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Titane and the Hyperrealism of Fantasy

[SPOILERS! Do not continue if you intend to watch this film. But if you do intend to watch it—beware! Content warning for discussions of violence and sexual violence.]

Introduction: Ducournau and Her Reviewers

There are two equally compelling ways in which the viewer can make sense of Titane (2021), Julia Ducournau’s Palme D’Or winning follow-up to Raw (2016), her exceptional feminist body horror debut. The first is to take the film, and subsequent remarks made by Ducournau and the film’s star Agathe Rousselle, at face value. A women slaughters other people (a lot of people in the first twenty minutes and then none after that). She is impregnated by a car. Her body rips, leaks oil and turns to metal in places. She gives birth to a child with a titanium spine. End scene.

Ducournau, in this reading, is following in the jesus-christ-what-the-fuck-was-that-and-how-does-that-make-any-sense trajectory established by directors like David Lynch (Eraserhead), and David Cronenberg (Crash). However, Ducournau comes bursting into this scene as a brilliant woman and feminist (to pick just one example, try the Bechdel test with Raw but apply it to male-identified characters) and her lead is a shockingly violent woman who requires no victimization backstory to make sense of her violence. Unlike the proliferation of rape-revenge exploitation films (The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, Irréversible, The Nightingale, the list goes on and on even though, personally, this is a subgenre of horror that I have no interest in whatsoever), the violence of the female protagonist in Titane is as primal, raw, and full of jouissance as the violence of Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), or Pennywise (It). Thus, in an interview with Valerie Complex, Ducournau states the following:

[T]he need for violence often comes from male characters. For me, this is a form of denial because violence isn’t the monopoly of men.

It is a questioning of sexual constructs, but showing the duality that men and women can exist in that space broadens the spectrum of what humanity really is. When I say humanity, I mean gender and gender constraints specifically. The very idea of social constructions are irrelevant, wrong, and limits our understanding of potential interaction or relationship we can have with others and the relationships we can have with things like violence.

In the same interview, Agathe Rouselle reaffirms this interpretation:

I think we lack female characters who can be violent, and strong, and can kill men, without them suffering from a prior affliction. I want to see movies where women are independent, not giving a fuck, being able to reciprocate violence with violence. My go-to for this is David Fincher’s Gone Girl.  Amy Dunne is an attractive woman with a seemingly normal life but we discover she is not to be fucked with. Amy’s calm, clever, and resilient demeanor is what makes her so scary and unpredictable. I think we need more women who are capable of such atrocities and be unafraid to let them lead films. Let women be dangerous (here).

Okay, so that’s one possible reading, and it’s significant that it is a reading that Ducournau herself has encouraged.

Before I turn to the other equally compelling reading, however, I wish to argue against the most common ways in which the critics have engaged with Titane. Numerous critics have argued that Titane is a “social commentary on LGBTQ issues” (see Joy Ashford’s article here). Precisely what kind of commentary Titane offers seems harder to pinpoint but, the critics are sure that the film has something to say about performative masculinity, genderfluidity, gender dysphoria, or gender expression more broadly. To me, this is a very poor reading of the film. Apart from the ways in which Ducournau does annihilate the fragility of performative masculinity through the character of Vincent and his fraternity of firefighters, viewing Alexia (Rouselle’s character) as some kind of genderfluid tragic hero just doesn’t work. We never see her performing masculinity as anything but a disguise that hides her true self—a self she tortures in order to try and make herself fit the role. Even this disguise cannot be maintained—it’s just not believable—and Alexia only continues to inhabit the character of Adrien (Vincent’s long-lost son) because Vincent is so desperate for a fetish object that can fill the hole left inside of him when his son went missing (more on fetish objects in a moment). Thus, Alexia only pretends to be Adrien. She suffers a great deal in this role and, in fact, as the brilliant and unexpectedly hilarious scene of Alexia dancing on top of the firetruck when she is initiated into the brotherhood of firefighters shows, she really isn’t interested in being anyone other than who she always was as Alexia. Rather than seeing this highly sexualized dance (which bursts out of Alexia as she comes into close proximity with her own fetish object—flashy, large, and loud motor vehicles) as some kind of deliberate or ironical queering of masculinity right in the heartland of heteronormative machismo, it is better to see this scene as Alexia’s refusal to become Adrien when she is given the opportunity to finally and fully do so. Thus, in the climactic scene, when Alexia gives birth to her baby with Vincent’s support, just before she dies pushing the baby out, she tells Vincent her true and real name—Alexia. Vincent responds by immediately switching from calling her Adrien to calling her Alexia. And then she dies.

