In a decision that shocked, frustrated, and delighted critics, the Cannes Film Festival’s jury awarded its top prize Saturday to Julia Ducournau’s Titane. The decision made the 37-year-old Ducournau the first woman director to win the prize solo (Jane Campion’s The Piano tied for the Palme d’Or in 1993). Titane’s victory also marked the first time the festival gave the prestigious Palme d’Or to a horror film. But Titane isn’t just any horror film. With its vivid, hyper-saturated violence and gender-fluid protagonist, it demonstrates the genre’s capacity to deliver social commentary about LGBTQ issues.
Horror films have from the beginning been a vehicle for social analysis. The 1930s adaptation of Frankenstein terrified audiences with an updated version of Mary Shelley’s foreboding vision of man’s desire to play God. In 1968, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby related a story of an unwanted pregnancy and a baby straight from the devil that may have foreshadowed Roe v. Wade in 1973. In the 1970s, The Exorcist found head-spinning horror in religious fervor, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre channeled the rage of the working class at the dawn of deindustrialization.
The difference, then, was that horror films provided their commentary through subtext. Today, directors are placing it front and center. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out delivered quite overtly a scathing commentary on “casual” racism among the liberal elite. Peele told The New York Times that his objective was to make white people “see the world through the eyes of a Black person for an hour and a half.” South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning 2019 black comedy Parasite was a haunting tale about class-based inequality.
Titane continues that tradition, inviting viewers into a visceral, freakishly gruesome exploration of sexual assault and harassment, and an allegory of a character experiencing gender dysphoria—the sense that one’s biology is at odds with one’s true gender.
The film’s central character, gender-fluid Alexia, goes on a killing spree after she’s almost raped by a fan. Any subsequent person who attempts to assault, harass, or even touch her without permission gets a metal hairpin through the brain. Eventually, one particularly gory rampage gets out of hand. When Alexia’s freedom is placed in jeopardy, she goes on the lam and assumes the identity of a boy named Andrei.
It’s left ambiguous whether the androgynous Alexia chooses to present as a boy as a mere disguise. Ducournau told IndieWire, she wanted audiences to “relate to her transformation and believe she is actually becoming that person and [is] not somebody just wearing costumes.” Alexia’s transformation to Andrei entails a series of deliberately grotesque distortions of actual surgical procedures for gender reassignment. By the end, Andrei is covered in blood and gaping wounds.
Throughout these bizarre and bloody plot points, Titane challenges its viewers by presenting Alexia as both a victim and a perpetrator of violence, and by depicting violent, unrestrained emotions that survivors of sexual assault are often taught to suppress.
There’s a twisted catharsis to be had from Alexia’s more murderous instincts. No nonconsensual encounter is dismissed, invalidated, or swept under the rug—Alexia’s extreme reactions make it abundantly clear to the audience that violating a person’s consent is never a small offense.
Titane expresses Alexia’s gender fluidity in punishing ways. Viewers watch her leave bruises from binding tape on her breasts and pregnant belly. At one point, she tries to cut a baby out of her stomach. These represent an externalization of Alexia’s feelings. For some, the film is saying that the desire to remove breasts or change face structure is so urgent that it’s worth any amount of pain. The majority of Titane’s audience won’t be gender-fluid, and won’t have experienced gender dysphoria themselves, but as they watch Alexia become Andrei, they may understand better what such experiences can be like.
Although Titane is a French film, it has a message that couldn’t be more timely in the United States. Over the past year, Republican state lawmakers have introduced more than 100 bills to restrict trans rights, many of which are designed explicitly to make it harder to transition. The conservative culture war against gender identity rivals Titane in grotesquerie.
Unlike that culture war, though, the horror in Titane is intended as a radical experiment in empathy. No audience member will emerge from it unchanged.