she wholeheartedly embraces herself but is now protected due to her status as “man”. Like you said, her status as son almost protects her by coding her against violence that would normally be targeted towards her. She is able to dance without anyone following her or threatening to usurp her agency. Granted, these are rough thoughts that have to be better supplemented with proof from the film, but it’s something your piece has made me consider.

    Fantastic writing on that note. Excited to see future explorations of the material once the film is easier to access. Certainly know I’m going to have a fun time breaking it down more rigidly.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Brilliant hypothesis. I had not viewed it on those three levels when I saw it but I am looking at it afresh now. I was more taken by the second half than the first, the bringing together of a girl/boy finding a father she never knew she was seeking and the father finding a son he knows is not his. I found it very touching. If you take away the horror element from every horror film then underneath you find some core emotional need unsatisfied. I also thought it was interesting that she got out of the bus rather than chopping the guys to pieces – numbers had not bothered her before – and certainly there was an impression she had abandoned the other girl on the bus to her fate and also that this was a pivotal transitional moment in her development. All round a brilliant film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was touching, and the father was just so believable in who he was and his pains and his need to care. Will have to rewatch to check out more about the transitional moments with the bus/the girl. Indeed, brilliant and original film!

      Liked by 1 person

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