To read this as a movie about gender fluidity or something trans-affirming (since Vincent still refers to Alexia as his son and loves, welcomes and accepts Alexia as such, even after Vincent sees Alexia’s breasts, realizes Alexia is pregnant, and so on) would actually make this a very TERFy film. Granted, Vincent is more than happy to have a trans-son, but Alexia never once shows any sign that maleness is anything but a disguise or fake from her perspective. Thus, if read with this as the focus, Titane would suggest that trans people are only pretending to be something they are not and harming themselves and others a great deal as they do so (and, in fact, some critics made this argument; for example, see Jude Dry’s article here).  However, I would like to suggest that that any kind of reading that tries to make this film into a statement about genderfluidity or Queerness more broadly is entirely missing the point. I suspect that reading has only gained prominence because a lot of mainstream film reviewers, forced to watch Titane because it won the Palme D’Or, imposed it onto the movie because they didn’t know what the hell they just watched but they were able to superficially connect it with a topic that has more traction these days and so they ran with that (Ducournau has encouraged this is some ways with her comments about embracing fluidity and decnstructing gender but I read her as making these comments in relation to the male/female gender binary, which moves more traditionally “male” elements into the “female” register rather than being a comment on trans or Queer matters per se). And then more thoughtful critics, like Jude Dry, also ran with it but pointed out that, if this is what the film is about, it basically sucks.

But I don’t think it sucks—at least not for this reason—because I think I can present a very different reading of Titane that makes considerably more sense than the reading offered by the critics and that, in fact, might even be more compelling than the reading encouraged by Ducournau and Rouselle.

Fucking a Man in the Ear with a Metal Hairpin is Not a Rape

Everything hinges on the pregnancy.

During interviews, Ducournau and Rousselle have a lot to say about Titane and the character of Alexia, and a lot is made of the violence of the murders, the queering of gender performances, and what kind of feelings or sense of dis/connectedness this might prompt in the viewer, but almost nothing is said about the pregnancy. But it is the pregnancy itself—from the enthusiastic fucking Alexia receives from the car, to the motor oil that drips from her breasts and her vagina, to the metal that appears under the skin of her stomach as she stretches and splits open—that demands and, up until now, defies explanation.  What do you do with the pregnancy?

When Mark Olsen of the LA Times asked Ducournau if Titane is intended to be a “fairy tale” or if the world of the movie exists “only in Alexia’s head,” Ducournau responds by saying the following:

Of course it’s real. That’s the world I created and these are the rules of the world I create. Everything is real. There is no dream sequence in my film. (here).

What does Ducournau mean by using the word “real” here? Well, to begin with, she means that “the real” is different than a “dream sequence.” So what happens occurs within the domain of conscious reality and, as such, it follows the rules that govern reality within the world Ducournau created. This potentially leads ups back in the direction of Lynch or Cronenberg. But what if we shift the register slightly? What if, instead of speaking of the world of the flim as “real,” we speak of the film as a true story? Truth within the film, of course, does not align so easily to truth outside of the film, just as the real of the film also does not align so easily with the real as you or I might have experienced it, but I am interested in this shift to truth because I would like to argue that, within Titane, truth exists within a state of suspension. And here’s the interesting thing about that: according to some psychoanalysts, the domain where truth or falsity cease to exist, is the domain of fantasy. Lauren Berlant explains:

[F]antasy and romantic narrative generally are best described as structures of psychical reality, neither true nor false where facts are concerned but affectively true insofar as the compulsion to repeat that organizes it is the reality through which the subjects projects desire and processes experience (Desire/Love, 79).

She goes on to say that fantasy

[r]epudiates completely the model of the subject whose desire is the truth of her identity and whose actions are the expression of her desire. The subject (of fantasy) might be read instead as the place where the fragmentation of the subject produced by primal trauma is expressed through repetition… the scene of fantasy can also reveal the fundamental non-coherence of the subject, to which violence is done by the identity form (Desire/Love, 79-80).

