“My baby is a cool machine
She moves to the pace of her generator
Says damn that sex supreme”
–The Birthday Party “Release the Bats”
Is there anything that can prepare you to watch a visibly pregnant woman vomit, clutch her belly, and reach into her pants to draw back fingers full of dark, black motor oil? How about motor oil gushing from swollen breasts? Or skin scratched through to reveal a titanium uterus?
I doubt it. But, I guess that’s what happens after fucking a trashy flame-emblazoned Cadillac without proper protection. Why didn’t they cover this in Sex Ed?!
Making up for these egregious gaps in our health education, French director Julia Ducournau foists these startling car sick hallucinations on viewers of her 2021 film Titane. Though appallingly absent from John Waters’s annual Best Films of 2021 list in ArtForum (How DARE he overlook a film in which the protagonist fucks a fire truck after seductively dancing on top of it?), Titane is, without question, the filthiest film of 2021, if not in recent memory. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Our cinematic culture could desperately use a set of jumper cables to kickstart the delicious art of abusing audiences with absurdist puke-inducing shock value. At a time when both film and television seem penned precisely for Twitter reacts and Hollywood has lazily decided woke remakes of already subpar movies are the only films worth financing, Titane gives us– maybe not what we want–but what we need: serial killing, identity theft, and mechanophilia. I mean, there has to be a reason the film surprisingly won the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. My, things have changed quite a bit since David Lynch created a pearl-clutching stir with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me!
Titane follows Alexia (played by newcomer Agathe Rousselle), a twerking and grinding showgirl for hypebeast car shows with a gnarled golden spiral-shaped scar on the side of her head. Though Ducournau reportedly prepared Rousselle for her near-silent role with monologues from Network, Killing Eve, and Twin Peaks (Who did she learn from? Bob?), her gaunt and otherworldly appearance recalls a similarly blank-eyed androgynous body horror protagonist, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) from Brandon Cronenberg’s mindfuck Possessor. Alexia’s prominent scar doesn’t prevent her from being the subject of copious unwanted drooling male attention. Don’t worry though—Alexia deals with them by unhesitatingly plunging the chopstick around which she twirls her messy platinum blonde hair into their heads. That’s right, Alexia is also a serial killer. Her blood lust is directly responsible for her eventual self-erasure. After a mass murder spree, she, while pregnant post-immaculate car-ception, assumes the identity of Adrien, a boy who went missing years prior, conning his father Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a suicidal aging roid-injecting fire captain, into providing her a home. Oh, and as previously mentioned, she has a predilection for banging cars.
Alexia’s auto-erotic fixation seems to have been born through pain. The film opens with Alexia as a child bothering her distant father, kicking his seat, as he’s driving. Reaching his limits, her father loses control of the car and crashes. Seemingly the only one hurt, Alexia has a titanium plate put in her head—the source of her distinguishable scar. With her new cyborg part, she didn’t just gain the attention of airport metal detectors; Alexia also fell in love with her fellow machines. After being released from the hospital, we see Alexia stomping in front of her parents to hug, not family, but the car that created her, her metal stitches pressed nauseatingly to the window in her loving embrace.
This is apparently the only intimacy Alexia wants—metal on metal. Even when making out with a human, Justine, played by wide-eyed Garance Marillier recognizable from Ducournau’s debut Raw, Alexia is hooked on steel—here in the form of Justine’s nipple piercing. (Alexia is sometimes literally hooked including when her hair becomes tangled in Justine’s nipple ring after dropping the soap in the communal showgirl showers). In one scene, Alexia uncomfortably and animalistically licks, bites, and tears at Justine’s metal piercing, revealing her single-minded fascination with all things chrome, as well as inflicting an innate terror in the audience as we cringe in anticipation of the ring ripping from Justine’s sensitive flesh.
There are numerous cinematic references to discover in Titane, particularly in reference to her mechanophilia. Take, for instance, the first car sex scene, in which Alexia is wooed by the inferno Caddy. Emerging from her second shower after murdering one of her heart-eyed suitors, Alexia finds herself alone with the car, a stark juxtaposition between the previously crowded car show filling the darkened warehouse. With its headlights turned on, the car illuminates her dripping body. This image of the Caddy’s high-beam seduction almost exactly mirrors a scene in John Carpenter’s Christine. Of course, there are a few differences: Alexia’s vintage lover doesn’t have a persona or personal vendetta and Christine didn’t fuck humans tied up in the back while bouncing on hydraulics. Do the French have a version of the phrase “If it’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’”?
