How ‘Titane’ captures the messy brutality of transition

ANALYSIS: Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature deserves to be part of the trans cinematic canon

When it first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago, French director Julia Ducournau’s sophomore feature, Titane, was described as “visceral,” with some audience members even walking out of the theatre. These shocking moments were highlighted via Twitter after the film’s debut, and even Rolling Stone couldn’t help themselves—their review described the film as a “Gender-Flipping, Genre-Bending, Car-F–king Serial Killer Movie.” Despite the controversy, Titane was regarded as one of the best films of the year with critics deeming it “​​daringly original,” solidifying Ducournau as a “major star of world cinema.” The film went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was snubbed at the Oscars. 

While I can understand that some people, especially those who aren’t avid horror fans, felt alienated by the film, Titane was nothing but pleasurable for me. There was a glimmer of something familiar when I first saw the film: watching the protagonist, Alexia, move through the world, I remember thinking, “Oh, so this is what it feels like.” I have seen myself in films like Moonlight or Mysterious Skin before, but never has a reaction been so visceral. From that point on, it was impossible for me to view Titane as anything other than trans cinema.

For myself, trans cinema is not necessarily based around films that showcase solid text, but rather subtext around these ideas of gender. Other than Titane, the most recent case of this is Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor which focuses on a man and woman whose minds become interlinked after the woman uses a futuristic piece of technology to take over the man’s body. And of course there’s the Matrix franchise, directed by the openly trans Wachowski sisters, where the main characters Neo and Trinity have come to represent the trans experience for many people. The idea these films propose, of becoming one’s “true self” through outside means or technology, is irrevocably related to the idea of transness and gender euphoria. 

In Titane, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is a serial killer. The film’s second act is in motion after she kills three innocent people, along with her mother and father. As she tries to escape the authorities, she sees a photo of herself on a wanted poster. Beside it is the photo of a boy who has been missing for years. Alexia rushes to the bathroom to change her appearance: cutting her hair in jagged slices, binding her chest with bandages and bashing her nose against a dirty public bathroom sink to make it crooked. Paired with a hat and ill-fitting clothes, she transforms into an older version of Adrien, the missing child in question. The film never states outright that Alexia is anything other than cis, but this sequence is enough to allow viewers such as myself to read her character, and the film’s themes, as trans.

 

The transformation that takes place is brutal to say the least, but it’s necessary for Alexia’s survival. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that to unlock the version of herself she wants to be, Alexia must fully don the guise of masculinity she was teasing in her life before Adrien. Alexia reconstructs herself to become someone else; she transitions. And as much as the media and pop culture likes to focus on trans joy, the process of transformation isn’t always pretty. 

In my own life, it’s easy to find joy when my mother calls me her “kid” instead of her “daughter,” and when my childhood friends refer to me with the right pronouns. But these instances of joy are fleeting compared to the broad reality of existing as a trans person. Like Alexia, I am in charge of how I present to the outside world, but I do not currently have a family doctor, so surgeries and hormones remain inaccessible for the time being. This isn’t just the case for me, it’s a reality for many trans people; nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills filed in the first three months of 2022 alone, with most of them affecting trans people

As Alexia binds her chest, it heaves under the pressure of the Ace tape, the breath trapped inside of her lungs. Later on in the film, as Alexia changes, she has to strip the bandages away from her body, peeling it off like a second skin. She reveals a mottled hue of bruises, a colourful bloom underneath her skin born from the weight of the bandages she wears at all times. I saw myself in her in this instance: the look of pain but also wonder in her eyes as she realizes what her body is capable of withstanding. 

In Titane, Ducournau uses these aspects of body horror to uncover the ways in which trans people see themselves before and after coming out and medically transitioning. While many trans people don’t feel the need for surgery or other medical interventions, others feel like these procedures are essential to their well-being. A 2015 study from Harvard University showed that there was a 42 percent reduction in psychological distress and a 44 percent reduction in suicidal ideation for trans folks with access to gender-affirming surgery compared to transgender and gender-diverse people who had not had gender-affirming surgery but wanted it. For Alexia to reach the ultimate state of gender euphoria—even though the film never names it as such—she must destroy her body and completely make herself anew. Adrien is the vessel that she will inhabit, and the good son is the performance she must play in order to maintain that existence. 

