The Perverted Sublime: Julia Ducournau’s Re-Reading of the History of Religion in Titane

I think provocation is gratuitous. You can say, ‘I hate this movie, I don’t like it at all,’ but you can’t say it’s gratuitous. […] Anything that is not coherent to my character’s journey, I erase it. Provocateur. Huh.[1]

For me it is very natural to think in terms of movement, transformation and mutation. […] You have to go through different metamorphosis in order to get closer to the essence.[2]

 

1. INTRODUCTION

At first sight, Julia Ducournau’s Titane (2021) seems to be one of the most fucked up movies in recent film history. Because not only do we see Alexia – the non-binary striptease dancer protagonist played by Agathe Rousselle – having bondage sex with a car, getting pregnant from it, bleeding motor oil ever since and finally giving birth to the car’s son, but we also see her mass murdering both fans and friends, hetero- and homosexuals, people of all ethnicities and her parents. Against this background, one must wonder why Titane won the Palm d’Or in Cannes and ask the following unpopular questions: What does the prudish and presumably stupid mainstream like about the movie’s horror violence? Isn’t its broad acceptance a symptom, indicating that it has no critical dimension whatsoever, serving only as an affirmative spectacle for everyday’s ideology? And last but not least, must not everybody who considers oneself to be a critical and enlightened person apriorily suspect and aposteriorily come to the conclusion that Titane is nothing but the outcry of a decadent epoch which draws perverted enjoyment from seeing how itself gets wiped out by a psychopathic maniac?

In order to focus on this last question, we must say “apriorily suspect”: yes, “aposteriorily come to the conclusion”: no. In other words, if one takes the effort of understanding, i.e., interpreting Titane, then one must acknowledge that it really is a notable film, because all the body-horror and messy violence does not serve as an auto-referential goal, merely offering an orgy for the senses, but actually conveys an idea that could not be more intelligible. For Ducournau’s movie, in fact, depicts the notion of interlacing an ontogenetic trauma plus the individual (i.e., Alexia’s) process of working it through with a phylogenetic trauma plus the collective (i.e., historical) process of overcoming it. And since the latter is conceptualized in terms of a progressive succession of three major paradigms within the history of religion, namely the Greek, the Jewish and the Christian paradigm, we must say that Titane’s body-horror and messy violence gives us just the surface structure that – similar to but more complex than R. Scott’s Alien and D. Aronofsky’s Mother – functions as a symbol, representing Ducournau’s underlying re-reading of the history of religion which, at the same time, conveys a critique of postmodernity.

Yet, in order to show that this counterintuitive hypothesis does not just derive from our subjective phantasy, it is the goal of this essay to show that it really is nothing but the conceptually rendered objective form of the film’s internal logic. Hence, with respect to this goal, we now have to “deduce” (Kant) the objectivity of our subjective claim about the meaning of Titane.[3]

However, we must add to this disclosure of the essay’s goal that in contrast to the movies mentioned above (Alien and Mother), Titane is not designed with the same clarity concerning its symbolization code. That is to say, while in those movies we always find a one-to-one equivalent – e.g., Scott’s alien symbolizes a baby,[4] while Aronofsky’s mother represents Saint Mary[5] – the symbolization code in Titane is not that distinct. This is because of the following two reasons. Firstly, we claim that it is not Ducournau’s conscious decision to depict a history of religion, but she rather uses mythic and religious imagery in order to add further depth to the scenes of her film; mythic and religious imagery that in addition does not seem to genuinely derive from Ducournau studying the old Greeks and the Bible, but rather from the reoccurrence of Greek and Biblical topoi in her phantasy and dreams which she manages to render into aesthetic ideas that are conveyed in her movie.[6] Hence, in order to decipher Titane’s symbolization code, we need to adopt the methodology of the psychoanalyst, because we only arrive at the conclusion that it depicts a history of religion by means of analyzing the unconscious of the film itself.