While certainly other fictionalized car films should be raised in conjunction with Titane, most notably David Cronenberg’s revved-up car crash turn-on Crash (Has anyone enjoyed automobile accidents more, other than Mink Stole’s ketchup-drenched Taffy in Female Trouble?), other less, well, respectable references also deserve a mention alongside Alexia’s mechanophilia. The first mechanophile I ever recall seeing was Nathaniel and his car lover, Chase, on a 2015 episode of My Strange Addiction on the aptly named The Learning Channel (TLC). Between women eating toilet paper in the movie theater like popcorn, a woman consuming multiple mattresses, and a couple who would receive copious coffee enemas together, Nathaniel somehow came off as one of the least bizarre addicts on the show, sitting wedged under Chase’s front bumper and smooching his steering wheel. Love is love, right?
My Car is My Lover, a 2008 BBC documentary from their Strange Love series, takes a deeper look at mechanophiles or as they call them, mechaphiles through the lens of two men: the grizzled carefree long-time out-and-proud mechanophile, Edward, and the more naïve and hesitant budding mechanophile Jordan. Both Jordan and Edward are familiar with each other from randy car fucking messageboards, but never met in person until the BBC gave them an excuse to take a road trip to their own personal Shangri-La, a car show. Notably, both men are also in relationships with their VW Standard Beetles (which is also a favored car for serial killers. What’s with that?). Of the two, the clear star is Edward who not only loves on his Bug, Vanilla (“I named her Vanilla because it’s kind of a sexy, sensuous name, and she’s white”), but has a penchant for creeping around darkened parking lots pantsless to fondle cars that aren’t his own. This includes the BBC crew’s SUV and his new friend Jordan’s TransAm! He even goes so far as to splooge next to the cars; the result splattered on the pavement is shown as evidence by the intrepid BBC reporters. As opposed to his fuzzy bear-eared cap-wearing friend, Jordan is much more reserved, though he does refer to sex with cars as “rape,” which is a quirk that is too disturbed to get into in this essay. Nevertheless, both Edward and Jordan’s mechanophilia seems driven by the pleasure they receive in stroking the erotic curvature of the car, its idealized body. Though produced for the BBC, both men are unsurprisingly American. This celebration of a car’s body, its mechanical thrust, has been an integral part of the Americana imaginary—our national fantasy—since the advent of cars.
Americans’ collective mechanophiliac urge to rub our hands all over cars—attached as they are to American promise—is perhaps best and most homoerotically showcased in filth elder Kenneth Anger’s 1965 short film Kustom Kar Kommandos, which is currently on view at MoMA’s Automania exhibition. Set to a cheery score of The Paris Sisters’ “Dream Lover,” Kustom Kar Kommandos salivates over the image of a man (Sandy Trent) as he, in slow mention, waxes his hot rod, carefully stroking its reflective, polished frame. With a Pepto-Bismol pink background and a likewise fuzzy pink buffer, this short film exists in the space of fantasy—a rosy cloud of the American dream, bolstered by the man’s James Dean blue jeans, T-shirt ensemble. It’s also wholly related to Golden State promise, as the lingering shot on the California license plate reveals.
I mention Kustom Kar Kommanos not only because it veers into mechanophiliac territory with its conflation of the body of a hot rod with idealized masculinity, but because Titane, set in the present, is almost its direct opposite. Whereas Kustom Kar Kommandos is pure Physique Pictorial beefcake heaven, a smooth and slow ride to paradise, Titane, particularly the first half of the film, is grotesque, “Murder takes the wheel of your Cadillac and death climbs in the back,” Big Daddy Ed Roth. Sex, death, and velocity. Even the opening credits resemble a bizarro world Kustom Kar Kommandos. Like Anger’s short film, the rods, wires and chrome curvature all recall the human body. However, entirely in black and silver rather than the pastel haze of Anger’s vision, Titane transforms these car parts into twisted metal viscera. Erotic, perhaps, but also wholly abject. And in many ways, this is appropriate given the era of the film’s release. In 2021, we don’t deserve to be granted the ability to float into mechanical romanticism. We are all gas-leaking, climate-destroying, homicidal nihilism.
Abjection is where Ducournau flourishes, whether foamy saliva bubbling from the mouth of a dying douchebag, bursting abdominal skin gushing with motor oil, a man’s head crushed with a bar stool, steroids injected into a bruised butt cheek, or perhaps the most excruciating, Alexia repeatedly punching herself and eventually settling on slamming her nose into the side of the sink in a public transit bathroom in order to go incognito as Adrien. That one even had me, an avowed ghoul, hiding behind the neck of my hoodie. And apparently, I wasn’t the only one if reports of people fainting in theaters are to be believed, reminding me of the responses to some of Chuck Palahniuk’s more gruesome writings.
