Thursday 21 July 2022

The Question in Bodies #46: Transeverything Identity in the Films of Julia Ducournau

(Spoilers, all of them)

people are just not good to each other

A little girl mucks about in the back of a car. Her behaviour gets worse and worse; eventually she takes off her seatbelt, and her dad, his attention now thoroughly distracted, crashes the car. To reconstruct her smashed skull, a titanium plate is implanted, which leaves her with a distinctive spiral scar on the side of her head. Leaving the hospital, the child ignores her parents, running to the car, which she embraces, and kisses.

Cut to her adult life: now she is a bisexual, genderfluid adult dancer. She is also a casual serial killer, whose lack of care attracts police attention. She has sex with a fancy custom car, and gets pregnant by it. As her body experiences the changes that might come from bearing a semi-mechanical mutant made of flesh, metal and engine oil, she goes on the run.

Look. All that is probably enough to be getting on with, but really that doesn’t even get you past the first half of Julia Ducorneau’s stunning 2021 film Titane (simply, “Titanium”). And you really need to have seen this movie before you read this next part. I mean, you can read this and you’ll be fine, it won’t ruin your life, so perhaps rather than tell you that you need to have seen it maybe it is better to say that I want you to have seen it. I think it’s a film that travels in directions that are better seen than talked about. And I'm going to be breaking down scenes in detail.

Now, while “Spoiler” discourse is usually toxic and stupid, a way to strangle discussion and thought in the crib, some films are simply better experienced without you knowing anything about them. And there’s a reason a film that looks on paper like a fairly direct piece of New French Extremity wound up winning the 2021 Palme d’Or (and a reason that, quite frankly, if I’d been on that jury at Cannes, I’d have voted to give it the Palme d’Or as well). Because what happens next turns a film with a bit of body horror and some quirky and gory murders into something entirely different. It becomes something smaller, stranger, and oddly, dysfunctionally beautiful.

But calling it dysfunctional isn’t right either. Like the highly polished custom that fathers Alexia’s child, Titane hides precision engineering under its shining bodywork, and its unique quirks a signifier of a surprising amount of passion, and even love.

we don’t think about the terror of one person

From the moment we see her, as portrayed by writer and model Agathe Rousselle, Alexia’s raw-boned, broad-shouldered sexuality is a threat. She glowers at you. We are inclined, to begin with, to discount that threat, to place the danger elsewhere. She’s followed through a pedestrian subway in the dark by a man who speeds up when she does: we necessarily expect the worst, but it’s just a fan, the exact sort of straight guy who has no clue how creepy and entitled he’s being. We read Alexia’s FFS expression as the impatience and frustration of someone who has to deal with this shit all the time. When he oversteps and forces a kiss on her, we read her leaning into it as a spur-of-the-moment survival tactic, her reaching for the chopstick that's holding her hair up as an improvisational move, and her ramming it through his ear and deep into his hindbrain with the sickening sound of an egg being crushed as something desperate, immediate.

Later, we might read her exultant use of a flame-painted lowrider as a solo sex aid as an act of catharsis, the rape-revenge trajectory.

But it’s not like that. Or it is a bit like that. But it’s not entirely like that. As the film goes on, we discover that this is not Alexia’s first murder; and that the “chopstick in the brain meat” method is in fact her signature killing move and may even be the reason she uses the thing to tie her hair up in the first place. Later, she will try and fail to abort her half-mechanical pregnancy with it; later still, the chopstick will be the only possession she retains after going on the run and changing her identity and gender.

Why Alexia kills is explicitly signified as for other reasons than the usual (inasmuch as any serial killer is “usual”). There’s no thrill in it for her. In fact, her attitude to it is, more than anything, weary. She sighs, and rolls her eyes, and tightens her lips and stares into the middle distance for a moment. Her use of gory and creative improvised weapons (the bit with the chair is a hard one to unsee) isn’t a mark of creativity or even sadism, it’s her not having the patience to plan anything more efficient. And it goes right back to that scene before the credits where she causes the accident and gets the titanium plate implanted in her head: she loses patience. And the messed-up connection in Alexia’s cyborg brain draws a direct line from “For fuck’s sake, will this person ever leave me alone?” to “Oh, for the love of God, I'm going to have to brutally murder this person too.”