Secondly, since Ducournau is fond of the notion of metamorphosis, transformation and mutation,[7] and since this fondness – which she shares with Ovid and Hegel – in the movie is conveyed by means of the same characters going through a plurality of such metamorphosis, a further difficulty for our interpretation arises, because the metamorphosis of one and the same character also transforms the meaning of that what it symbolizes. For example, we are going to prove that Alexia symbolizes the Greek god Zeus in the first half of the movie; yet, by means of her metamorphosis in the second half, she goes on to symbolize the Israelites; and finally, she ends up symbolizing Jesus. Therefore, we not only have to struggle for the objectivity of our “psychoanalyst” approach, but also deal with the difficulty that arises from deciphering a symbol that is undergoing a process of metamorphosis and for this reason also keeps transforming its meaning. Nevertheless, we now must undertake this difficult task by means of deducing the hypothesis mentioned above.

 

2. INTERPRETATION

2.1 First Act: The Greek Paradigm I

In the opening scene, we see a generational conflict that causes a car accident which leads to an injury and the installation of a titan metal plate in young Alexia’s head. If we look closely at this short scene, we can find at least three details which make it clear that it not only depicts the initial trauma but also symbolically inscribes the narrative into Greek mythology.

Firstly, we are introduced to the eponymous name of the metal material “titan” which refers to the first generation of twelve Greek gods and goddesses who Hesiod in his Theogony calls the Titans (Cronus, Iapetus, Tethys, Mnemosyne etc.).[8] Secondly, the generational conflict between Alexia and her father (Bertrand Bonello) symbolizes the conflict between the leader of the second generation of Greek gods, i.e., the Olympic Zeus, with his Titan father Cronus. The structural necessity for Alexia’s father to represent Cronus thereby arises from an element that backs the thesis about Alexia representing Zeus. This element is her phallic metal hair needle, which she uses for her murders in later scenes and which obviously symbolizes Zeus’ thunderbolt. Hence, we can say that because Alexia symbolizes Zeus and fights with her father, it is structurally necessary that her father symbolizes the father of Zeus, i.e., Cronus. And last but not least, thirdly: When Alexia’s father “punishes” her by driving the car into a crash barrier, which leads to the installation of the titan plate in her head, then this scene symbolizes the myth of Cronus punishing his children by means of eating them – in both cases an act of fear that the offspring will overthrow the father’s power. In this regard, one could even argue that Titane distantly references Goya’s “black” visualization of the mythic scene (Saturn Devouring His Son), because in his painting we see one of the Olympics – presumably Zeus – being severely injured on the head; an incident that in this case most certainly causes a trauma which, back in the film, is symbolized by the titan plate that literally functions as a material rem(a)inder, not letting Alexia forget about who the master is.

Thus, because of these three details, it is not only clear that the film’s opening scene depicts the initial trauma by means of entering the Greek paradigm, but also that the generational conflict which causes the trauma is mediated via what Hegel calls the “fight for recognition” or the “master and slave dialectic”,[9] for it results in the father/Cronus becoming the recognized “master”, while Alexia/Zeus becomes the suppressed “slave”.

2.2 Intermission: The Postmodernist Sub-Paradigm

However, even though we enter the Greek paradigm in the film’s opening scene, a sub-paradigm is introduced in the succeeding scenes, for they depict a regression from the mythic to a pre-mythic world that shows the “barbaric” chaos amongst everything that is repressed and excluded from the official episteme of Greek mythology. Of course, this refers to Alexia randomly murdering people and getting pregnant from fucking a car. Figuratively speaking, the messy violence and perversion of these scenes tell the untold story of defeated Alexia/Zeus living the life of the Olympics while they are inside Cronus’ stomach. Hence, this part of the movie functions as an intermission, showing the symptomatology of Alexia’s traumatic loss in the generational conflict on the one hand and the restoration of her ego qua working through her trauma until she is ready to reengage in the fight for recognition on the other – both symbolized in Alexia’s murders.

In this context, it must be pointed out that it is definitely the most exhilarating detail of Titane that Ducournau portrays the chaos of this pre-mythic sub-paradigm in postmodernist colors. This is clear from the fact that this part of the movie introduces us to an assemblage of postmodernist topoi: We see people of all nations and sexualities join together in one happy politically correct family that shows us the way of “how we can live together”.[10] Yet, in Ducournau’s vision, all these postmodernist topoi depict nothing but half-digested barbarism inside the stomach of Cronus, with which Alexia, who is enslaved by her father but still symbolizes the mighty god Zeus, deals with by following what Nietzsche calls the “morals of the master”,[11] i.e., by mass murdering each and everyone at will.

