M. Keith Booker
University of Arkansas
Titane won the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, which is arguably the most prestigious award in world cinema. Titane was also selected as France’s entry for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film for 2021. As such, this is a groundbreaking film (it was the first horror film ever to win the Palme d’Or, and it made Ducournau the first female solo director whose film ever won a Palme d’Or) that comes with impeccable credentials. It has also been lavishly praised by many critics. Sheila O’Malley called it “fearless” and noted that it is “an extreme movie, violent and pitiless and funny, but the space it provides for not just tenderness but contemplation makes it an ‘extremely’ thought-provoking film as well.” Yet many critics have also excoriated the film, as when Peter Bradshaw, reviewing for The Guardian, noted the film’s “silliness and pointlessness” and called the film a “crudely directed … car crash” that does not live up to the promise of Ducournau’s much-praised first feature, Raw (2016). What almost all critics agreed on, though, was that the film is certainly unusual. Thus, David Ehrlich headlines his review with the announcement that Titane is “almost certainly the sweetest movie ever made about a serial killer who has sex with a car.”
Another thing that is certain is that Titane is an unrelenting assault on the senses of viewers, who barely have time to process what they have seen in one outrageous scene before they are suddenly presented with one that is possibly even more outrageous, or at least outrageous in a completely different way. In this article, I would like to suggest that the film is neither silly nor pointless and that its outrageousness comes with a purpose that is far more profound than simply being outrageous. Titane is, in fact, a powerful meditation on gender, love, aging, loneliness, humanity, and how all of these things are impacted by our relationship with technology in today’s high-tech world. However, Titane is also a complex film whose messages are neither simple nor monological, beginning with the fact that it is essentially two films in one, with the central character(s), Alexia/Adrien (Agathe Rouselle) assuming two different identities and negotiating two almost completely different worlds.
In a way, Titane is actually three films, because it begins with a brief prologue featuring Alexia as a child (played by Adèle Guigue) as she rides in the back seat of a Peugeot hatchback driven by her father (played by the respected French director Bertrand Bonello). Actually, the first shot is a closeup of the car’s engine that seems to have ominous implications, because we see, as the camera scans around the engine, some signs of dripping fluids and corrosion. As it turns out, engine failure does not play a role in this scene, but this opening does suggest the extent to which we in the modern world rely on machines that might fail at any moment. Almost all of us in the modern world, just by driving or riding in cars, routinely put ourselves into situations that could lead to sudden death if something goes wrong.
Indeed, the opening sequence of Titane reminds us that bad things can happen with automobiles even when they are functioning properly. Alexia is apparently a problem child, because she does everything possible to try to drive her dad insane in this scene. He keeps turning up the music in the car to try to drown her out, but eventually she distracts him enough that he crashes the car. Alexia suffers a serious head injury, and surgeons have to put a titanium plate in her head. She apparently doesn’t blame the car, though. When she finally gets out of the hospital, the first thing she does is run to the car and give it a big kiss.
We don’t know it at this point, but this opening sequence, within just a few minutes, has done a brilliant job of setting up the rest of the film and introducing many of its major themes. The relationship between humans and technology is foregrounded, both in the important role played by the car and in the shots of the high-tech surgery that is performed to put that plate in Alexia’s head, making her a sort of cyborg and preparing us for the very special role technology will play in her life going forward. Problematic relationships between parents and children are also introduced as a topic. Finally, we should not overlook the importance of the music playing in the dad’s car just before the crash, a modern cover of the nineteenth-century American folk gospel song “The Wayfaring Stranger,” in a 2000 cover performed by the American alternative country group 16 Horsepower. Thus, we are immediately signaled to pay close attention to the music in this film, because it seems to have been carefully chosen. Countless covers of this song are available, but Ducournau chose the one performed by a band whose name resonates with the automobile motif of the film. The song itself is also highly appropriate for the film because of its theme of a lonely traveler struggling through a troubled life until finally arriving at death, which is pretty much a capsule summary of Alexia’s experience in the film. In this case, though, the music begins playing while we are seeing those ominous shots of the car engine, which makes them all the more ominous, suggesting that the passengers in the car might be on a journey to death.
