The answer lies in what Ducournau herself describes as “body empathy”. This is the physical impulse we feel when we see another person experience pain and we recoil in self-protection. Because even if we’ve never faced that precise pain before, our brain triggers a sense of it so we know not to let it happen to ourselves. Forget emotional connections - you want your audience to immediately empathise with your characters? Smash their nose against the sink.
The Horror of the Body in Julia Ducournau’s Titane
Titane has been widely described as body horror. This is understandable - the Palme d’Or-winning film directed by Julia Ducournau features graphic sequences aplenty, from bloody nipple-ripping to aggressive car-fucking. Named for the titanium plate in dancer Alexia’s skull following a childhood car accident, Titane begins by following her murderous and sexual exploits – just like Ducournau’s debut feature Raw (2016), about a teenage girl exploring her sexuality through cannibalism.
But the implication of ‘horror’ as a generic descriptor is that we are repelled by what we see on the screen and distance ourselves from it. So why is watching Titane so painfully magnetic?
"Forget emotional connections - you want your audience to immediately empathise with your characters? Smash their nose against the sink."
While seeing Titane with an audience, it’s interesting to pay attention to the different reactions in the auditorium. Some people will just walk out - it’s a very triggering film, and sometimes body empathy can be overwhelming or too relatable to personal experience. You never know what someone’s triggers might be (often we don’t know ourselves until we’re experiencing them), so let them pass and don’t be a dick. But those who endure the film will undergo a number of physical responses during its runtime, and they will be different for everyone.
In most films, especially comedies, there’s a tendency to focus on male body empathy. The kick-in-the-balls is a classic, and plenty of horror films will feature some form of phallic mutilation that has men writhing uncomfortably in their seats. Think of the brilliant feminist horror movie Teeth (2007) - the fear of vagina dentata is specific to men, and the film empowers women by literalising psychoanalytical theories of sexual difference.
It’s also a persistent, and deeply problematic, trope in films about male-to-female transition to show graphic acts of genital-based self-harm. Perhaps the most egregious example is the castration scene in Lukas Dhont’s Girl (2019), which tries to create empathy in cis men towards trans women by showing how the latter lack castration anxiety. The actual result is to prevent her from ever having her genitals surgically reconstructed as a functioning vulva and vagina.
"Ducournau doesn’t give a shit about gender - as far as she’s concerned, it's fluid and susceptible to constant shifts."
To some extent, Titane has a similar effect. Ducournau doesn’t explicitly gender moments of body empathy, but there are acts of violence in the film which affect women more than others. Let’s call them booby blows and pussy punches - kicks in the cunt, as it were. If Titane was about a trans man, à la Boys Don’t Cry (1999), these attacks would feel as dangerous an attempt at body empathy as in Girl. Especially in its bloody depiction of breast-binding.
But rather than playing into these tropes, Titane rips them apart. Ducournau doesn’t give a shit about gender - as far as she’s concerned, it's fluid and susceptible to constant shifts. There will be people who want to try to put labels on Alexia, especially during the part of the film when she attempts to pass as male to avoid persecution and abuse. In the script female pronouns persist, but Alexia is now Adrien, a change which is as natural and smooth as the transition scene in Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.”
It seems to Ducouranau that all of us exist within non-binary space and that accepting this can be a freeing experience from our social constraints. Titane is seeped in transness, from its sweeping cinematography, atmospheric lighting, and throbbing soundtrack which keep the body of the film itself in a constant state of flux. The film mirrors Alexia/Adrien’s own movements, moving from the heightened femininity of her motor-frottage strip tease in the opening shot to the machismo of Vincent’s fire department.
These shifts in identity inspire passages of panic in the film’s characters - the overwhelming emotions Vincent feels in the wake of his son’s disappearance, and his wife’s resulting confusion. Perhaps no scene better expresses the fear binary-identifying people feel about non-binary identities than Alexia/Adrien’s dance atop a fire truck which becomes increasingly feminine and erotic. Having accepted Adrien as male, the camera closes on the expressions of the men watching as they experience sexual confusion.
Moments like this, in which Alexia’s femaleness is glimpsed by her colleagues, put her life in danger. This is a real risk faced by trans people across the world, especially when attempting to pass in single-sex spaces. We have seen the strength and potential the men in the film have for violence, and while we know Alexia is capable of defending herself, she would surely lose against a group of firefighters. Not in the least because she also happens to be pregnant.
"Titane is seeped in transness, from its sweeping cinematography, atmospheric lighting, and throbbing soundtrack which keep the body of the film itself in a constant state of flux."
Just as the image of the women-with-a-penis has been used in cinema, from The Silence of the Lambs to The Crying Game, to inspire terror and nausea, the pregnant man has been used to mock masculinity. These bodies, existing between binary sexes, are met with derision for being anomalous by the majority. Titane shows that there is beauty in biological difference, and there is overwhelming optimism in the final birthing scene for the future that Vincent will have with Alexia’s child (whom, according to Ducournau, is deliberately genderless).
Since Alexia is impregnated by a car at the start of the film, there has been a level of tension in the viewer as to what monstrosity will result. At the climax, we see not a monster, but a human baby with a metal spine and headplate. Vincent holds the child as any father would, and having felt Alexia’s pain for so long, we now feel Vincent’s emotions - his grief, but also his love.
There are differences in the ways we respond to Titane, but we are connected by that difference. We all experience forms of body empathy, often more immediately than its emotive form, because we are all human. And regardless of the body in which we were born, and of how it changes (because all bodies change), it is the possession of a body which connects us. And that’s shit for everyone, but it can also be wonderful.