To be more precise: Because Alexia is murdering both men and women, chauvinists and feminists, hetero- and homosexuals as well as people of all ethnicities, we can say that she systematically negates the pseudo-pluralism of postmodernity. Hence, Ducournau in this intermission criticizes the postmodernist episteme in terms of portraying it as accidental barbarism that is only there for Alexia to work through her trauma and then reengage in the substantial conflict with her father. In short: Postmodernism in Titane does not represent something that succeeds and is superior to Christian metaphysics, but actually represents an ultimate regression back to a stance that is inferior even to Greek mythology.

 2.3 Back to the First Act: The Greek Paradigm II

Once Alexia’s ego is restored, she reengages in the fight for recognition by challenging the master position of her father again. But since in this second showdown she kills him by burning down his house, a fundamental break with the Greek paradigm is introduced. Because in the myth immortal Cronus not only is not supposed to die, but his death also makes the master and slave dialectic implode, for without a slave that recognizes the master as such, Alexia/Zeus cannot be a master. Hence, with the death of her father, Alexia does not become the new master, but loses all power instead and therefore steps outside Greek mythology as such, introducing the first proper paradigm shift to the movie.

 2.4 Second Act: The Jewish Paradigm I

The conceptual break in the narrative mentioned above is indicated by means of Ducournau quoting David Lynch: Just like in Lost Highway (1997), the whole movie plot of Titane is divided into two parts, for Alexia becomes Adrien, the son of a fire captain called Vincent (Vincent Lindon) who for a decade vainly searched for his lost son and now wrongly takes Alexia for him. However, in contrast to the protagonist in Lost Highway, who – on the surface level – does not know how he became another person, Alexia not only physically undertakes a metamorphosis, trying to make herself look like Vincent’s son, but the film also delivers the logic of the narrative’s metamorphosis, indicating that by leaving the Greek paradigm, we enter the Jewish one, as it becomes evident from the following three details.

Firstly, since Vincent desperately awaits the return of his missing son, and since his son has been missing for exactly 10 years (as it is stated in a TV-news program Alexia is watching), it is clear that by stepping outside the Greek paradigm we actually step inside the Jewish one; because Vincent’s awaiting of his son symbolizes Jewish messianism (a notion unknown to Greek thought), and the 10 years search refers to the number 10 which – by adding the two eschatological numbers 3 and 7 – serves as the ultimate number in the Tanakh, indicating messianically induced utopia once again (e.g., this mysticism of numbers is the reason why there are 10 commandments). Secondly, instead of “Greek” mass murders, we see a caring community of life-saving firefighters that likes to party with their captain, a scenery which symbolizes the Jewish community of loving Israelites that too likes to celebrate their God on sabbath. And thirdly, just like God’s word for the Israelites, Vincent’s word for the firefighters is not to be questioned and serves as the absolute law. Thus, when Vincent addresses his firefighters by stating that he is their God which for them makes Alexia – who he considers to be his son – represent Jesus, we now have reason to add the following to this statement: While Vincent is not just symbolizing a, but the God, i.e., JHWH, the monotheistic Jewish God, Alexia is not representing Jesus (yet) – as Vincent wrongly claims – but rather (like Moses) the Israelites as such, because even though she is not really his son, she does become the paradigmatic figure of the firefighters.

Anyhow, it is clear from this analysis that the film’s break with Greek mythology really functions as a paradigm shift that symbolizes the historical progression from Greek to Jewish religion. Yet, in order to understand what this paradigm shift really means, a further analysis is required, because even though the above-mentioned symbols indicate that a paradigm shift took place, they do not answer the question of what exactly changed in comparison to the Greek paradigm. In other words, those symbols merely represent the substantial cause for the paradigm shift, but rather function as accidental effects that derive from it. Hence, we must come to the conclusion that if we want to grasp the meaning of this paradigm shift, then we firstly need to take a closer look at the substantial difference between the Greek and the Jewish religion, i.e., the latter’s monotheism negating the former’s polytheism, and then explain in what regard this difference is affecting the initial trauma that is mediated via the fight for recognition.