Fellow dancer Justine and Alexia begin a relationship; she’s clearly into Alexia, but Alexia’s fascination extends to the rings in Justine’s nipples, a body with metal in it. But Justine, notwithstanding her Sadeian name, is simply not metal enough, not cyborg enough, and Justine inevitably gets the chopstick lobotomy. Alexia’s internal compulsion/obligation to kill leads to a messy, desultory massacre of everyone else present in Justine’s house that would be pretty funny if it wasn’t so ridiculously extreme.

(we need to talk about Justine though)

Now, why should Justine matter at least as much as Alexia or (as we’ll see later) Vincent? Justine dies early on, at Alexia’s hand, after all. In plot terms, her death is there to get us to that gory and blackly comedic massacre – and “comedic” doesn’t have to mean funny, so much as it might be just grotesque. Horror and comedy rely on discomfort.

The thing that needs to be addressed then is that both of Ducournau’s previous films, the short Junior (2011) and debut feature Raw (2017) both star Marillier as a character called Justine.

Now, a lot of people are called Justine. It’s an enduringly popular girl’s name in both Britain and France. But the naming of characters in fictions does not follow the same rules as the naming of people in the real world. When you reuse names in this way – especially when you reuse more than one, something is going on.

Justine particularly is a Sadeian heroine. In the novel of the same name by the Marquis de Sade, Justine is a virtuous young woman whose virtue is rewarded by rape, degradation, humiliation and eventual death, as opposed to her sister Juliette, whose vice is rewarded. Justine never gets a break in Sade. Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman provides a strong critique of Justine and Juliette and their fates. But the Justine of Julia Ducournau’s canon is, I think, a Justine that Carter would have seen in a more positive light.

There is a strong temptation to imagine Titane as only a sequel to Raw, set in a time where Raw’s Justine dropped out of vet school and, now, slightly older, wound up go-go dancing to make her living.

But Raw also features an Alexia and an Adrien, who cannot be exactly the same characters that they are in Titane. In Raw, the story of a first year veterinary student who discovers that she has an awkward craving for the taste of human flesh, Alexia (here played by Ella Rumpf) is Justine’s older sister. But like the Alexia of Titane, she is still a sociopath, as the first of several bonkers twists in the film reveals. Meanwhile, the Adrien of Raw (Rabah Naït Oufella), who disappeared as a child in Titane, is Justine’s roommate. The fates of the three characters are very different to their fates in Titane, but there are commonalities, repeated images.

The act of Justine’s murder in Titane is messy, painful, inefficient. Alexia misses with the chopstick on her first go, and instead impales Justine’s left cheek; although the final result is different, the confrontation between Alexia and Justine in Raw inflicts the same specific injury. In both films, we see a close up of the tip of a sharp object – an everyday object not intended for violence – dragged across a floor with menace. In Junior, Justine wakes up to find that her skin has done some weird things. This happens in Raw, too. These very specific, disturbing images change their contexts and their outcomes but they are nonetheless the same, plugged into a new setting.

And that’s how it is with the character of Justine in particular: in Junior, filmed when she was about 12 years old, Marillier plays Justine as a tomboyish kid whose bittersweet transition into adolescence is symbolised by the shedding of her skin; in Raw, Marillier, now not quite 18 at the time of filming (but already starting to resemble a young Diana Rigg), plays Justine as a young woman whose entry into her sexual prime and the struggles it brings is symbolised by an awkward compulsion to see attractive boys as ”snacks” in more than just the colloquial sense.

In Titane, she’s destroyed and discarded.

Each time, she is the same character.

Fictional characters aren’t people: they’re symbolic representations of people, signifiers of some part of the human condition. They don’t have to follow the life arcs of people. We must live in the same world and must remain here until we die. But fictions can be reborn the same in different times and places.

Ducournau here is claiming the rarely used privilege of the fiction writer to reuse and reframe their protagonists. What if Justine, only a university student undergoing an endless series of hazings? What if Justine, only an erotic dancer at a car show who gets her nipple piercings tangled in her colleague’s hair?

(Footnote: another example that springs to mind is Michael Moorcock’s character Jerry Cornelius, who among other guises appears in print as a working class teenager, an assassin, a secret agent, a rock star, a post apocalyptic adventurer, three different starship captains, a Commedia dell’ Arte player, and the last of the elves.)

