Screeching into Truth

What the Freakshow Horror "Titane" Might Be Telling us about Ourselves

With perennial events resuming after all the Covid shutdowns of 2020, the annual Cannes Film Festival took place last month, with the top prize going to Titane, a “body horror-thriller” written and directed by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau.

Here are the plot points on the storyline, as relayed by BBC film critic Nicholas Barber:

  • In the opening scene, Alexia, a little girl, misbehaves while riding in the back seat of the family car and causes a crash. As a result of her injuries, she gets a titanium plate in her head.
  • Post-surgery Alexia develops something of a car fetish and ends up a pregnant teen, carrying the human-auto hybrid offspring of a car that she had sex with.
  • Pregnant Alexia chops off her hair, breaks her own nose, binds her breasts and swelling belly, and assumes the identity of a boy who went missing ten years ago.
  • The missing boy’s father, a fire captain named Vincent, accepts the story and introduces “his son” to his coworkers.

Full disclosure: I have not watched this film, so I cannot comment on whether they all lived happily ever after (more on that in a moment). But it’s been declared a winner, and according to Rotten Tomatoes, it currently has a 97% approval rating. A common theme among reviewers is that it pushes boundaries:

Obviously, it defies convention, but I also couldn’t help noticing something else that two early reviewers pointed out as positive themes that came out in the end, completely apart from the freakishness of the means: (1) the desire for transformation fulfilled and (2) the desire for father-child connections satisfied. Consider the following.

Rafael Motamayor of Collider wrote that Titane “explores desires of the flesh, but also of the soul, as our main characters are looking for spiritual connection even in the unlikeliest of places.” Alexia’s self-induced transformation involves doing painful things to her own body and pretending to be the long-lost son of Vincent. But Vincent, too, is on a self-initiated body transformation quest, in that he injects himself nightly with steroids. Motamayor seems to discern a happily-ever-after ending for these two “transformed” characters. “The more time Alexia spends posing as the fire captain's now-mute son, the more she seems to start enjoying her new body, as she and the captain form a strange yet unique bond of safety and comfort, resulting in a strange yet endearing addition to your Father's Day viewing list.”

Barber, too, picked up on the father-son/daughter theme, saying that, by the end of the story,

Titane has mutated into a warm redemption story of gender fluidity, body modification, and plenty more besides. … I'm not sure what the message of Titane might be, or why Ducournau has sewn together a Frankenstein's monster from so many disparate ideas, or whether Alexia's feverish journey relates to any recognisable, non-psychopathic emotions except a parent's all-consuming yearning to be reunited with a lost child.

As a human being, I can resonate with the desire for familial bonds of safety and comfort. And as an aging human, I can relate to the desire to transcend certain limitations my embodied existence imposes on me. Both of those desires are universal and good, and to whatever extent Titane draws them out and portrays them as being satisfied, well, perhaps that explains a measure of its appeal.

In Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis articulated what apologist-theologians call “the Argument from Desire.” In simple terms, the argument from desire posits that our natural, innate desires point to something beyond the natural world, namely God. Here’s how he put it:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Of course, there are such things as fathers in the world, but we all know there’s an epidemic of father absence in the wake of the sexual revolution, which might contribute to that conventional longing finding expression in the arts. Besides, even the best fathers fall short of perfection, and the best of modern medicine doesn’t produce real transformation. Yet, we want these things, don’t we? Could it be that Titane, as wrecked of a stream of art as it is, is telling us something about ourselves?

Lewis also wrote, in an essay called “The Weight of Glory,” that we are far too prone to settle for satisfaction in lesser things:

“Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

You’ve probably gathered, I don’t especially recommend Titane. I think calling Titane “a warm redemption story” is the film review equivalent of wallowing, stupefied, in the mud. If you like a good adrenaline rush, though, I suggest a visit to the shore. Playing in the sand and waves can be rejuvenating. And you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not to experience the joy.

More on the Argument from Desire:

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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