 2.5 Excursus: From the Greek to the Jewish Paradigm

Whereas in the Greek religion the notion of traumatic violence derives from different gods engaging in a master and slave dialectic that functions as a paradigmatic prototype, legitimizing, demanding and encouraging man to imitate this violent behavior, the Jewish religion seems to overcome this notion because monotheism implies that there is no genesis of different gods fighting for power. In short: Jewish monotheism ends the traumatic violence of Greek polytheism because with only one God, there cannot be any conflict between different generations of gods which could be imitated by man. Hence, when it is said in Genesis that man is created in the image of God,[12] this means the exact opposite as compared to Greek heroes imitating their gods, because while Achilles, Agamemnon, Diomedes and other heroes in Homer’s Iliad imitate and become one with the Olympic gods precisely by engaging in the war against Troy,[13] in Judaism (and Christianity) imitating and becoming one with God implies imitating his creation power in terms of caring for all living things he has created by following the law outlined in the Torah. To put it in a plastic formula: While the proper profession of the Greek is the one of the mighty warrior who fights other people in order to increase his power, the proper profession of the Jew (and Christian) is the one of the loving “gardener” who takes care of God’s creation in order to actualize a utopian world without violence.

Yet, at the same time, the Tanakh is full of trauma and violence, for we see the Israelites not just engaging in land-grabbing but also in numerous genocides.[14] Thus, it seems that the difference between the Greek and the Jewish paradigm is not that great after all. However, this is true but also not true, because even though the final result (murder and mayhem) is basically the same, the cause for it is a different one. That is to say, while in the Greek paradigm violence is caused by imitating the violent conflicts of the gods, in the Jewish paradigm it is caused by a theological contradiction. For example, though it is clear from the 10 commandments that one should not kill, JHWH forces the Israelites on numerous occasions to do exactly that, and he even punishes Saul for having pity with the king of the enemy.[15] Hence, we must say that while the Torah or – to be more precise – that what has been written on the two stone plates that are stored in the Ark of the Covenant negates the traumatic violence of Greek mythology, the majority of biblical books, which follow the Torah, betray this negation of violence and therefore introduce a theological contradiction to the Tanakh.

If we look closer at this theological contradiction, it becomes clear that it is rooted in the abstract nature of the Jewish negation of the Greek paradigm. To put it in Freudian terms: Because the Jewish “repression” of the polytheistic master and slave dialectic remains abstract, the “repressed returns” in an alienated way.[16] That is to say, while in the Greek paradigm the violent conflict of the gods served as a prototype for man to imitate it, the violent deeds of the Israelites must be seen as a “return of the repressed”, because even though the law of the Torah functions as the negation or “repression” of Greek violence, this violence is reintroduced by means of God’s interventions. And because these divine interventions are not prohibited even though they openly contradict what has been said in the law of the Torah, the negation of Greek violence in the law of the Torah must be labeled as abstract. Therefore, it is evident that the violence of the Greek master and slave dialectic returns in the Tanakh because of the abstract nature of its negation.

Yet, the master and slave dialectic does not simply return, but it returns in an alienated way, because man inhabits a new position inside the Jewish paradigm: While for the Greek fighting against Troy means inhabiting the master position by means of imitating and thus becoming one with the gods, for the Jewish fighting against the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites etc. means total enslavement, acting as a mere tool of the divine will that directly contradicts the law outlined in the Torah. Hence, the master and slave dialectic is transformed: While in the Greek paradigm it represents a prototype for imitation, allowing man to become a god-like master in terms of engaging in “good” violence that is legitimized by what Nietzsche calls the “morals of the master”, in the Jewish paradigm it forces man – who was supposed to become a loving “gardener” by following the law of the Torah – to inhabit the position of the slave in terms of demanding him to engage in all kinds of “necessary” violence that is legitimized by God’s contradictory interventions, which actualize what Nietzsche calls the “morals of the slave”.[17] Hence, it has been proven that the Greek master and slave dialectic in the Jewish paradigm not only functions as the “return of the repressed” but also that it returns in an alienated way.

 2.6 Back to the Second Act: The Jewish Paradigm II

In order to come back to Titane, we can learn from this analysis that all the contradictions, hypocrisies and misperceptions in the second half of the film symbolize the outlined contradiction in the Tanakh. Most importantly, we see the return of the modified master and slave dialectic, because even though it seems to be overcome due to Vincent’s love for Alexia, it actually reemerges since Vincent forces Alexia and her fellow firefighters to inhabit the position of absolute slavery; a relation that symbolizes the discussed relation between the Israelites and JHWH.