Yet, I can’t see many of these scenes as anything but amusing. In fact, Ducournau confirms in an interview with The AV Club that the multiple murder scene was “definitely made to be a comedy,” which makes me feel a little bit better that I kept pausing the film to laugh. Sure, these scenes are viscerally disturbing, but at the same time, entirely camp. Titane is a riotous gross-out film, buried under the guise of hyperstylization and French seriousness. Whereas an American version of the same narrative would at least give a wink and a nod that this wasn’t all sincere, French cinema has no qualms about leaving it up to you to decide if you’re a true pervert for chuckling at a chopstick rammed into someone’s skull. The style of the film also provides a trick of the hand. While I am a little sick of Nicholas Refn-influenced “neon demon” aesthetic, it is undoubtedly alluring and its sleekness only goes to emphasize the film’s surrealism and bury its more comedic qualities.
Ducournau herself is no stranger to lingering on the more abhorrent possibilities contained within the human body. Her debut feature film Raw, which notably uses the same characters’ names as Titane, speaking to an interest in world-building, also relishes in the revolting, depicting a coming-of-age story through cannibalism. Strange as it may sound, though, Raw is a more conventional film. Even though I don’t think I’ll soon forget watching a girl gnaw on her sister’s disembodied finger, you know what to expect when you sign on for a cannibal film. In addition, its metaphor for budding libido and sexual hunger is easy to understand.
In contrast, what the fuck is Titane’s point? Is it a metaphor for our death drive fetishistic adoration of gasoline-powered motor vehicles? Is it promoting the birth of a new kind of techno-utopia filled with half-car-half-babies? Is it a statement on our collective alienation? Who the fuck knows and really, does it matter? The joy of Titane is that it provides surprise after surprise, shock after shock, a lost highway that requires the viewer to simply let Ducournau take the wheel.
The biggest surprise the film packs is that at its core, it’s quite heart-warming. This is mainly due to the strangely touching relationship between Alexia, as she goes incognito as Adrien, and fire captain Vincent, despite Alexia/Adrien’s very obvious deception that is clear to everyone else around Vincent and eventually Vincent himself. As Alexia pretends to be Vincent’s long-lost son Adrien who doesn’t talk (Vincent presumes it’s due to trauma, but it’s really because Alexia’s feminine voice would give her disguise away), her pregnant breasts and belly excruciatingly wrapped with a binder, the two develop a sense of trust and, towards the end of the film, love. This can be seen in the magenta-hued dance interlude (did I mention the film has several firefighter dance scenes?) set to Future Islands’ “Light House.” While partying, one of the firefighters encourages Vincent to dance. Watching Vincent get lost in the music, Alexia/Adrien smiles and later in the scene, starts to dance with him. Before that, however, one of the firefighters who clearly suspects Adrien is not who he seems, pulls Vincent aside and Vincent responds, “Don’t talk about my son.” At first, this seems like complete naiveté, blind hope from a despondent and grieving man. But, later in the film, Vincent affirms to Alexia/Adrien, after seeing her clearly female body: “Whoever you are, you are my son.”
The relationship between Vincent and Alexia/Adrien is one of redemption between two deeply broken loners, two outcasts who have decided to accept one another. Their dual alienation, as well as unexpected paternal bond, is echoed in the American folk standard “Wayfaring Stranger” that appears twice in the film by two different musicians: first by 16 Horsepower, during the opening credits and briefly on the radio before Alexia’s childhood car crash and second by Lisa Abbott, during Alexia/Adrien’s seductive gender-fucking striptease on the top of a fire truck. Both instances use the lyrics of this song differently. At first, “Wayfaring Stranger” seems to refer to both Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s estrangement from society (“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger/Traveling through this world below”). Yet in its final usage, Alexia/Adrien’s employs the song to resurrect her past life as a car showgirl, erotically dancing while dressed as a missing boy. Combining these two aspects of her identity–one presumed real and the other assumed, this scene depicts a complete inhabitation of her own body (to the horror of the other firefighters who can’t believe what they’re seeing). Likewise, there is a redeeming transcendence found at the end of “Wayfaring Stranger” with the repeated lines: “So I’m just going over Jordan/I’m just going over home.” It’s as if Alexia/Adrien found a home with Vincent, and he with her as his son.
Of course, this salvation doesn’t last. I mean, does it ever? And concluding with a final semi-ok-not-really virginal, gut-ripping birth scene set to soaring religious operatics, Titane just might be the perfect cozy Christmas film for the entire family this year!