Thus, Berlant explains, “[f]antasy denotes a sense of affective coherence to what is incoherent and contradictory to the subject; provides a sense of reliable continuity amidst the flux of intensities and attachments” (Desire/Love, 75).

Am I, then, trying to argue that Alexia’s pregnancy is a fantasy—something “affectively” but not “objectively” true? Not at all! Alexia’s pregnant body is confirmed as such by both Vincent and his ex-partner. Significantly, they may not notice anything deeply disturbing or monstrous about her pregnancy (no rips in her skin, no metal surfacing, no oil pouring out of her), but there is no doubt that they know Alexia is pregnant. As such, far from being a fantasy, Alexia’s pregnant body is much more akin to the trauma of the Real. Despite her wish that she were otherwise—the attempted abortion with the metal hairpin being clear evidence of that—Alexia cannot escape the reality that she is pregnant. Not only is she pregnant but she is pregnant in some kind of horrifying way. Her body is becoming unrecognizable to her, and is disrupting her experience of herself as the subject she took herself to be. It’s fucking with her identity and it’s a transformation she cannot prevent, even though she tries to hide or deny this in ways that cause her more and more pain.

What, then, makes this real pregnancy so traumatic, incoherent, and contradictory? I believe it is the way in which Alexia became pregnant that is the source of this trauma. Everything that people struggle to make sense of in the film, literally everything, falls into place if we believe that Alexia created a fantasy about herself as a serial killer in order to refuse to believe that she was raped by the obsessive fan who followed her out to the parking lot the night she danced at the car show. Instead of being raped, Alexia fantasizes that she murders the man and gets pregnant, not because he fucked her, but because she fucked a car. It is this fantasy that provides her with “a sense of affective coherence to what is incoherent.” She was not the one who was raped—she was the one who violently and brutally penetrated the obsessive fan. The sticky white fluid that ended up on her body after her encounter with him? That was simply his vomit (because, I guess, he was drinking milk at the car show??). But whatever she wants to think happened that night, Alexia became pregnant. Hence, the necessity, for Alexia, of the sex scene with the hot-rod. Hence, also, her confusion at the fingerprint bruises she sees on her thighs the next day (because, of course, cars don’t have fingers).

The hot-rod is, for Alexia, a fetish object. What is a fetish object? A fetish object can, at times, be an object we invest with special meaning, purpose, or agency in order to prevent ourselves from having to confront some other kind of trauma or loss. For example, imagine that my parents died when I was a child and, afterwards, I developed a very deep attachment to a teddy bear that they gave to me shortly before they died. Years later, when I lose the teddy bear, I grieve and cry more violently and deeply than I did when my parents died. This is explainable, in part, because my feelings for my dead parents became invested in the teddy bear they gave me and because I was able to avoid fully confronting the loss of my parents because the bear, as a fetish object, replaced them. Consequently, the loss of the bear becomes traumatic to me because it is only then that I am fully confronted with the loss  of my parents.

That the hot-rod comes to fulfill this role for Alexia is explained by her brief and otherwise rather odd backstory. As a young girl she was already enamoured with fast cars. When she subsequently receives a titanium plate in her head after surviving a car crash, the car becomes even more of a fetish object. Here, the fetish object helps Alexia avoid confronting the fact that her father nearly killed her. Her open-head surgery, her titanium implant, and the brain-like scar it leaves on the side of her head, also cause her to start blurring her own identity with that of the machine. Her primary trauma—caused by a man who claims to love her (her father) but who nearly kills her (in a motor vehicle accident)—is thus covered over with her car fetishism. No wonder, then, that she ends up being an erotic dancer at car shows. No wonder, also, that the car comes in as a substitute for the would-be rapist who proclaims to Alexia, “I think I’m in love with you” before he forcibly kisses her in a car.

The moment of the forced kiss is when the fantasy kicks in. Alexia fantasizes about violently penetrating the man and, when she briefly snaps out of things, realizes something disgusting and horrible has happened and that the milky white bodily fluids of the man are on her body. She goes to shower herself off and what comes banging at the door of the bathroom so loudly that it shakes her entire world? The fetish object. The hod-rod is there, inviting her to find a way to escape from having to confront what happened. Which she does With gusto. Alexia not only fucks the car/is fucked by the car–she also comes. The fact that Alexia violently orgasms in the car helps her to make sense of something that many rape survivors struggle with the most—physical arousal can occur during rape, but arousal does not equal consent. Many people who are raped may experience physical arousal or be forced to orgasm, but observing those things does not take away from the fact that rape occurred. Thus, in the car scene, I think Alexia is both trying to deny what occurred and make sense of what happened with her body when it occurred.