Abstractly speaking, the return of the master and slave dialectic is evident from the very beginning of the relationship: After Alexia is picked up by Vincent, she tries to escape from his car but cannot do it because Vincent locked the doors; yet, once they arrive at his house, she does manage to flee but is immediately caught by Vincent; later that evening, she wants to sleep and hide her pregnancy but Vincent embarrasses her by demanding her to strip down in order to wash her dirty clothes; and after locking her up for the night, Vincent gives Alexia a haircut to make her feel “normal” but actually hurts her “titan” wound and stops half way through, making her look even more ridiculous than before. – All these scenes indicate that even though the messy violence of the master and slave dialectic is negated and substituted by the love relation between Vincent and Alexia (i.e., JHWH and the Israelites), the violence of this dialectic still returns in a somewhat more “subtle” version that symbolizes the theological contradiction which arises from the abstract negation of the Greek paradigm in the Tanakh.

However, the mentioned scenes are just abstract examples, for they do not convey the concrete cause for this “subtle” violence. This is due to the reason that it is not just the return of the master and slave dialectic that causes this new form of violence but the modification of the returning dialectic. That is to say, whereas it was possible for Alexia to rise against her father while she inhabited the slave position inside the Greek paradigm, this possibility is negated in the Jewish paradigm because it negates the master and slave dialectic, making it impossible for man to imitate the gods by engaging in such a dialectic; yet, at the same time, it is impossible for Alexia to rise against her father precisely because, on the contrary, the master and slave dialectic returns in an alienated way, transforming Vincent/JHWH into an absolute master who is not just enslaving other gods – which are apriorily negated by the notion of Jewish monotheism – but rather man as such, for he annihilates man’s free will by means of his divine interventions that must be fulfilled even though they cannot be rendered meaningful both by human reason and the law of the Torah. Therefore, hypocrisy is introduced, as it becomes more clear from the analysis of two further scenes.

There is one scene about half-way through the movie in which we see Alexia seemingly having the chance of killing Vincent, who unconsciously lies on the floor of the bathroom after he took an overdose; yet, in contrast to the first half of the movie, Alexia cannot go through with killing him. Here we have both the negation and modified return of the master and slave dialectic: On the one hand, we see its negation because Alexia does not kill Vincent; on the other hand, it returns because Vincent remains the absolute master even while being unconscious. Therefore, the notion of hypocrisy is introduced, because the “good” deed of not killing Vincent presupposes the “evil” deed of Alexia’s absolute enslavement.

In another scene, we see Vincent killing one of his beloved firefighters because he puts into question if Alexia really is his son. Just like in the prior example, this one too depicts the negation and modified return of the master and slave dialectic: On the one hand, the dialectic is negated, because Alexia does not engage in a violent conflict with the firefighter; on the other hand, it obviously returns because Vincent kills the firefighter by means of acting as the absolute master. Therefore, hypocrisy is introduced once again, because the “good” deed of Alexia not killing the firefighter implies the “evil” deed of Vincent doing it for her. In other words, this scene not only depicts the hypocrisy that the reason for Alexia not killing the firefighter lies in her enslavement, but also the hypocrisy that Vincent’s love for his firefighters – just like JHWH’s love for the Israelites – occasionally implies killing them.

These hypocritical elements are an effect of the before-mentioned contradiction of ending and preserving violence which is immanent to the Jewish paradigm and derives from the abstract negation of the Greek master and slave dialectic. And this brings us back to the first detail we discussed in this context, for the only way to live with this contradiction is to hope for the Messiah to come and resolve it. But of course, the Messiah in Judaism not only does not, but actually cannot arrive. Because if he would arrive, then he would merely represent a new judge, king, prophet or Moses-like figure, i.e., somebody who would ultimately fail in resolving the contradiction, for he too would just represent another external way of synthesizing the two given entities of God or the universal on the one hand and the Israelites or the singular on the other. In other words: It is crucial for the Jewish religion to await a Messiah that can never arrive, because the external character of the actualized messianic mediation between God and the Israelites would always preserve God’s autonomous or “sublime” (Kant) independence;[18] and since this “sublime” independence would allow God to interfere in the life of the Israelites, it would negate the messianic mediation and necessitate another Messiah to arrive. Therefore, it is impossible for God to ever become one with man, as long as he does not drop his external independence and becomes one with the messianic mediation. But since this can only happen if the Jewish concept of the “sublime” or transcendent God is negated by means of his immanent particularization in becoming one with man, the actualization of this immanent mediation transforms Judaism as such and brings us to final act of Titane that depicts the paradigm shift from the Jewish to the Christian religion.