It’s useful to see Titane in this context, because these other stories illuminate it: it’s part of a body of work, of a piece with it, and we get to explore related themes in different contexts and from different directions. Junior and Raw both explore life transitions using fantastical body horrors. They explore the performance of gender. They are films of awakening.

And they’re also films where love of various kinds – and not sexual love, the altruistic love of family and found family – exists as an influence, a factor in these transformations and awakenings that mitigates the pain and the horror of identity. This isn’t always redemptive – Ducournau is clear-eyed in recognising some things as irredeemable – but there is hope here, there is affirmation, even if it’s very slim.

Titane is the same.

ashamed of my sentimentality and possible love

Diagnosing Alexia is a fun game – inattentive ADHD? OCD, only where the obsessive compulsion is the death of people who try her patience? Cyborg BPD? None of the boxes quite fit – but then, they don’t fit any of us, really. She is certainly a psychopath (and Agathe Rousselle has confirmed in interviews that she did a lot of research into psychopathic behaviours when devising her performance, e.g. but it is a specific sort of psychopathy, a fantastical psychopathy that comes from a rejection of humanity. Rousselle, interviewed in Antidote magazine, for example, describes Alexia’s sexual attraction to cars as “Stockholm Syndrome”.

It’s probably worth saying here that the idea of Stockholm Syndrome as a real-world psychiatric phenomenon has been discredited for some time. But for the purposes of the story, it makes a sort of sense. We are held captive by the machines that surround us, from the vehicles we drive to the tiny device on which I am writing these words with my thumbs. They hold our bodies and imaginations to ransom. What is a fetish for the machine other than an act of throwing our lot in with the captors, even if they are captors we have manufactured?

And the machine has agency here. The fancy custom car that Alexia danced on, dry-humping it with lascivious abandon, turns up, driverless, at her door, engine running, lights on. It’s like that scene in the movie where two protagonists have a Moment, and then later that evening one of them – usually the woman – turns up at the other’s door and they engage in passionate lovemaking without another word. Except she’s fucking an automobile, obviously. Which is also fucking her.

Ironically, the fantastical nature of Alexia’s predicament means that we can skip the common tendency of fiction to portray neatly diagnosable taxonomies of mental illness and just see a messy, tangled, screwed up (trans) human. Real people do weird things, all the time. The trick in making a film about these things is in making those weird things believable and human. And that is an important point for Titane because nothing Alexia does is normal.

For example she attempts to escape the consequences of her careless massacre by burning down her house with her mum and dad in it. And then she cuts her hair, punches herself hard in the face, binds her breasts and stomach and pretends to be Adrien, a long-missing boy, returned to his family after having vanished when very small. This might be seen by anyone rational as a ridiculously daft move. And certainly, it’s patent that this is a thirty year old woman pretending to be an eighteen year old boy. No one in the film is under any illusions. But the boy’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon) immediately accepts Alexia as Adrien and inserts his “son” in the hypermasculine world of the firefighting team he leads.

Repeatedly, the guys at the station tell Vincent he is being played.

He is not.

a loneliness in this world so great you can see it in the slow movements of the hands of a clock

Vincent: I don’t care who you are. You're my son. You'll always be my son. Whoever you are.

Although it isn’t immediately apparent to the viewer – again, Titane plays tricks with the way we naturally read the film – Vincent knows full well from the get-go that he’s not getting Adrien back. He is simply lonely, and he’ll clutch at even the slightest remission of his sadness, even if it’s entirely, obviously fake.

Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou) – estranged by the tragedy as all too commonly happens – understands this at the moment she stumbles upon Alexia’s condition. She could expose Alexia to Vincent. She doesn’t. She doesn’t need to.

This big, hard-muscled, hard-faced man has been so eaten by grief and the growing knowledge of his mortality, his gnawing loneliness, that he simply does not care who this is. He will love this person as his son.

