You are here



This car is on fire, with passionate love

dir: Julie Ducournau


Well. That was. A film.

This won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the supreme French honour for cinema, for only the second time by a female director. I had heard that fact previous to watching this flick, but now I’m starting to wonder what it matters.

Prestigious films have won the Palme D’Or, but also some crappy ones that people have forgotten days after the award was awarded. I am pretty secretly sure that no awards actually amount to much in terms of the qualities a film possesses, but sometimes something is being said when certain films win. The last film that won the Palme D’Or was Parasite, and there has to be some reason why people on either side of the Atlantic were so enamoured with a South Korean flick about what scum poor people are and how they’ll do anything to extend their sad existences.

So what am I implying about Titane? Almost nothing. I can’t at all intuit what Titane winning says in a contemporary sense, in terms of a post-pandemic landscape, zeitgeist or any gender-political stuff relevant to France or Europe or the world.

The one thing I can say is that, scene to scene, second to second, there is almost nothing you can predict as this flick unfolds unless you’ve been forewarned, or read a bonkers synopsis.

A young girl called Alexia makes broom-broom noises in a car being driven by her irritated dad. It keeps escalating until there’s a serious accident, and the girl ends up with a titanium plate in her head. When she is eventually released from hospital, she hugs the car, not her parents.

As an adult (Agathe Rousselle), she still has the plate in her head, and a strange spiralish scar above her right ear, and she has an attitude that exudes zero fucks. She also, importantly, keeps her hair up with a metal knitting needle / chopstick or something similar, making sure people can see her scar at all times. Maybe it’s made of titanium. Not sure it matters.

Her job is to dance and writhe on top of cars at a car show. One of the cars she writhes lasciviously upon is like a Cadillac painted in flames, and it’s also a low-rider, with those bouncing hydraulics installed.

Okay, so, this bit is going to seem like I’m making things up, or being a smartarse, but I swear to all the gods that she murders a whole bunch of people randomly, has very passionate, very vigorous sex with That Car, and who can blame her, it’s a pretty awesome car, gets pregnant, then murders more people. With one of the murders, you can sort of see her point, but when she murders a different woman in a house in which an orgy seems to be happening, and then has to try to kill everyone else, one by one, Alexia doesn’t seem to be a woman with much of a reason behind any of her actions.

Is it because of the plate in her head, is it because of the lack of affection from her parents, after the accident or even before? Is she just a lunatic?

I cannot not think the next bit arises because of a famous case where a French crim pretended to be a missing kid from Texas that I once saw a documentary about called The Impostor, about a dishonest piece of shit called Frédéric Bourdin who pretended to be Nicholas Barclay, and who the family actually believed was him, at least for a while, despite the fact that he had brown eyes, and Nicholas had blue eyes, and that he was a guy in his 20s or 30s.

Alexia spontaneously decides she’s going to become missing teen Adrien, and undergoes a radical change in look that also requires her to break her own nose (psychopath that she is, she manages it quite brutally), and then has herself introduced to her new desperate “father” Vincent (Vincent Lindon) by the cops.

He is the captain of a firefighting crew, and all the ‘boys’ adore him, none more than Rayane (Laïs Salameh) who immediately resents Adrien/Alexia, who doesn’t talk, and who is heavily pregnant by now (with the car’s baby), but who keeps taping her breasts and belly to hide).

Vincent doesn’t care about details, though. He just wants Adrien back so badly, so utterly, that he chooses to ignore any detail that might give the game away, because there is no game to give away. He struggles with the ravages of age, and tries to maintain a buff physique with massive doses of steroids, all to maybe make him more loveable?

The fire station is the blokey blokiest place you could ever imagine, in that there are so many scenes set there of the (other than Vincent) young, buff firemen dancing and carrying on that you’d think they were scenes set in a local gay club. There’s even, dare I say it, quite a sweet scene where that environment is portrayed in such a gentle, loving manner, as if to say to Alexia / Adrien “you too could be part of this gentle yet wholesomely masculine space, held and loved, if you give up the binary that separates you from them.”

Of course later on there’s a dancing scene, perhaps during hard partying Bastille Day celebrations where the boys are going fucking feral to music that sounds like the hardest hard house I’ve ever heard, and Alexia goes as hard at it as they do, until the moment where they want him/her to shine, and boost her up to on top of a fire truck, and instead of pogoing like they do, she does her sinuous stripper dancing from earlier in the film, except looking like she does now.

The boys are confused, very confused. They might accept that Adrien is weird, a mute, gay, any number of things, but seeing Adrien writhe around like a woman is disconcerting to them.

Something like this, a film like this, is so weighted and freighted with the director’s intentions (plus it’s French) such that it’s really impossible for me to enjoy. This is the kind of flick that you can study, and write dissertations about, rather than enjoy just as a film. I’m sure there’s a million complexities to be teased out, arguments to be made about what all of it means and how it confirms or blows apart gender dynamics or fluidity ideas or notions of masculinity inverted when a female murderer penetrates others with whatever object is at hand, in a manner accepted or expected to always be “male”.

And then to “become” male, at least in outward appearance, yet to be heavily pregnant.

And to have car oil dripping from one’s breasts and uterus, and to be carrying something part human, part machine, and to be desperate to escape one’s own body, these are all ideas that are graspable and in the film. There’s no doubt they’re in the film.

These are all ideas. They can be written about in essays and reviews. But what kind of a visual experience do they make for the audience, being me?

I am nowhere near as ecstatic about this flick as the grand jury of Cannes, or any other group of reviewers or critics. There are parts I appreciated well enough, and I think there’s an aspect where, unlike how the urge to cannibalism was treated as an overwhelming fetish for human flesh (in Ducournau’s debut flick Raw, the aesthetics of cars themselves, of that old-school physical machinery displayed in parallel to the flesh all makes sense conceptually.

I just, I don’t think I really got where this was coming from, unless its whole sly point was Alexia / Adrien is the non-binary Virgin Mary who will bring unto this world a titanium car / human hybrid Jesus. And that maybe, as a punchline, that should suffice. As a character she’s less a character and just a raw bundle of murder with a striking appearance, and I guess I never understood why shy did any of the things she did.

Not a single review I’ve read, or those kinds of gushing film critiques that spoil everything, mention the two people who she locks inside a room in a burning house – for no reason that we are privy to – just to have killed more people. I don’t really get it. I understand the car fucking more than I understand that.

If the point as well is that Vincent’s unconditional love was enough to make her feel safe and stop murdering people randomly, well, at the risk of not spoiling the ending, so what, in the end, does that matter? If the point really is that Vincent has a lot of love to give, and the steroids will…help him love longer and stronger, well… at least I can say I thought his performance was excellent.

Titane. It means ‘titanium’ in French. Get your mind out of the gutter. This is a filthy, violent excruciating, as the French say, provocation, but it didn’t leave me with much in the end.

6 times I think I got pregnant watching that sex scene between Alexia and the flame painted lowrider out of 10

“Love is a dog from hell” – tattoo on Alexia’s chest - Titane