 2.7 Third Act: The Christian Paradigm

We enter the Christian paradigm in the final scene, because in this scene Alexia confesses her love for Vincent, and this confession depicts a recognition between them which not only functions as the concrete negation of the Greek master and slave dialectic but also as the negation of the Jewish paradigm, i.e., as the negation of the (abstract) negation of the mentioned dialectic. This is due to the reason that the internality of Alexia’s love transcends and negates the Jewish externality of love mediated via the law of the Torah.[19] Hence, we see not only a new Alexia but also a new Vincent arise from this scene: While in the Jewish paradigm the love relation is asymmetrical, meaning that Vincent/JHWH functions as a master who forces his slave Alexia/Israel to love him by means of obeying his word and law, the love relation in Christianity is symmetrical, thereby negating both the “sublime” status of Vincent/JHWH, who orders Alexia/Israel to love him, and Alexia/Israel, who considers love to be only the execution of the law. Hence, it is this symmetrical relation of recognition, this sameness between God loving man and man loving God, that gives us both a new man and a new God synthesized in one concept; and this one concept of love is represented by Alexia’s baby, i.e., Jesus, who is both the son of God and the son of man and therefore must be considered the immanent particularization/humanization of God’s universality.

Now, in order to show that this is really happening in Ducournau’s movie, we must pay close attention to the metamorphosis of both Vincent and Alexia in the final scene. On the one hand, it is clear that the lifesaving and life-taking firefighter Vincent stops symbolizing the almighty Jewish God, because he is unable to save Alexia who dies from giving birth to her son. This is due to the reason that by symbolizing the Christian God he is negated as an almighty agent by means of being fully engaged in the mediation represented by Jesus. Hence, we ought to say that Vincent cannot save Alexia because he became one with Jesus, while – judging from the gaze of his eyes – he rightly takes Alexia’s baby for the (second) coming of his proper son. Because by symbolizing the Christian God, we can say that it must have been him in terms of the Holy Spirit who fathered the son in the first segment of the film. Thus, it is clear that the combination of the scene that shows Alexia fucking a car with the final scene that shows her giving birth to the car’s son actually symbolizes the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

On the other hand, things are more complicated with Alexia. Because as mother of Jesus she obviously represents Saint Mary, but then she dies by giving birth to her son, which contradicts with the Biblical myth. Hence, we have to explain the contradictory notion of her death. – The solution to this contradiction lies in the before-mentioned symmetrical love relation. Because if Jesus is the material representative of this specific love relation, then he not only negates Vincent in terms of him symbolizing the autonomous Jewish God, but also Alexia in terms of her symbolizing an autonomous human individual like Mary. Therefore, the reason for Alexia dying lies in the “schizo-symbolical” level of this scene, for it condenses Alexia symbolizing the Israelites or man as such with Alexia symbolizing Saint Mary, the latter not being supposed to die, while the former is fully transformed into Jesus which is conveyed by means of her death.

These two aspects show that the before-mentioned symmetrical love relation between Alexia and Vincent – which is materially represented by their son – really is depicted in Titane. However, we must add to our theological inquiry that the general lack of Jesus lies in the fact that he is only the natural mediation of God and man, for he depicts only the second step of the Trinitarian process. In other words, he is the mediation of God and man in one human, which necessitates all the other humans to hear him speak or be touched by him if they want to participate in the mediation he represents. Therefore, Jesus must die – just like the primal father in Freud’s myth – because only in this way the particular or natural mediation of God and man can be universalized or spiritualized via his resurrection in terms of him becoming one with the Holy Spirit which is then represented by the community of believers that follows the path of Jesus. Or to put it in Hegelian terms: It is the “cunning of reason” that the natural individual must die in order to transform that what it represents into universal spirit.[20]

