“Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes … about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method, one I would like to see more honored within socialist-feminism. At the center of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg.” — Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 1985
The first minute of Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning Titane takes place entirely under the hood of a car: a dipstick glistens, an engine shudders, an alternator belt whirs in the caliginous belly of the vehicle. Set to the banjo strums of alt-country band 16 Horsepower, each extreme close-up lurks from above and below as though revealing some twisted underground cavern. The metal insides leak, belch, or sweat to the thrum of rubber against pavement.
For a film categorized as body horror, Titane’s camera devotes no small amount of time and space to probing — and fetishizing — the visceral properties of the machine. Much has already been made about the film’s outrageous plot, autoerotic atmosphere, and amoral protagonist, but less about the ways that Ducournau’s motor-minded fantasy blurs the boundaries between body and object, human and robot, natural and mechanistic. For those with “ironic faith” in Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (published two years after Ducournau was born), it is hard to ignore the ways in which Titane both conjures and upsets the essay’s feminist posthumanist prophecy. Defining a cyborg as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” Haraway anticipated the rise of cryorobotic fertility technology and the smartphone as appendage. With Titane, Ducournau calls up the cyborg to pull, claw, and tear at some of our most sacred gender fallacies.
Titane’s cyborg story is relatively simple, if necessarily strange: Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a mechanophiliac serial killer from suburban Marseilles, escapes the police by disguising herself as a missing teenage boy by the name of Adrien. Under the vigilant guardianship of Vincent (Vincent London), a 60-something fire captain and Adrien’s beleaguered father, Alexia bonds with his bro-ey fire brigade, all while disguising her gender, as well as an unwanted pregnancy. As an early scene makes hilariously clear from the back of a bucking hi-riser, Alexia has conceived not in a car but with a car. Less amusing are the inky splotches bruising her inner thighs the next day, and the way her body bleeds motor oil in her second and third term.
Haraway controversially wrote that “there is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women,” and certainly Alexia’s antepartum travails thwart any assumption of an instinctively nurturing earth-mama woman. Whether impaling her uterus with the same hairpin wielded to kill at least four fully grown adults, or compulsively battering and scratching at her expanding abdomen as it grows, Alexia does not want to be pregnant, and among the sympathies she might garner from her audience, it is that she is asked to cede agency to a living being of which she, cruelly, cannot be free. After witnessing Alexia finish off a bevy of flailing grown-ups, the prospect of her Cadillac-sired spawn surviving her assaults feels like irony indeed.
As in Haraway’s posthumanist dreamscape (though, admittedly, a lot more harrowing), feminine and masculine are never resolved into a coherent whole, and their incompatibility is brazenly championed. Alexia has literally merged her own DNA with that of a fire-painted Caddy — her vaginal mucus and breastmilk resembling waste at a corner Jiffy Lube. But even before mid-shower Valvoline spotting and the torturous delivery of a steel-spined bébé, Alexia is a cyborg-in-training — a titanium plate is affixed to her skull after a serious childhood car accident, one seemingly willed by her obsessive impersonation of an engine as a 10-year-old girl.
It’s a testament to Ducournau’s visual ingenuity that both the wretchedness of preteen injury and abjection of pregnancy depict the female body transformed into a gearhead’s wet dream — not of a pin-up, implants bouncing, servicing some male desire, but of an actual, oozing, steel-frame car. Alexia becomes a woman whose relentless maternal machinations literally become machine, a baby-making machine over which she, insouciant killer, doesn’t stand a chance at wresting control. And it’s here, especially, that I resist interpretations of Titane as anything approximating a transgender narrative, even as it depicts both testosterone injections and breast-binding as motifs in its second half.
“Titane twists these milestones of transition — a beautiful and liberating experience for most trans people — making them painful and grotesque in service of its bent toward body horror,” writes Jude Dry in their thought-provoking critique of the film for Indiewire. But is cishet Vincent injecting himself with steroids in the name of eternal virility in any way trans? “Are you sick?” Adrien asks when discovering his late-night syringe binge. “No, just old,” Vincent plaintively replies. And, as Dry concedes, Alexia certainly isn’t trans; her body-binding primarily serves to conceal her swelling stomach, more a gesture to the unruliness of the pregnant female body than the liberating process of gender affirmation.
“It’s hard to argue that a film about a mute, amoral, unfeeling, murderous woman is feminist,” Dry continues. And I suppose I would agree — if I thought that feminist movies require a remotely sympathetic, or relatable, female subject, or if I perceived Alexia as an actual heroine, as opposed to a cyborgian conundrum exposing the violence of female biology vis-à-vis the semiotics of machines. Titane is feminist if only for relentlessly testing the boundaries of gendered logic — whether it be the tenderness of a jacked dad or the murderous impulses of a pregnant sociopath. What’s more natural, the film seems to ask — the “body parts” under the hood of a car or those pulsing beneath a woman’s navel? And why do we celebrate the former as inherently masculine, the latter the crux of feminine identity?
If, almost 40 years ago, Haraway argued “for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction,” Ducournau presents nothing less than lawlessness and pain. If Haraway envisioned the cyborg as “the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender,” Ducournau responds with a dystopian vision of hyper-gendered monstrosity — in which the femme and masculine, body and machine, are in constant, spectacular battle. Blasphemy or not, ironic or not, it’s worth seeing — and re-seeing — on as big a screen as possible.
Titane is currently in theaters and streaming.
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