The grotesque and sublime transformations of “Titane”

Before you can slip the world into your pocket and conjure up his elegant appearances with a thumb on glass, the 1983 David Cronenberg film Videodrome saw the body’s encounter with technology as a grotesque collision: cassettes plunged into a yonic notch where the stomach should be; a gun made literal as marbled flesh pushes out of a pistol, claiming its outlines like moss would a stone. Such fears of technological corruption go back a long way Videodrome, but the ragged suture of man and machine in the film centers a long-standing anxiety over the body and its limitations: where it begins, where it ends, and how much of its wants and needs really are its own. . It is also the stake of the Palme d’Or of Julia Ducournau Titanium, a film teeming with the kind of carnal metamorphosis that Cronenberg once called “the flesh in revolution”. Bodies leak, tear and burst, but in Titanium, the revolt of the flesh begins long before the bursting of the viscera. In the very first scene, an accident inflicts a wound so indelible that the film’s sequel leaves one wondering if there can be a life – or a self – forged outside of its deepest traumas.

We open with close-ups of the ink-black innards of a moving car, its satin metal frame in condensation and motor oil, evoking its own damp, quivering sensation. In the backseat is our protagonist Alexia as a child, warding off boredom by mimicking the car’s noisy engine, her voice synchronized in a roaring crescendo. In a split-second tragedy, there is a crash, a bloody thud, and a frantic cut on an operating table, where a titanium plate is hammered into Alexia’s broken skull. Doctors warn her parents to watch for signs of neurological dysfunction, but comfort them with the promise of stability: Unless a hard impact occurs, the plaque will not move. Freshly discharged, Alexia approaches a car not with worry but sensual fascination, stroking its steel curvature as if the titanium that envelops her brain had taken the memory of pain and rewrote it as pleasure. In short, as are the prologues, but this scene is enough to make the strange combination of bodily trauma and prosthetic technology the possible co-authors of a new life, their autograph the deep scar engraved in the bald crescent above Alexia’s right ear.

The film quickly passes to thirty-something Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), now a dancer at an auto show where she’s just a spinning attraction in a fishnets and lamé spandex competition. Men flock to her curvy routine, but when a fan assaults her in an empty parking lot after the show, she stabs him in the ear with a metal hairpin. It turns out to be both a defensive reflex and a psychopathic habit. Alexia is a serial killer whose signature is a blunt piercing wound. Another habit: she has a sexual preference for cars and finds herself pregnant with the mysterious offspring of a fiery Cadillac. After a potential victim runs away pushing their head against a wall, causing a second bloody thud, Alexia’s face appears on wanted posters and evening news. As her physique goes through quarters at the speed of light, she comes across a missing persons notice bearing the image of Adrien Legrand, a boy who disappeared around 20 years ago. Alexia is in hiding disguised as Adrien, the long-lost son of an aging fire chief, Vincent, whose body, too, has stood the test of time.

Vincent is played by veteran actor Vincent Lindon, whose new shroud of unexpected muscles introduces the curious tempo of an offscreen bodily transformation. It took two years to build this new physique: “Everything is more complicated when you’re 62,” Lindon told a to interview at Cannes. “The skin is not the same. Along with the mostly mute performance of newcomer Rousselle (and whose pre-existing tattoos invoke another interpretation challenge), Lindon’s historic presence imparts a familiarity that makes Vincent easier to read. Her body is strained from years of towing underworld wreckage and injecting steroids, but the loneliness softens it, leaving its mark in Lindon’s downcast eyes. Vincent’s life, like Alexia’s, grew around a loss that still holds its shape: here is someone you need, whose sense of self has collapsed without fatherhood or family. This is the rhythm of Titaniumcentral duet of, two bodies tested by pain and sorrow, first attracted to each other by chance, then held together by the gravity of their mutual transformations.

If the wave of tech-savvy (and -phobic) genre films after Ridley Scott Extraterrestrial (1979) – body horror science fiction, black tech, cyberpunk – have tended to portray this thing called “technology” as a formidable antagonist of organic life, Ducournau takes us back to a much older conception of the term Greek. tekhn, which largely encompasses a notion of technique, craftsmanship or know-how. Titanium is filled with the kind of sci-fi visuals that suggest a reading of technology as an intrusive force, but I suspect the film is more concerned with technology as a mode of creation, reminiscent of the idea of ​​philosopher Bernard Stiegler that our tools and gadgets are not just extensions of the human sensorium but the sum of everything we do, use and invent that makes us human.

