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Titane vs. the Oscars
Sometimes movies don't want to be Oscar movies.
Wrote this last year around Oscar time; the piece is no longer online. I love this film though, so I’m trying to get you to see it, still.
My favorite film of 2021 was Julia Ducournau’s body-horror drama Titane about a young woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) with a titanium plate in her head who has sex with a car, goes on a murder spree, impersonates a missing boy to escape the police, and eventually gives birth to a titanium-plated baby.
Needless to say, Titane didn’t get any Oscar nominations. It’s interesting to consider why it’s needless to say, though. Titane was well-received, and was the French entry for Best International Film. And yet, I would have been stunned if it received any recognition.
You can often tell just by reading a plot summary what films aren’t going to have a chance at an Oscar. That’s because Oscar films aren’t so much the best films as they are a genre of film. Titane is a helpful limit case to try to figure out what that genre looks like. In part that’s because it so obviously is not an Oscar film, but even more because it is aware it isn’t. Titane deliberately plays with the fact that it is a hybrid, whose quality and humanity can’t be recognized by the usual juries.
All genres are fuzzy around the edges, and Oscar films are no exception. Still, you can make some generalizations. Oscar films are serious English language non-genre dramas with a humanist message of sorts and major directors and stars attached. Sometimes, as in 2019 with of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, a film will triumph at the Oscars defying most or all of these expectations. But not often.
Titane is a French-language film with a respected but still underground indie director and no recognizable Hollywood stars. It’s also a body-horror film. Horror films almost never win Oscars of any sort. The Silence of the Lambs—a movie laden with big-name Hollywood insiders—is the sole horror movie to ever win best picture.
Titane is also a film about queerness. That doesn’t disqualify it in itself; the Academy often gives Oscars and nominations to movies like The Power of the Dog, Spencer and The Lost Daughter, which touch on queer themes and gender non-conformity. All those movies, though, focus on experiences of repression and longing; they’re stories built out of small moments and revelations. Violence is generally reserved for the end, where it resonates quietly. You don’t see Princess Diana thrusting on an automobile and stabbing an importunate fan in the face in the first 15 minutes of Spencer. If you did, Kristin Stewart probably wouldn’t have gotten an Oscar nomination either.
Titane’s first act is an ecstatic gout of blood and sex and perversion, as gyrating car model Alexia explores her love of machinery and her loathing of human beings of any gender who desire her, or bother her, or just exist. It’s repulsive and cathartic and terrifying. It is virtually custom-tooled to clear out any Oscar judges, real, or would-be.
But once all those judgey judges are gone, the movie quietly turns into something that might pass all that judging. Alexia, on the run, cuts her hair, binds her breasts and pregnant belly, and passes herself off as Adrien, a boy who disappeared as a child. She is embraced by the child’s father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a fire chief now estranged from his wife. The two eventually form a close, loving bond, which is unbroken even as Vincent comes to realize she isn’t his son.
The unlikely-pair-find-each-other’s-humanity arc is Oscar-bait for certain (see Parallel Mothers and Drive My Car this year). Director Ducournau follows it through straightforwardly—with some exceptions. In one scene, Adrien, slightly drunk, gets up on top of the fire truck in front of the firefighters who have embraced him as a mascot of sorts, and starts to grind with Alexia’s car dance stripper moves. It’s a hilarious and unnerving sequence; she still looks like a boy, but the performance is all femininity. The firefighters fall silent, perhaps with lust, perhaps with horror, or perhaps because they are an Oscar jury who thought they’d wandered into a movie for them and found they were in some far odder script.
The other moment when the serious Oscar drama breaks down in the second half is at the end. Usually, Oscar films end with somewhat reflective, quiet moments of triumph, or bittersweet melancholy, or semi-ironic reflection. The last scene of Titane in contrast, is the desperate, confusing birth scene, which harks back to the beginning in its chaos and violence. Alexia’s breasts and genitals start to secrete motor oil, her skin breaks and reveals metal underneath. The baby has some sort of metal spine and pushes its way out, killing Alexia/Adrien moments after Vincent promises to care for the tiny thing. The body-horror spews out of the Oscar drama, transforming into it, rending it apart, and falling in love with it, all at once.
Some films are obviously hungry for an Oscar. Some (like, say, The Final Purge) clearly aren’t. Titane is a weird hybrid, which knows it’s not going to get the award, but responds with a mix of parody, anger, and affection. Ducournau’s movie is about the Oscars, in the sense that it’s thinking through a mode of narrative acceptability and accessibility which it half-desires, half-repudiates, and half inserts into its own head like a titanium plate. The Oscars can’t assimilate Titane, but Titane assimilates the Oscars. That’s how a cyborg wins. Or at least, how it lives.
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