But the trauma of the real is not so easily pushed away. Fingerprint bruises will fade but pregnancy, well, you can’t just wish that away. Not even fleeing into the identity of Vincent’s missing son can make Alexia’s belly stop growing or make her swelling breasts stop leaking oil. The ending, when Alexia tells her real name to Vincent as she dies in childbirth, is ambiguous. Does Alexia finally breaking her silence to reveal her true identity mean that she is now, in death, finally coming to grips with what happens? Maybe. Maybe not. That, even in death, we see metal beneath the split-skin of her stomach should cause the viewer to pause and think maybe not. The titanium spine on the newborn baby also suggests that perhaps the fantasy continues for her all the way to the end (or it may represent the ways in which trauma passes down from parents to children?). Even more significantly, however, the titanium spine of the newborn reveals that the baby will be the new (and improved!) fetish object for Vincent. Just as he latched onto Alexia as the substitute for his missing son Adrien, so now this new baby will be the substitute that restores (or subjects) him to his identity as a father (and this explains why we get an only slightly-modified human baby at the end when, all the while, we’ve been dreading the appearance of something unimaginably monstrous–another factor that puzzled many reviewers).

 But, wait, the viewer may object, what of the other murders? We see from the news report that Alexia watches with her father that, in fact, a serial killer is operating in the area and may have even killed someone on the same night that the events occur in the parking lot outside of the car show. This, too, has an easy explanation. The serial killer is real but Alexia is only fantasizing that she, herself, is the one doing the killing. She then goes on to fantasize about killing her female lover, Justine (as well as Justine’s roommates in a montage that is equal parts horrific, exhausting, and hilarious and which left me wondering how much Justine’s name is a reference to a work by the Marquis de Sade…), as well as fantasizing about burning her parents to death, so that she can try to break entirely from the life in which she was raped.

In this regard, it is telling that when Valerie Complex asks Ducournau about the first film Ducournau saw that was empowering and had a “female character who was bold, daring, and violent,” Ducournau responds by saying the following:

Cria Cuervos, by Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura. It tells the story of eight year old Ana, who has lots of trouble grieving her mother’s death. I saw it for the first time when I was eight years old (the same age as the character.) In  order to cope with the grief, she starts having violent thoughts about the adults around her, including her father’s new mistress and her aunts (here).

The domain of fantasy, then, is what we are presented with in Titane. Neither true nor false, it is shaped by its own rules and for Alexia at least, is not so much real as hyperreal.

Conclusion: La mort de l’auteur?

What, then, to do with the fact that my reading of the film, which I believe is the reading that makes the most sense of the movie as it is presented to us, not only differs from the reading that Ducournau encourages but actually flatly contradicts what she says about wanting to present a strong, violent, female lead who does not require a backstory of victimization? Is my reading just another example of some dude-bro who thinks he is overly-smart who tries to force feminist art back into the place assigned to it by misogynistic patriarchalism? I’m open to this suggestion.

But what if fantasy is operative on another level here? What if Ducournau’s remarks about Titane express the fantasy she has about creating a world where stalkers don’t rape the women they become obsessed with, and not just men but women are able to both revel in and get away with acting violently? While men within a patriarchal society fantasize about raping women (and regularly enact their fantasies in this regard), Ducournau fantasizes about a world where that’s just not a thing that happens.

But, again, the pregnancy looms large. Where does Alexia’s pregnancy fit into this interpretation of Ducournau’s remarks about Titane? Once again, the pregnancy represents the trauma of the Real. As much as Ducournau fantasizes about the kind of world described above, the pregnancy reveals her (subconscious?) awareness that, as things stand right now, this is only a fantasy. She may fantasize about a world where women can be violent just because and where women aren’t raped by stalkers in empty parking lots. Yet Alexia’s tummy is still getting bigger and bigger. And at the end of the day it is Alexia who dies tragically in childbirth–the emblematic fate of women qua women living and dying within a patriarchal society–while Vincent, the man’s man, finally gets the heir and happy ending he has always wanted.

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