Alexia, after all, procreated with an automobile, though the scene of their mating is enigmatic enough to evoke the possibility of self-delusion: Its headlights beaming in a vision that is both comical and divine, the Cadillac pulls her away. ‘a shower, naked and wet, as if dripping with amniotic fluid. There is something funny about the proximity of “self” to “auto,” which reminds me of the flashy nomenclature imposed on car crash fetishists in Cronenberg’s book. crash (and the source novel by JG Ballard): autophiles.

But the spectacle of TitaniumThe vehicular eroticism of is a red herring. Cars are much less interesting in the context of sexual deviance than in their role as agents of somatic change, responsible for one of the two transformations that upset Rousselle’s framework. Each pulls their bodies towards a future on the other end of an obvious gender binary: While her breasts and crotch leak black motor oil instead of the usual fluids, she also shears her platinum shag, binds his chest with a medical plaster, and resolutely breaks his nose at the edge of a sink, cramming into an Adrien-shaped form just convincing enough for a lone father to suspend his disbelief. When a policeman asks Vincent if he would like a DNA test done just to be sure, he laughs: How could he not recognize his own son? In a tense nocturnal silence, he leads this changeling home and installs it in the sanctuary that is Adrien’s untouched room. Alexia undresses and collapses, visibly pregnant, on this ghostly boy’s bed, as if thrown into the childhood memory of a stranger. There is a strange distortion of time in this picture, as if a multitude of possible futures have erupted in the space of one life – and one body.

Titanium‘s most obvious vanity is his rejection of ordered binaries – between genders, between human and machine – is distilled in the image of Alexia / Adrien’s bodily form, her ready-made father figure and her hybrid offspring. As an explicit metaphor, this vanity may seem compelling but overdetermined, almost too visibly signaled on the literal surface of the characters’ bodies: the web of red streaks on Alexia’s skin, where the horizontal lacerations of her bandage go to the against vertical stretch marks of its development. stomach; Vincent’s vicissitudes in the constellation of bruises that sting his ass, and the texture of his aging skin. What is the sum of these inscriptions and all the other changes in the terrain of a body? Easy reading of Titanium has an answer to this, offered as an identity assertion against the essentialism of biology, but Ducournau has constructed many more questions than she can address. Lost in the neon-lit chaos of TitaniumBody Horror is the film’s uplifting feeling of a life that could have been otherwise: a childhood – or a body, or a vehicle hurtling down a freeway – that could have taken a smooth turn instead of a hard turn.

But there’s no real way to verify whether different bends would have led to different selves, whether a hard hit to the head caused a neural misfire or corrected one. This reiteration of the cliché of nature or education is a possible dividing line between Titanium and Ducournau’s first feature film, Raw (2015), in which the cannibalistic impulses of a young girl are revealed, in the final scene, to be hereditary. There, it seemed to me a squeaky gesture of confinement in an otherwise delightful film of excess, but Ducournau returns to the problems of self-study in Titanium, now wrapped in a knot of trauma and identity. Where do perversions, sexual or otherwise, take root? Perhaps in the intimate sphere of the private family unit, perhaps in the threads of a chromosome even before there is a body. After the prologue, there is no return to Alexia’s childhood, nor any attempt to trace the evolution of her desires and compulsions. Nothing, in short, to feed this beloved metric of critical appraisal in narrative cinema: a characterization that relies on nuanced but readable movements of cause and effect.

Against the seductive propulsion of Titaniumof the plot, these omissions appear to be an easy flaw to ambiguity. So we seek and locate the moments that should explain who and Why, and bristle when they’re not quite working. But what is it Titanium resists, despite the sacred leaning of its finale: the tempting fiction that pain and loss can always be turned into revelation, that lucid arrangement of life’s events will always lead to a cohesive self. Perhaps the suffering and its traces are just inconsistent, like the old scar that coils over a woman’s right ear, carved like a hieroglyph, its meaning lost in flesh and time.

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