A car show, like a horror film, has its archetypes: the hot rides, the hot girls who ornament them, and the male admirers of both, hovering close, like children around a fire. In an early scene from Julia Ducournau’s Titane (“Titanium,” 2021), these two objects of men’s visual attention, wheels and women, become one. An uninterrupted take follows Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), a go-go dancer and the film’s anti-heroine, as she enters an indoor auto show where she’ll be performing. The camera’s eye swoops seamlessly between the glistening skins of the muscle cars on display and the metallic bikinis and wet surfaces of the babes paid to gyrate on them. Just after a dancer drops to the floor and opens her knees to us, we sail over to peer beneath the hood of a car. It’s not clear which undercarriage the camera is hornier for.
This first part of the sequence dials up the male gaze so high it verges on parody. Okay, we get it: girls and cars alike are pretty objects, empty ‘til the right guy fills them up. But Ducournau sets up this well-worn analogy only to refract it through the prism of her strange protagonist. The end of the scene, and the remainder of the film, will show us that Alexia does indeed bear a serious resemblance to a car—but not to a car’s exterior, that passive shell waiting for a driver. Instead, she acts more like the very innards of the car: the engine, drive itself. And in keeping with the favored symbolic vocabulary of body horror, Alexia’s flesh makes the metaphor literal. A childhood car crash has left her with a titanium plate in her head, possibly in lieu of the part of her brain responsible for human empathy. Female objectification not as vulnerability, but as armor.
As Alexia navigates the large warehouse of the show to find her place, a sea of oglers parts before her confident saunter. Sometimes she shoves them aside when they don’t move fast enough. Eventually, begging for release from that long, ever-building take, we’ll be treated to the climax of her solo dance on a fire-emblazoned Cadillac, but until then we are made to confront Alexia's aggressive asexuality. Alexia’s angry gaze, violent hip-thrusts, and queer-coded look—mullet, tats, piercings, lipstick black as oil—deny her male watchers (and us) the satisfaction of thinking we’re in control simply because we get to see so much of her skin. A later scene will show us that Alexia’s dance was even less “for” her human onlookers than it initially seemed: she prefers to fuck cars instead of men. All her writhing on the Caddy’s hood was just a bit of foreplay with a new lover.
The car show scene briefly introduces us to another character, too. Justine (Garance Marillier), a fellow dancer, embodies a vulnerable femininity that casts Alexia’s butch swagger into stark relief. Petite and baby-faced, Justine is groped by a handsy fan moments after the camera discovers her exceptionally wide-set eyes. She yelps in protest and a bouncer emerges from the crowd to haul the offender out. (This appeal to male protection differs from Alexia’s preferred method of dealing with jerks who won’t take “no” for an answer, which is to jab her steel hairpin into their ears.) Within twenty-five minutes of runtime, the violence presaged in Justine’s minor assault will have come to fruition, and she’ll be dead. Not at the hands of a fan, though: after a brief lesbian hookup, Alexia will hairpin Justine, too.
If this were the whole story, Justine would simply count among the ranks of horror’s favorite flavor of minorness: the female slasher victim, punished onscreen for her lady-sins of beauty, promiscuity, and a refusal to read the world as dangerous. Alexia, ever attracted to metal, repeatedly manhandles Justine’s nipple piercings on two separate occasions, making her shriek with pain both times. Nonetheless, the gamine invites Alexia into her home immediately after the second attack, brushing off the red flag of recurring violence with a “Whatever. You coming?” Given that Alexia has just gnawed into Justine’s areola, the line is so relentlessly, cruelly optimistic (“NEVER GIVE UP,” Justine’s tank top reads in this scene) that it brought unbelieving chuckles from the theater audience with which I first watched Titane. Justine is so blinded by her lust for Alexia’s hard edges that she ignores how deep they’re cutting into her. Though no one deserves victimhood, this chick certainly seems headed for it.
But there’s more to this particular un-Final Girl. We’ve met Justine before, twice—and twice as the apple of the camera’s eye, no less. Far from the appetizer role that she occupies in Titane, Justine was the full-fleshed protagonist of Ducournau’s earlier short film Junior (2011) and of the director’s breakout feature Raw (2016). Anyone familiar with Ducournau’s filmography thus enters Titane having watched Justine endure two full narrative arcs of suffering and bodily transformation: first as a boyish teen who literally sheds her skin to become femme-cute, and then as a vegetarian beset by cannibalistic urges while at veterinary school. Differences of setting and circumstance make these three Justines more like sisters to herself than precisely the same person. (She changes careers and class status between Raw and Titane, for instance, slumming down from bourgeois vet student to bohemian sex worker.) But she’s played by the same actress across all three movies, and ever retains her aggressive naivete and the preferred pastime of suffering.
