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Titane review: Captures the unspoken body horror of pregnancy

Girl meets car, then things get strange in this Palme d’Or-winning unconventional pile-up of sex, sci-fi, horror and the human condition, writes Terri White.

Five years ago, French filmmaker Julia Ducournau arrived in the film world with a bang.

Well, more like a retch, after her debut feature Raw – about a teenage veterinary student turned cannibal – left critics at Toronto Film Festival throwing up and fainting. Now she’s back – as are, according to reports, the weak constitutions (“this new horror movie is so insane, people are fainting!”) – with Titane, her Palme d’Or-winning sophomore effort about a woman who gets knocked up by a car (yes, yes, I’ll get to that, bear with me).

It also happens to be – sci-fi vehicular impregnation aside – one of the more realistic depictions in film of the horror of pregnancy.

Newcomer Agathe Rousselle is Alexia, who we meet as a child (played by Adèle Guigue) when she’s seriously injured in a car crash, one that bloodies and breaks her head. Alexia’s left not just with a titanium plate holding her skull together, but with an immediate and rapacious desire for automobiles.

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In Titane, cars are revving, throbbing, suspension-bouncing machines of not just raw sexuality, but masculinity. Alexia cavorts with her heart’s – and perhaps more importantly, her head’s – desire as an erotic dancer at car shows, rejecting flesh and blood men in favour of steel, rubber and hot engines.

After an explosive, late-night sexual encounter with a vintage Cadillac (don’t look at me like that! How else did you think she got pregnant?), Alexia finds herself with, well, child? Car? A bairn-brum-brum hybrid? So far, so Cronenberg.

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To further complicate matters, Alexia (on the lam after doing some Very Bad Shit) pretends to be a missing boy she spots on a poster, going to live with his heartsick dad, who himself struggles with masculinity and fatherhood (a superb, mournful Vincent Lindon). What could possibly threaten this fairly outlandish fake identity and new life? Yep, a massive pregnancy belly exposing the other new life growing inside Alexia.

There is plenty of regular body horror in Titane, the most notable of which sees Alexia, desperate to disguise her looks, smashing and, well, remodelling her own face on a bathroom sink. But as she goes to war with her gestating body, pregnancy you realise, is the ultimate body horror.

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To maintain her deception, Alexia straps down her swollen breasts and growing bump, a bodily suppression that only becomes more painful and extreme as the clock of pregnancy ticks down to the ninth month. And there, alongside those normal signs of pregnancy, are the more surprising ones: lactating motor oil; pared skin revealing the glint of metal underneath.

We’re left in no doubt that Alexia has been overtaken, taken possession of. Her body – once a site of power, even predation – becomes not only a prison, but a possible source of betrayal too.

It’s a feeling every woman who’s experienced pregnancy knows: for the first time, your body isn’t your own. You are literally sharing it with someone else – someone who needs it to survive, who will take what it needs from you to do so – but also, you’re sharing it with the world.

It’s a constant tension in both the film and in life: that of a deeply personal, internal event being on constant public display. The entitlement to our bodies paired with the repulsion at the grotesque nature of pregnancy and its sheer visibility.

We might not bind our swollen bodies, but we do silence them with cloth, usually just enough to obscure the exact curve and contour of our bump. We rub expensive creams on our emerging red and purple stretch marks, buy waist-trainers to squash and trap our fat and skin post-birth.

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We work at making the bits we’d rather be unseen disappear. At showing the Instagram-worthy, wiped-clean end result, but not the literal body-breaking, the stretching and tearing, to get there. The nine months when your body changes from the inside out: your pelvis expanding, abdominal muscles stretching, organs fighting for space.

Julia Ducournau has said that she fights “the idea that motherhood and pregnancy have to be a blessing, the best time of your life. Not all women feel this way”. There is no looking away from the brutal reality here.

But there’s also a more nuanced universal truth about parenting and pregnancy in Titane’s deeply weird and warped world: the twining of pleasure and pain. Of sacrifice and gain. Tenderness and trauma. Within the danger, the mess, the agony, and in the very heat of transformation, there’s humanity and – more often than not – love.

Titane is in cinemas from December 31

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