Alexia the Serial Killer
After Alexia kisses that car at the end of the prologue, we suddenly jump forward over twenty years, to a time when Alexia, still bearing the scars of her childhood car crash, is a thirty-two-year-old, still living with her parents (but still not getting on with them all that well). She works, we learn, as a dancer at auto and boat shows, something she is good enough at to have gained a following of fans who swarm her for autographs and selfies. She makes her way to a vintage Cadillac painted with a fancy flame design and proceeds to perform an overtly erotic dance on the hood of the car, virtually having sex with it. On the evidence of this scene, French auto shows appear significantly wilder than American ones, but the scene is otherwise not particularly shocking, or even surprising. Sex and automobiles have long been linked in popular culture, and sexy women have long been used as attention-getters at auto shows. Sex has also been used as a lure in automobile advertising for decades. And, of course, one of the iconic music videos of the 1980s is the one for the Whitesnake Song “Here I Go Again” (1987), in which Tawny Kitaen became an immediate sex symbol by rolling around suggestively atop not one, but two cars (both Jaguar XJs), parked side by side.
Speaking of songs, the music to which Alexia dances on the Cadillac is the song “Doing It to Death,” a 2016 single by The Kills, a rock duo consisting of an English guitarist and an American vocalist. Both the title of this song and the name of the band seem quite appropriate as accompaniment to a dance by a serial killer, anticipating the murders that follow. The lyrics to this song are rather enigmatic, but they do seem to be a declaration by a couple who realize they are headed for their doom but simply can’t seem to change their direction, which fits in with the fact that Alexia seems to have been fated to be done in by a car from the beginning of the film until her final demise.
It is perhaps also significant that the car involved in this scene is a Cadillac, an automobile that carries with it a number of specific cultural resonances. It’s the ultimate large, powerful, expensive, gas-guzzling luxurious American car, so it stands as an emblem of a particularly American style of size and power, but also of ostentation, irresponsibility, showiness, and conspicuous consumption. That it seems to be at the center of this French auto show might also suggest a certain kind of cultural imperialism in which American capitalism and American culture threaten to engulf the rest of the world.
At the same time, the message of Titane in this sense is not clear. The fact that most of the most important music in the film is performed by American artists might also be taken as a sign of American cultural imperialism, but there is no real indication in the film that the musical choices are to be regarded in this way. After all, American music is quite often featured in French films, while American cars have often played important roles in French films as well—as when the string of autos heisted by Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Godard’s classic À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1961) features multiple Americancars (including a key Cadillac). Thus, Ducournau’s choice of this Cadillac and all that American music for use in Titane is probably better read as an acknowledgement of the prominence of American culture in France than as a criticism of it. Moreover, British, French, Italian, German, and Spanish music as well, not to mention the key role played by that French Peugeot. More than a comment on old-fashioned cultural imperialism, then, I would argue that the music and other elements of Titane simply point toward the global nature of world culture in the 2020s, while the especially prominent role played by American culture in the film simply acknowledges the especially important role of American culture in today’s global cultural system.
It’s a safe bet, given the rest of the film, that the car dance from Titane will not make Agathe Rouselle a sex symbol like a car dance once did for Tawny Kitaen, even if Rouselle’s dancing is much more aggressively erotic than Kitaen’s was back in 1987. Alexia’s performance is a real crowd pleaser, though, as we see from the enthusiastic reaction of her fans. As she leaves after the auto show to get in her own car, however, one of them gets a bit too enthusiastic, reaching through the window of her car to grab her and start kissing her. At first, she seems responsive, but then the film delivers its first truly shocking moment as Alexia suddenly removes a metal hairpin (titanium, no doubt) from her hair and plunges it into the man’s brain through his ear, killing him almost instantly (though not before he vomits on her). She then gets out of the car and stashes the body in the back seat for later disposal. From her calm demeanor, we can surmise that she might have done this sort of thing before, though that is not made entirely clear in the film, and many viewers seem to have taken this scene as an indication that Alexia simply snapped at this point, sending her into the beginning of what will be a killing spree.
