Titane (2021), Julia Ducournau’s mecha-body horror has won the 2021 Palme d’Or, the Top Prize at the esteemed annual Cannes film festival (Mottram, 2022). Ducournau herself is no stranger to body horror, a sub-horror genre that showcases transgressions of the human body. Before Titane (2021) she was known for her directorial debut, Raw (20216), where she twisted a girl’s coming of age story into a cannibalistic body horror feast. For Ducournau, Titane (2021) is a chance to expand her body horror universe away from the confines of flesh and blood, and into the ample possibilities of machine augmentation.
What is interesting to analyse therefore is its popularity, grossing at USD 4.9 million at the global box office, compared to David Cronenberg’s mechanophilia Crash (1996) which grossed USD 2.6 million worldwide, Titane (2021) is hardly the obscure experimental film that most body-horror films are considered to be. Still, it has nevertheless garnered contradictory reactions from critics and casual viewers alike, with film critic Leonardo Goi going so far as to question whether or not the film is even as transgressive as it claims to be (Goi, 2021).
Two years into a global health crisis, people are indulging themselves more than they were before in body horror. One example of this phenomenon is seen is how the medical horror Contagion (2011) has become one of iTunes’ most-watched films of all time since the pandemic started (Bisset, 2020). The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) explains this phenomenon by how watching horror films has allowed viewers to use them as a sort of anxiety simulation in order to become psychologically resilient when faced with real-life challenges (Scrivner et al., 2021). In the case of body horror, it would be to face those anxieties around human bodily functions and health that haunt us constantly during a global pandemic.
This may be one of the strongest possible explanations for the popularity of Titane (2021) and its mid-pandemic release. The film follows its lead anti-hero Alexia (portrayed by Agatha Rousselle) in her post-mechanophilia misadventures. Alexia is a serial killer who works as an exotic dancer. One day, she performs on top of a car, the very same one which would then go on to impregnate her. The film’s length is spent following her pregnancy closely, which takes a toll on her body and life choices until finally, we witness the messianic birth of an automobile-human hybrid baby.
To make this pregnancy possible, Alexei is depicted as a trans-human, existing in an in-between state of human and machine; thanks again to her fondness for cars as a child that lead her to fall victim to a traffic accident which resolved in a titanium plate being surgically augmented into her skull in order to safe her life. This may be how Titane (2021) is transgressive: in depicting the birth of a transhuman baby from the womb of a transhuman mother, an act that is certainly, if not original, the first to be brought into mainstream consciousness. A true half-human half-machine baby which technically would grow to reach its adult form, not one that was readymade or was surgically enhanced as transhumanism is so far thought to be; stretching the boundaries of what it means to be neither of both.
Transhumanism itself is a critical theory movement under posthumanism that aims to imagine what an accelerated human evolution would be like, transforming humans into organisms which would not traditionally be identified as Homo Sapiens by merging humanity with other species and technology to rid the species of its various maladies such as disease, disability, ageing, unchosen psychology, and other perceived undesirable human afflictions (Kordic et al., 2016).
Leonardo Goi’s article makes no mention of this transgression, in fact, it instead dissects heavily into the gendered perspectives presented in the film, which is present mainly due to Alexia’s creative disguising of herself as a boy who went missing decades ago that would be around her age today and the interactions she has with the boy’s father and those around him. The various gender issues come together into what Goi argued, borrowing from Jonathan Romney, “crammed with undeveloped possibilities, bold as they all are, that it makes for a frustrating spectacle, although one you can never take your eyes off” (Romney, 2021).
Though gender issues are indeed a key concept in transhumanism, as Donna Haraway outlines in her Cyborg Manifesto (1985) which calls a fully evolved trans-human form a “cyborg” and classifies gender, along with race and class as “an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism,'”ultimately causing painful fragmentations in our society that ought to be eradicated by the time we reach cyborg life forms. Still, this is indeed not the focal point of Titane (2021).
As Julia Ducournau points out in her Palm d’Or acceptance speech, the film is far from perfect, and “you could even call it monstrous.” But you have to admit that it furthers the imaginative research of transhumanism, a condition that today exists in society mainly through body art (tattoos & piercings), gender-affirming surgery, & assistive technology that can range anything from surgically attached prosthetics to wheelchairs, and hearing aids, and even to its more common allies: glasses and contact lenses.
Today, the transhuman is still far from being fully evolved; the augmentations do not exist throughout an entire life span and serve mainly to assist us in reaching traditional bodily functions, a condition which the hybrid baby of Titane (2021) transgresses.
Bisset, J. (2020, March 4). Pandemic film Contagion becomes one of iTunes’ most-watched movies. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/news/pandemic-film-contagion-becomes-one-of-itunes-most-watched-movies/
Goi, L. (2021, October 7). The Current Debate: The Transgressiveness of Julia Ducournau’s “Titane”. MUBI. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-current-debate-the-transgressiveness-of-julia-ducournau-s-titane
Haraway, D. (2016). A Cyborg Manifesto : Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. University of Minnesota Press. http://nikomas.memoryoftheworld.org/Donna%20Haraway/A%20Cyborg%20Manifesto%20_%20Science,%20Technology,%20and%20Socialist-Feminism%20in%20the%20Late%20Twentieth%20Century%20(1042)/A%20Cyborg%20Manifesto%20_%20Science,%20Technology,%20-%20Donna%20Haraway.pdf
Kordic, A., Godward, F., & Martinique, E. (2016, October 7). Posthumanism and Contemporary Art. Widewalls. https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/posthumanism-contemporary-art
Mottram, J. (2022, January 4). Why Titane, Julia Ducournau’s 2021 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, may be the most extreme movie you’ll see all year. South China Morning Post (SCMP). https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/entertainment/article/3161913/why-titane-julia-ducournaus-2021-cannes-palme-dor-winner#:~:text=In%20July%202021%2C%20Titane%20bucked,Pulp%20Fiction%20back%20in%201994
Romney, J. (2021, July 14). ‘Titane’: Cannes Review. Screen Daily. https://www.screendaily.com/reviews/titane-cannes-review/5161572.article
Scrivner, C., Johnson, J. A., Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, J., & Clasen, M. (2021). Pandemic practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic (PMC7492010). The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7492010/#__ffn_sectitle