It is important to mention these further remarks on Christianity, because even though Titane does not depict the full Trinitarian process and stops at the birth of Jesus, i.e., at the second step, it still has a consciousness over the full process. This is indicated by means of music, for the birth of Jesus is accompanied with the no. 1 chorus “Kommt, ihr Töchter” of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which precisely links the birth of Jesus with his death on the cross and therefore introduces the Christian notion of “simultaneousness”. Thus, we must say that even though the Christian paradigm is only introduced in the final minutes of Titane, Ducournau’s movie nevertheless depicts all essential elements by means of music and the before-discussed “schizophrenic” potentiation of its symbolization code. – Yet, before we draw the final conclusion from our analysis, we need to summarize what has been said so far in a condensed systematic way.

 

3. CONCLUSION

We started our analysis by stating the goal of this essay, i.e., deducing the abstract hypothesis that Titane not only depicts an ontogenetic but also a phylogenetic trauma which is overcome by the film narrative symbolizing the succession of three major paradigms within the history of religion (the Greek, the Jewish and the Christian paradigm). We undertook the first step of this deduction by showing that the movie in its first half depicts the Greek paradigm, for the generational conflict between Alexia and her father symbolizes the one between Zeus and his Titan father Cronus, which in both cases results in Alexia/Zeus being “eaten” by her father/Cronus.

Yet, since this result means nothing else than Alexia/Zeus becoming the “slave” of her father/Cronus, while her father/Cronus becomes the “master” by suppressing Alexia/Zeus, we furthermore were able to add that the opening scene gives us the central concept that mediates all paradigm shifts to come, namely Hegel’s famous notion of the “fight for recognition”, better known as the “master and slave dialectic”. Hence, it was possible for us to identify the initial trauma with the violence that derives from the process and the result of the first fight for recognition; a result that represents a relation of hatred, for it completely undermines the individual who inhabits the slave position.

In addition to this first step, we argued that Titane introduces us to the pre-mythic sub-paradigm of postmodernity in the scenes that succeed the opening episode. This sub-paradigm, we claimed, functions as an intermission, depicting both Alexia’s symptomatology and her working-through the traumatic loss, resulting in the subjectivation of her trauma which makes her reengage in the fight for recognition. But since Alexia/Zeus in this second fight kills her father/Cronus, the master and slave dialectic is negated, for without a slave that recognizes Alexia/Zeus as master, she cannot be a master. Therefore, the Greek paradigm is negated, because by losing all power and becoming an ordinary human that furthermore is an outsider to society, that is chased by the police and has no place to stay, Alexia does not symbolize Zeus anymore.

The second step of our deduction was to show that by stepping outside the Greek paradigm we actually step inside the Jewish one, thereby introducing the first paradigm shift that also modifies the movie’s symbolization code. This was clear from numerous details. But in this systematic summary we can add to these details that one can see the paradigm- and symbolization shift in the very first scene of the movie’s second half. This is due to the reason that in this scene Alexia is picked up by the fire captain Vincent, who considers her to be his beloved son Adrien even though she is a “slavery” outsider to society; a scene that is structurally identical with the scene in Exodus that tells the story of the Israelites being picked up by loving JHWH while they are slaves to the Egyptians. Hence, because of this structural reference and other details mentioned in our analysis, we can repeat the conclusion that the symbolization code in this scene is modified, and Alexia goes on to symbolize the Israelites, whereas her new father Vincent symbolizes JHWH.

Because Vincent/JHWH loves Alexia/Israel, the violence and hatred of the Greek master and slave dialectic seems to be repressed in the Jewish paradigm. Yet, as we have shown, the Greek paradigm returns because – to cut a long story short – the love relation is asymmetrical: The fact that Alexia does not love her loving father with the internality of her heart means that he has to force her into the love relation in terms of making her obey the externality of his word or law. Hence, the violence of the master and slave dialectic returns, making Alexia/Israel the absolute slave of her master Vincent/JHWH.