Meanwhile, the film takes another surprising turn when Alexia goes back inside to shower to wash off that vomit, only to be invited back onto the now-deserted showroom floor by the Cadillac. Stephen King’s novel Christine (1983) and his film Maximum Overdrive (1986) have taught us that cars and trucks can become sentient and do surprising things in horror stories. Still, it is quite a turn when Alexia’s relationship with the Cadillac now quickly goes to the next level as she slips into the back seat and extends the theme of auto-eroticism even farther by literally having sex with the car. Or at least that’s what we are supposed to believe (the back seats of large American cars like Cadillacs are, after all, almost mythical settings for sexual activity), but the anatomical details of just what happens are not clear. It’s a successful mating, though. Alexia not only orgasms, but apparently the Cadillac does also, because she even gets pregnant, as we will eventually learn. This crucial point is the moment when the film veers away from realism and into the world of body horror, recalling such predecessors as David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) but going a step farther into the realm of suspension of disbelief.
Ducournau, incidentally, commits to this motif absolutely fearlessly. Alexia awakens the morning after her sexual encounter with the Cadillac with bruises on her inner thighs and the crotch of her panties soaked with motor oil. After realizing that she is pregnant, she attempts to give herself an abortion with that same hairpin. As her pregnancy proceeds, she leaks more oil from her vagina and expresses oil from her breasts. There are signs that her abdomen might have developed a metal lining as her skin begins to crack open as a result of the pregnancy. Eventually, Alexia will give birth to an infant with a titanium spine protruding through the skin of its back, though she will die in childbirth, leaving the infant motherless.
After realizing that she is pregnant (apparently by a car), Alexia begins to spiral completely out of control. She attempts to initiate a sexual relationship with Justine (Garance Marillier), a young dancer she met in the shower at the auto show. Unfortunately, their initial sexual encounter ends poorly when Alexia becomes overly enthusiastic in exploring Justine’s metal nipple jewelry, which seems to interest Alexia more than Justine herself. They do apparently have a bit more success later, though, because we soon see Alexia wearing Justine’s clothing while they share a couch in Justine’s home, suggesting that they have just had sex. Then Alexia impulsively attacks Justine, eventually killing her off with that same hairpin-to-the-ear move. Then she kills two of Justine’s housemates, though a third housemate escapes, presumably to notify the police.
One of these killings is worthy of special comment because of what it tells us about the texture of this very odd film. When Alexia attacks Justine’s male housemate with a poker, he puts up quite a fight, and she is able to finish him off only by forcing the leg of a bar stool into his mouth and then smashing it down into his throat. It’s a rather colorful murder method, reminiscent of the lengths to which slasher films (among others) often go to try to keep an unremitting sequence of killings interesting. One might compare, for example, the key moment in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011) in which the Final Girl, Erin (Sharni Vinson), kills an attacker by chopping up his skull with a blender. Of course, there are many other precedents to this sort of thing, including the notorious death-by-microwave in Gremlins (1984) or even the death-by-phone-cord in the classic noir film Detour (1945). Such moments can be quite shocking, but they are so unexpected and extreme that they often become a sort of gross-out humor. That black humor is absolutely intended in this scene in Titane, meanwhile, is made clear when, after killing the man on the floor, Alexia sits for a moment atop the barstool, just to take a breather, thus capping the joke with a sort of visual rim shot. In short, there is a long history of using extreme killings to produce black humor, but Titane is unusually overt about this strategy by taking this extra step to call attention to it.
This scene of multiple killings is followed almost immediately by one in which Alexia locks her parents in their bedroom while their home burns down around them due to a fire she accidentally set while trying to destroy evidence from her earlier murders. This scene of parenticide is presented absolutely without humor, but it combines with the barstool scene and with Alexia’s other killings to suggest that one of the projects of this film is to explore the limits of just how far a film can go in depicting its protagonist as a brutal psychopathic killer with whom few viewers could possibly identify and yet still have the audience continue to sympathize with that protagonist on some level. Again, this project has its precedents, perhaps most recently in the riveting performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker (2019), a character who also kills a parent by smothering his mother with a pillow and who also has his own gross-out moment when he plunges a pair of scissors into the eye of a former co-worker.