The transeverything cuckoo in the midst of Vincent’s firefighting crew throws every performance of gender in the place into peril. Vincent aggressively demands that “Adrien” be accepted as performing masculinity even when “Adrien” obviously isn’t even trying to, and because Vincent responds to “Adrien” with a tenderness that belies the hard-muscled, gung-ho nature of the firefighters. Vincent realises he can’t be a machine, and behaves as if that hard masculinity was an error to be put right now he has a son again (and who cares who this is? It’s a son). It’s the crisis of his masculinity that touches Alexia, his halting efforts toward parental tenderness, his conscious choice to accept and to love. And she responds.

what we need is less brilliance, what we need is less instruction

Alexia’s queerness, her casual transing of herself, isn’t exactly unrelated to her nature as a cyborg, but it is independent. Her relationship to the machine – neither homo-, hetero-, bi- nor pan- sexual, she is more correctly, technosexual – of course influences how she expresses her gender, as it does with all of us. The only reason she can perform femininity – and it’s the showy, aggressive, hypersexualised femininity of the dancer – is because it’s literally a professional skill for her, a thing trained and practiced. She’s hot for the machine, and of course, just as Ballard wrote all those words proving, the most sexually suggestive machine is the automobile.

Her disappointment and loss of patience with Justine is because Justine can’t be like her – Justine’s piercings are external. Alexia’s body modifications go beneath the surface. They modify the body as a whole, as a self, a complete person. They go right to her core.

In Titane’s prologue, we see that moment that a lot of us experience in childhood when our first fetish is born. Often these things precede puberty, which is why they’re so powerful and difficult to untangle from our identities – if we have fetishes, our sexualities often exist in the context of them and are shaped by them, and not the other way around.

Alexia’s sexuality seems to slot neatly into a space where she could easily exist among the fetishists of Crash or Tetsuo, but it’s an illusion. While her first romantic contact with the metal came from a car crash, she lusts after the machine itself rather than its consequences. Having said that, a crossover slash fanfic featuring Alexia and Crash’s Gabrielle springs to mind fully formed.

(Note: placeholder for page of sexy Crash/Titane fanfic here)

The metal plate in Alexia’s head and the half-metal foetus in her womb are both growing into her body; she begins to lactate black, sticky colostrum with the texture of engine oil. Binding down her breasts and increasingly gravid abdomen becomes more and more painful; it’s bad enough for the flesh, but the body also rebels. At the end, the metal will begin to erupt from her whole body, bursting out of the tattered skin of her head and torso. It’s almost like it is shedding her flesh, except she can't be wholly metal. She is still human, and by the time she begins labour, she has entered her own crisis. She can’t choose humanity at this point. She rejected humanity too comprehensively at the beginning for the sake of the metal – the source of her psychopathy – and when she rejects the metal there is nothing left. A psychopath can’t actually stop being a psychopath, any more than I could stop being autistic.

mutilated either by love or no love

Tattooed on Alexia's sternum are the (English) words “LOVE IS A DOG FROM HELL”. That’s a real tattoo, belonging to Agathe Rousselle herself, but the lingering focus of the camera on it invites us to meditate on it as a programmatic statement. It’s a reference to Charles Bukowski. It’s the title of what’s arguably his finest collection and its title poem, a meditation on self and love.

there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock.
people so tired
either by love or no love.
people just are not good to each other
one on one.
– Bukowski, “Love is a Dog from Hell” (1977)

Bukowski as a writer defines the intersection between hardness and vulnerability, a man’s man. Vincent is in some ways very much a Bukowski version of masculinity – he exactly has that loneliness that you can see in “the slow movement of the hands of a clock” – but unlike Bukowski – who notoriously disliked people in general and women in particular – he transcends it. He achieves, through his relationship with a psychopath pretending to be his son, something more. Although he could be read as imposing his love on an idea of his son, a person who no longer exists, and who may never have existed, that isn’t it at all. In fact it is deeper and purer than that. Vincent has determined to love this person, whoever they are.

And the moment where you can see that is in Alexia’s labour. Present as she gives birth, Vincent doesn’t waste a single breath in switching to the name she wants (and she, in extremity, trusts him or has no choice but to trust him, with her real name).

Vincent: Push, Adrien!
Alexia (in agony): My name is Alexia!
Vincent: Push, Alexia!

But she cannot live. As a psychopath, she cannot abandon her psychopathy; as a cyborg she cannot abandon the metal. Saying “I love you” was inevitable, but it ensures her destruction. You can’t go back on these things. It’s Vincent who successfully finds the way to get past this, by, crucially, fighting for someone other than himself. In talking about Tetsuo, we approached Angela Carter’s corrective to Sade: what place is there for love in the face of the machine’s demands, in the context of our instrumentalised personhood? But here, in the most unlikely of places, we find it. His mortality and his knowledge of his mortality inform his decision to throw in with the only posterity that matters: the children. Once again, we see that the solution is that the children must be allowed to live.