It’s a process that reflects the pressure trans people may feel to be the “perfect” idea of what transness is. In pop culture, queer and trans characters are rarely allowed to be flawed, with Hollywood often sanitizing the messiness of discovering oneself. We need more characters like Alexia and Euphoria’s Jules—trans characters that are almost unabashedly imperfect—to let young trans people know that you don’t have to have it all figured out at once. While Alexia fights to escape her new life at first, Vincent,  Adrien’s father, shows Alexia that a life filled with a tentative kind of love—a love that creeps up on you in the night and finally rests against your back as you fall asleep—is possible.

The first thing we learn in Titane is that Alexia’s biological father hates her and she hates him. In the first scene of the film, a young Alexia stares intently at her father’s back from the backseat of their car. The look in her eyes is feral, making it evident this is more than just childish hostility; there’s jealousy and hate in her eyes. Their subsequent interactions ooze with an unwavering resentment. Even when time skips forward and Alexia is an adult herself, there’s an unspoken sentiment whenever her eyes meet with her father’s, a blatant secret hanging over their heads: I know who you are.

On the other hand, there’s Vincent: a man so enthralled in grief that he’s willing to grasp onto the lies Alexia (posing as Adrien) lays out for him. Although at times it’s glaringly obvious Vincent is being deceived, he is more than happy to believe that the person in front of him is his son. In another grotesque body horror scene in the last moments of Alexia’s life, she gives birth to a half human, half car infant. With this last act of desperation, she gives Vincent new life in the form of a child, not only allowing him to start anew, but allowing the woman she once was to die.

By adopting the guise of Adrien, Alexia becomes the person she may have been meant to be all along. Underneath the fractured nose and bound breasts, she is still the Alexia we met at the beginning of the film. I remember when I told my mother I was trans last year, she went quiet over the phone for a short while. Then, firmly, she just said “You’re still my kid.” Despite the fact that down the line, I may not resemble the photos my mother has hanging on the walls of her living room, inside myself I am still the child she raised. The trans experience can be messy and challenging, but for me—and for Titane’s Alexia—it leaves us as the ultimate versions of ourselves. 

Many films about trans people have been made, particularly in the last five years, and none of them have gotten to the root of the experience quite like Ducournau does. While I don’t doubt films like The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club come from a place of goodwill, their trans characters ultimately feel like they are solely there to pull at the viewer’s heartstrings. Yes, being trans is not an easy experience, but we do not exist solely in the context of cis guilt. 
I hope more directors will lean into these themes like Ducournau has. Titane revels in its subtext, and the film’s plot is almost overwhelmed by themes of gender. It’s a smart film, yes, but it’s also unabashedly messy in its messaging. Alexia is a vessel not to pander to cis audiences, but rather to let people like myself see a reflection of my gender experience on the big screen. A film so meticulously crafted with subtext that emulates the reality of the trans experience can only be viewed as belonging to the trans cinema canon, and cinema as a whole is better for it.

Kaiya Shunyata (they/he) is an Ontario-based writer who speaks English. They hold a degree in Film Studies and focus on all things queer and horror. Kaiya also has an unhealthy obsession with rock music. You can follow their work and ramblings on Twitter at @kaiyashunyata

Read More About:
Culture, TV & Film, Analysis, Trans

Keep Reading

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 9’ Episode 2 recap: We’re on each other’s team

As the competition moulds into place, the queens are playing doubles
A collage of AI generated gay male couples. The men are muscular and all look similar. There are four pairs.

Who does queer AI ‘art’ actually represent?

ANALYSIS: Accounts dedicated to queer AI art have popped off, but is there hope for anything beyond “boyfriend twins”?

‘Bird Suit’ is a surreal, lush and devastating portrait of small-town life

Sydney Hegele’s new novel is a queer take on the the genre of southern Ontario gothic literature

‘Stress Positions’ captures the uncomfortable hilarity of millennial loserdom

Writer-director Theda Hammel weighs in on her debut film, modern-day slapstick and the difference between being evil and being a loser