Such depictions could be taken as critical reminders of just how far our culture has gone in accepting the representation of violence in film, though Joker perhaps softens this critique by leaving open the possibility of interpreting most, if not all, of Fleck’s killings as having occurred only in his own fevered imagination. Ducournau gives us no such out, though, because there are absolutely no indications that any of the extreme events of Titane—whether they involve sex with a Cadillac or murder by barstool—are mere fantasies. It is clear that, within the reality of this film, those events all absolutely do occur. Titane is thus even more unrelenting than Joker in its presentation of the violence that is carried out by its protagonist.
One way in which Alexia resembles Fleck is that both of their violent tendencies might be attributed to traumatic experiences in childhood—his involving violent physical abuse at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, hers involving possible brain damage from that childhood car crash. But the prehistory of these characters also includes the cultural contexts out of which the films themselves arise. Though it leaves open the possibility that the Joker whom Fleck becomes in the course of the film is not the same Joker who has long been Batman’s most important criminal opponent, Joker very clearly invites audiences to view it within the context of Batman films and comics. Titane has no such clear predecessors, but I would argue that it makes sense to view Alexia’s career as a serial killer within the context of rape-revenge films, essentially on the basis of the gender of the protagonist.
In this case, one of the most direct predecessors of this film might be something like Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017), in which the protagonist, Jen (Matilda Lutz), executes a spectacularly violent series of killings in retribution for her rape and attempted murder earlier in the film. Revenge also includes its own unlikely motifs (such as Jen’s unlikely survival of that murder attempt), but it does provide audiences with very good reasons to sympathize with Jen’s bloody program of revenge. It begins with an extended sequence in which the camera embraces Jen’s scantily clad body in what amounts to an extended pastiche of the male gaze that so often dominates horror films. This sequence leads to Jen’s rape, which inevitably points to the notorious question of whether she was “asking for it,” while the rest of the film answers that question with an emphatic no.
Titane has its own male-gaze moment in that dance atop the Cadillac, but it does not provide any moments that would seem to justify Alexia’s murder spree, even if that overly aggressive fan was, to an extent, “asking for it.” The fact that Alexia’s turn to murder does not seem to be justified by anything we see in the film, then, raises a number of questions, including the one I noted above—that it could simply be taken as a critique of the extent we have come to accept graphic violence in cinema. However, read in a broader cultural context, it is almost as if Alexia’s killings seek revenge, not for anything done to her, but to things that were done to Jen and all those other victimized women in so many earlier films. Read that way, then the whole “Alexia” segment of Titane might be read as a cinematic revenge for the long legacy of victimization and objectification of women in cinema.
Titane, though, is a far more complex film than this reading in itself indicates, because Alexia the killer is removed from the film about a third of the way through, much like Marion Crane is removed so early from Psycho (1960). In this case, though, Alexia removes herself of her own volition, changing identities to escape the manhunt that is now underway for her. This new identity sends the film careening off into a radically different direction—and into an entirely different genre, though the consequences of the first segment remain decisive.
Everybody Needs Somebody Sometime
Now on the run from the police, Alexia notices ads announcing the disappearance of a seven-year-old boy named Adrien ten years earlier. In a special version of body horror, she decides to transform herself so that she can pass for Adrien, largely by punching herself in the face and breaking her own nose by bashing it on a sink, reasoning that her battered face will make her unrecognizable. She also painfully binds her breasts and bulging belly, then turns herself into the police, who call Adrien’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a local fire chief. The lonely Vincent, desperately longing for the return of his son, immediately announces that the transformed Alexia is indeed Adrien, though it is pretty obvious that this identification is questionable. Thus begins the film’s final and longest segment, in which Vincent and “Adrien” gradually develop a bond, despite the growing evidence that the Adrien who returned is not the one who left.
At one point, Adrien attempts to murder Vincent with that hairpin, but, by and large, each has something to offer that the other desperately needs. In the case of Adrien, this need is obvious. Vincent can provide them with a home and with a new identity that will shelter them from the police. And it is certainly interesting to watch the bitter and radically alienated Adrien gradually learning to accept Vincent’s help. But the more interesting narrative in this second segment involves the neediness of Vincent, an aging alpha male who begins the segment in a state of denial in which he refuses to admit that he needs anything from anyone. He seems to get on well with the firemen under his command, but that command is absolute. As he tells them soon after Adrien’s arrival, to them he is God, which makes Adrien Jesus. He advises them to treat his “son” accordingly.