In the third step of our deduction, we saw that this externality is negated in the final scene of Titane, thereby introducing the Christian paradigm. This is indicated by Alexia telling Vincent that she loves him, because with this speech act she introduces a notion of interiority that establishes a relation of recognition which functions as the concrete negation of the master and slave dialectic. Hence, it was clear to us that in this scene a new paradigm is introduced, for the notion of the interiority of love negates the externality of the Jewish paradigm. And since this symmetrical love relation is furthermore represented by a newborn child that synthesizes Vincent/God and Alexia/man, it was clear that this negation of the Jewish paradigm is identical with the introduction of the Christian one, for the newborn child obviously symbolizes Jesus.

Now, because Ducournau’s film depicts the succession of these three paradigms which show the phylogenetic process of (1) putting the trauma that derives from the Greek fight for recognition, (2) negating it in an abstract way via the Jewish notion of law and (3) negating it in a concrete way via the Christian notion of love, and because her film furthermore interlaces this phylogenetic process of overcoming the initial trauma with the ontogenetic process of Alexia working-through the conflict with her father in terms of the latter symbolizing the former, the subjective hypothesis mentioned above has been objectivized by our deduction. Hence, the goal of this essay is accomplished.

However, because it is clear that the sensible imagery that depicts the ontogenetic process symbolizes the phylogenetic process, i.e., the intelligible succession of three paradigmatic ways of conceptualizing the absolute, we can add to this conclusion that Titane therefore not only must be considered a notable film – as it was stated in the introduction – but actually as one that is “beautiful” in the Hegelian sense of the word. This is due to the reason that it fulfills what Hegel considers to be the task of the beauty of art, i.e., depicting a “sensuous appearance of the idea”, whereby “idea” must be understood in the sense of God or the absolute in terms of the mediation of the universal and the singular.[21] Hence, we can end this essay by stating that even though Ducournau’s Titane seems to be a postmodernist artwork, it actually is a classical one, which furthermore accomplishes the remarkable task of actualizing the absolute inside the horror movie genre.

Author: Markus Monsberger


[1]       Julia Ducournau in: Handler, Rachel: “Titane Director Julia Ducournau Doesn’t See Herself As a Film Festival Provocateur.” In: Vulture, https://www.vulture.com/2021/07/titanes-julia-ducournau-doesnt-think-shes-a-provocateur.html (05.12.2021).

[2]       Julia Ducournau in: “Julia Ducournau, Vincent Lindon & Agathe Rousselle on Titane.” In: Youtube, https://youtu.be/3OLncOz3lt0 (05.12.2021).

[3]       Cf. Kant, Immanuel: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, B 122.

[4]       Cf. Faulstich, Werner: Grundkurs Filmanalyse. München: Fink 2002, pp. 162–166.

[5]       Cf. Monsberger, Markus: A Feminist Critique of Christianity. The Interpretation Key to Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Mother’. In: Letterboxd, https://letterboxd.com/monsens/film/mother-2017/ (06.10.2021)

[6]       “The idea of the car was consequential to a nightmare […] that was recurring for years, a nightmare that actually inspired the last scene of the film. And coincidentally, in the building-up of that story [of Titane], I started at the end and worked my way back to the beginning.” (Ducournau, Youtube, c. l.)

[7]       Cf. second quote at the beginning of this essay.

[8]       Cf. Theogony 131–138.

[9]       Cf. Hegel, G. W. F.: Phänomenologie des Geistes. TW 3, pp. 145–155.

[10]      Cf. the motto of 2021 Biennale: “How will we live together?”

[11]      Cf. i. a. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Die Genealogie der Moral. In: Werke in drei Bänden II. Ed. Karl Schlechta. München: Carl Hanser 1966, pp. 782–785.

[12]      Cf. Genesis 1,27.

[13]      Cf. Iliad II, 412–418; V, 1–8; XX, 67–75.

[14]      Cf. i. a. Joshua 6/8/11.

[15]      Cf. 1 Samuel 15.

[16]      Cf. Freud, Sigmund: Weitere Bemerkungen über die Abwehr-Neuropsychosen. GW I, p. 387.

[17]      Cf. Nietzsche, c. l.

[18]      Cf. Kant, Immanuel: Kritik der Urteilskraft, B 83 sqq.

[19]      Cf. i. a. Wisdom 6,18 contra Matthew 22,36–40.

[20]      Cf. Hegel, G. W. F.: Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte. TW 12, p. 49.

[21]      Cf. Hegel, G. W. F.: Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I. TW 13, p. 151.


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