How is Titane (2021) Sexually Liberating but also Stifling?: Titane (2021) floats in the head and in the belly of one of the most enigmatic female villains in a horror film. Fans of the female killer from Audition (1999), based on Ryu Murakami’s book, will find Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) from Titane alluring. The film can be dissected from four angles: body horror, a leading female villain, female deviant sexuality, and women’s equation with cars on screen.
Titane is a refreshing departure from the body horror genre’s outdated portrayals of stereotypes. Titane is Titanium in French. The film’s body horror doesn’t end with a titanium plate inserted in Alexia’s head after an accident. It rather begins with it. She eventually becomes the vehicle (pun intended) of the ultimate body horror, transporting it from no life to birth.
She is a serial killer in the film, and the horror here doesn’t only stem from her serial killings but what’s growing inside her. As motor oil starts leaking from her after a passionate encounter with a Cadillac, we dread the worst for her.
In the body horror genre of recent times, three other films stand out Men (2022) makes a horrifying commentary on the effects of patriarchy and toxic relationships, while Hatching (2022) shows the deeply disturbing result of tough parenting with a twist on influencer culture. Black Swan (2010) is a famous example where the female protagonist finds herself sexually repressed under her mother’s hawk-like gaze.
Unlike Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, Titane’s Alexia explores her sexuality freely, but not without consequences. Julia Ducournau has written and directed Titane. She won the Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival for this. And when we watch the film, we deduce why.
How often do we see powerful female villains in cinema? Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, adaptations of Gillian Flynn’s novels, have memorable messed-up female characters. This is what Gillian Flynn said when asked, “Why are women writers obligated to have all their female characters be virtuous?”
“It’s incredibly misogynist to tell me I can only write a certain type of woman. Because that’s saying women must be a certain type of person.”
As a serial killer, Alexia kills it. Her first on-screen killing makes you turn away from the screen and throw up. It also makes you sympathize with her because of how an aggressive fan kisses her forcefully. Her work as a motor show girl involves her gyrating seductively on automobiles, which brings certain repercussions. Of course, living in a man’s world comes with its own set of consequences.
Alexia is comfortable with her attraction towards metal after a titanium plate was inserted into her head in the aftermath of a childhood accident. Her attraction toward humans is confusing throughout the film, but her connection with metal is carnal and natural. The film contains vivid scenes of her making love to vehicles. And this is incredibly liberating because we don’t often see women exploring their sexuality freely on the screen.
There are a handful of instances, like in Ixcanul (2015), a young girl rubs herself against the bark of a tree and gets aroused; Guillermo Del Toro’s Shape of Water (2017) shows the protagonist’s daily morning routine, which involves pleasuring herself in water, and then creating an underwater experience for herself and her partner which is one of the most beautiful romantic scenes in cinema led by a woman. In Netflix anthology film Lust Stories (2018), a librarian enjoys the company of a vibrator in the library.
Women or female characters are freely exploring their sexuality in these few instances, as is Alexia in Titane when she finds herself alone with a Cadillac in the showroom. Had this not had any consequence, the film would have been liberating. Could she have faced the consequences for her killings that had nothing to do with her strange desire for metal?
For years, men have gotten away with their actions. Could Alexia be free from the burden every woman faces? When motor oil starts leaking from her, we realize she’s like any other woman. Here’s when the real horror begins in the film. As the film progresses, one can sense she is doomed to carry this distinct child.
Later on, as she is wanted for murder, she disguises herself as a boy. This could be seen as problematic because she’s doing it to manipulate others, but it could also be seen as her exploring a more fluid side of her identity. She finds herself in a macho world, now heavily pregnant. This could remind viewers of Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which has a deeply disturbing scene of violence towards a transman. Luckily, there’s no violence towards Alexia because of this.
A more nuanced portrayal of Alexia’s mental health and relationship with her parents could have been explored in the story. The fact that her parents are oblivious of her acts and disconnected from her despite staying under the same roof is similar to A Clockwork Orange (1971), where the parents barely know about how violent their son is, despite being in the same house.
In the second half of Titane, we see Alexia attempting to conceal two of her acts: the killing and the sex with the Cadillac. Her femininity in response to patriarchy is evident right at the beginning of the film, where she is seen as a showgirl at a motor show. Still, as she develops her attraction for metal, one would think she escapes patriarchy and escapes men, but we are wrong.
What starts out as sexually liberating, seeing a confident woman who finds metal attractive, becomes a stifling experience making the viewer constantly worry about ‘the consequences of her sexual encounter’ more than the consequences of the killings. Following the trope of pregnancy meets horror story (Rosemary’s Baby,1968), the end sits well if looked at from that angle.
However, a woman suffering because of her actions is deeply disturbing. There are other films that involve women who either end up dead or hurt because of their sexuality- The Piano Teacher (2001) shows a woman violently raped for having deviant sexual desires, and Revolutionary Road (2008), where the female lead dies after unsuccessfully trying to abort her unwanted child.
We need to talk about Kevin (2011) shows a mother’s disturbed life after her son (born out of an accidental pregnancy) kills students in his school’s gymnasium, Holy Spider (2022) is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who targeted street prostitutes in Iran, and The Night of the Twelfth (2022), where a young girl is burnt alive by a masked figure.
The investigation after her death reveals a slew of men she might have had relationships with. There’s an implication that “she asked for it.” The ending of Titane made me ask myself: When will women be free to think or act as they want without consequences like rape, acid attacks, and death?
Finally, let’s address women’s equations with cars on screen. When it comes to women and cars on screen, we don’t often see them driving cars. In Under the Skin (2013), an adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, Scarlett Johannson’s character, an alien disguised as a woman, roams the streets of Glasgow in her car, abducting and killing unsuspecting men who are often hitchhikers.
She gets to choose who she picks. When she lures a man with a disfigured face, she has no prejudice, she finds him attractive. It is one of those pivotal moments in cinema which shows a disfigured person can be more than just a “freak” in onscreen portrayals.
Classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) show a woman’s close-up as she drives for most of the film. In Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), a woman walks out of her marriage and drives away in her car, signaling her independence thought through action. Those from the Gulf will be aware of the ban on women drivers in a particular country until recently. If one probes for a reason as to why women were not allowed to drive, one could find this quote in an online article.
“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards.”
It’s almost as if Titane was made in response to this.