God, of course, is the ultimate patriarch, and Vincent’s characterization of himself as a god is one of the key signs that he has internalized certain patriarchal ideas of masculinity to a crippling extent. Crucial to his characterization is his (inevitably losing) battle against the aging process that has sent his powerful, well-muscled body into a state of decline. We see him repeatedly injecting himself with steroids (at one point nearly dying from an excessive dose), and we see him testing his abilities, collapsing in fury at his inability to perform at the level he once did.
One crucial moment in the “Adrien” segment of the film occurs when Vincent’s ex-wife (played by Myriem Akheddiou) comes to visit in order to see her returned son. She is clearly immediately suspicious and doesn’t seem overly surprised when she walks in on a bare-breasted Adrien and realizes for certain that they are not her son. And yet she decides not to convey this information to Vincent, because she understands how badly Vincent needs someone to care for him, even if Vincent cannot admit it. As Vincent angrily tells Adrien when they get a bit too solicitous, “I take care of you! Not the other way around!” But the ex-wife has Vincent’s number, and one suspects that the breakup of their marriage occurred largely because of his inability to accept (or admit that he needed) her help in dealing with the trauma of the loss of the original Adrien. When she agrees not to blow the new Adrien’s cover, she warns them that they had better take care of Vincent, whoever they really are.
The portrayal of Vincent’s battles against his declining physical power combines with the motif of his inability to admit that he needs help from anyone to make the latter part of the film a surprisingly sensitive exploration of toxic masculinity, though a special form that is toxic primarily to himself. Meanwhile, his fading physical power echoes his other failures as a patriarch: he was unable to protect his son and unable to keep his wife. Altogether, this exploration of Vincent fading masculine power seems especially sensitive in comparison with the sledgehammer impact of the “Alexia” segment of the film. Indeed, even though Alexia’s more extreme story has been the one most talked about by critics, it is the subtler story of Vincent that raises this film to a higher level and adds much more complexity than any capsule summary of Alexia’s storyline could possibly indicate. It is, one suspects, this complexity that led to Titane’s Palme d’Or, rather than the extremity of the “serial-killer-has-sex-with-a-Cadillac” storyline.
The question of Alexia/Adrien’s identity also becomes quite complex in this part of the film. In fact, the pivotal point in the entire film might be the one in which Vincent also sees Adrien’s breasts and realizes that he can no longer pretend that this version of Adrien is his real son. His response, though, is to declare that he is not pretending. “I don’t care who you are,” he announces. “You’re my son. You’ll always be my son. Whoever you are.” He hugs them, and, at this moment, who can say he isn’t correct? This Adrien might very well be able to be more of a son to Vincent than Alexia had ever been a daughter to her biological father.
This surprising acceptance suggests the depth of Vincent’s need for someone in his life and might be taken as a real turning point in his life, though it is also the case that Vincent is here still offering care rather than asking for it. Meanwhile, one obstacle to the evolving relationship between Vincent and Adrien is that the firemen have all noticed by this time that there seems to be something seriously off about the new Adrien. Their suspicions especially peak in one late scene that begins with a fascinating group dance on the part of the firemen, many of them shirtless. The oneiric dance seems celebratory and the movements are very masculine. However, I would argue that, despite the fact that the gathered firemen here look a bit like escapees from the Village People, there is nothing homoerotic about this dance. Instead, I take this dance (like an earlier dance sequence performed by a smaller group of fully clad firemen) as a sort of attempt at community, an attempt to declare a mutual connection among a group of hyper-masculine males, who (like their godlike leader) find it hard to express their need and love for one another in words.
The point, of course, is not that French firemen really behave this way. Instead, the dances of the firemen are purely symbolic. What Ducournau wants to tell us here, I think, is that one of the negative consequences of our patriarchal society is that men, in reality, are crippled in their ability to express what is being expressed in this dance (which steps outside of reality). One might compare Alexia’s earlier dance at the car show with these later dances to better illustrate this point. She dances alone in that earlier scene, seemingly self-absorbed and connecting with no one, except maybe the car. The onlookers, almost all men, completely objectify her. There is no real sense of community like that which occurs in the dances of the firemen.
In this sense, it might also be noted that there are two moments in the latter part of the film in which Vincent and Adrien dance together in what constitute important points in their bonding process. In the first of these, they dance in Vincent’s apartment to the 1964 classic “She’s Not There,” by the English band The Zombies, in another example of a song title and band name that both seem highly appropriate for this film. This dance actually leads to a fight, as if they are not quite ready for the moment of connection that dance potentially brings. A bit later, though, they dance happily together along with several of the other firemen, to a synth-pop song called “Lighthouse,” by the Kraftwerk-influenced American group Future Islands. This dance seems to be an important step toward the incorporation of Adrien into the firehouse community.
Adrien, now seeking community, joins the second dance of the firemen, but then spots the young fireman Rayane (Laïs Salameh), now badly scarred from an earlier firefighting accident, looking on from the outskirts of the dance. Or perhaps it is Rayane’s ghost, because it is unclear that he survived the accident. In any case, Rayane had earlier tried to warn Vincent that Adrien was an impostor, and his appearance here seems to unsettle Adrien. It also seems to break the energy of the dance, which turns into a sort of rugby scrum, in which Adrien is knocked to the floor. Two firemen then carry them to a firetruck so that they can climb atop it and to safety.
When they get atop the firetruck, Adrien is exhorted by the firemen to dance, as the pounding music is replaced by another version of “The Wayfaring Stranger,” this one performed by Lisa Abbott, an American session singer. It is perhaps this repetition of the song that was playing at the time of Alexia’s childhood car accident that seems to shift Adrien’s mood, as they suddenly switch back to Alexia and begin performing an erotic dance that looks back to her car-show days. The firemen look on in confusion and discomfort, not quite sure what to make of this performance. Vincent comes in and sees this performance, then rushes from the room, mortified. The gathering breaks up.
Afterward, a confused and lonely Alexia/Adrien seemingly reverts to Alexia form as she goes inside that firetruck and has sex with it, replicating the earlier sequence in which she had had sex with the Cadillac after having performed an erotic dance atop it. There are lots of repetitions in this film. This time it doesn’t go so well, though, and she begins to go into labor almost immediately afterward, leading to that final sequence of bonding with Vincent, to whom she reveals her real name, by which he calls her while helping to deliver the baby after they have declared their mutual love.
After Alexia dies, Vincent lovingly cradles the infant and assures it that “I’m here.” We see that titanium spine, but we never see the baby’s face, though Vincent seems to react with shock when he sees it. Nevertheless, he apparently regards the baby as his grandchild. We can imagine that he will keep it and take care of it. He remains able to care for others, despite his difficulty with accepting care from others. Durcournau chooses to leave the baby’s facial appearance a mystery, much as Roman Polanski chose not to show us the face of Satan’s son in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Indeed, there is considerable overlap between Titane and the entire legacy of “demon baby” films, perhaps most directly with Demon Seed (1977), in which a woman is impregnated by a computer.
Unusual as it is, then, Titane draws upon a number of important predecessors both in and out of the realm of horror film. It also sensitively addresses important issues such as aging, toxic masculinity, gender fluidity, identity, human relationships, and the relationship between humans and technology, despite featuring spectacular scenes of graphic violence and aberrant sexuality. The film thus operates in multiple modes and on multiple levels and is well worth watching multiple times.
Bradshaw, Peter. “Titane Review – Freaky Cronenbergian Body-horror Show Is a Car Crash.” The Guardian, 14 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/jul/14/titane-review-julia-ducournau. Accessed 17 December 2021.
Ehrlich, David. “Titane Review: Julia Ducournau Follows Raw with the Wildest Palme d’Or Winner Ever.”
O’Malley, Sheila. “Titane.” RogerEbert.com, 1 October 2021, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/titane-movie-review-2021. Accessed 17 December 2021.
 The notion that we should read significance into this opening car crash is perhaps reinforced by the fact that Raw also begins with a car crash, this one deadly, though less central to the plot.
 Marillier had played the lead role in Raw, as a character also named “Justine.” Ducournau apparently likes to re-use names: other than Justine, the two most important characters in Raw are named “Alexia” and “Adrien.”