For these reasons, the reemergence of Marillier’s face and Justine’s name in Titane prime us to expect majorness from her again, or at the very least a running subplot (the film could just as easily have won the Palme d’Or by telling the story of two lesbian strippers who find refuge from the patriarchy in one another’s arms). Coming as early as it does in Titane, then, Justine’s death delivers a meta-shock to viewers familiar with either of the two prior films. The scandal is only heightened by the degrading, semi-comic manner in which Titane presents her demise. Not only is her death unspecial—the first in a three-person stabbing spree that Alexia commits in a single sequence—but it’s also followed immediately by an upbeat Italian pop song. (My theater’s audience laughed again at this cue.)
What’s more, it’s unnerving to re-encounter, as disposable, a character who was herself a monster to be reckoned with in Junior and Raw. She is especially savage in the latter film, in which same-flesh urges drove Justine to eat her sister’s finger and disfigure a makeout partner, among other grotesqueries. But Titane declines even to grant its Justine the dignity of a Mothra-vs.-Godzilla showdown when its newer, badder villain rolls into town. Instead, the former cannibal is the one who gets bitten. Nor does Justine put up a very long fight when Alexia stabs her on the couch where they’re cuddling; she’s gone in twenty seconds. By suddenly recoding Justine as a standard-issue victim, the Justine films prove themselves as provocative at the level of character-system as they are in the medium of weird gore. It takes a filmmaker as steely as a serial killer to summarily dispatch the protagonist of one’s own cinematic universe.
But in what sense is Justine actually ever a protagonist, an agent of her own change? Her unceremonious disappearance from Titane casts a shadow backwards, inviting us to reconsider her earlier iterations. When we do, Justine’s pathetic death in this third film comes to seem less like a swerve than an inevitable progression. Ducournau’s first two movies undeniably afford her the lion’s share of screentime, one hallmark of majorness. But within the fictional worlds she inhabits (in the realm of story, as opposed to discourse), Justine is a major character with minor character energy. She is not a subject, but subject to—to parental control, to social rules, to assault, and to unpleasant physical change. Her finally lethal victimhood in Titane merely makes this running thread of spiritual abjection pop more brightly.
Junior shows us the birth of a victim, quite literally. The title character inhabits the hell of ubiquitous social domination that is middle school, from bossy parents and teachers to the mean girls who squirt ketchup at her. Though Junior’s masculine clothing and grooming reap censure from all of these corners, she at least begins the film with spunk, holding her own in scrapes with friends and enemies. Soon, though, Junior’s skin begins to fall off in slimy flakes, a foul physical mutation that ironically turns her pretty overnight. Suddenly using the new, girlier name Justine, the former tomboy navigates the world with greater social ease (her peers nag her less, and a boy even develops a crush on her)—but this comfort and approval clearly come on the condition that she continue to submit to the physical codes of femininity. “You were ugly, now you’re not,” her new love interest notes in the film’s final scene, producing a grateful smile from Justine that could again earn her a place in Cruel Optimism. Perhaps on the cover, this time.
Raw transports Justine from middle to graduate school, but she gains little freedom along with the years; home and school remain contiguous institutions of control, as they were in Junior. We first meet Raw’s Justine in the backseat on a family roadtrip,1 her mother and father driving her to the same specialized university where they completed their veterinary degrees decades ago and where Justine's sister is already a second-year. 1The passenger metaphor also surfaces in a moment midway through Junior. The title character reclines in her car seat, swaddled in blankets, as her mother chauffeurs her to an orthodontist appointment. The scene that follows carries forward the visual dynamic of a child helpless in the hands of adults: Junior once again lies prone (this time in the exam chair), wincing with discomfort as the indifferent hygienist adjusts her braces and her mom hovers nearby. Justine’s parents have developed strict rules for themselves, meant to control the animal within and without, and imprint these rules just as strictly upon their daughter: “JuJu” (as her parents still call her) is a staunch vegetarian, like maman and papa; like them, she is now to become a vet. When the trio stops at a roadside diner for lunch, Justine discovers a piece of meat in her supposedly meatless meal, and her mother goes mama-bear on the server for the mistake, much to her daughter’s humiliation.
The silver screen often represents the freshman experience as a series of cheap and sweaty rebellions. Justine, on the contrary, escapes home only to find in college a more vulgar authoritarianism. Senior students assail her with hazing rituals, teachers insult her, and her older sister, Alexia, bosses her around.
Yes, Alexia: this character name, like Justine’s, is shared between Raw and Titane (albeit in the skin of a different actress, this time—Ella Rumpf rather than Agathe Rousselle). Here, as in Titane, Alexia’s dynamism casts Justine’s passivity into sharper focus. As sisters first and lovers later, the two women form a mutually constitutive dyad. If Alexia is drive itself, an engine of a person, then Justine is the one being driven.
A punky, murderous bitch much like her Titane counterpart, Raw’s Alexia parties hard, browbeats Justine, and makes moves to steal her little sibling’s crush. But the sisters’ differences are most evident in how each handles their shared genetic proclivity for people-eating. Alexia has embraced her position as an apex predator of both the food chain per se and of the social structures to which she belongs—family, school, sexual dynamics. In the film’s opening scene (possibly in a nod to her secret narrative primacy, Alexia is the very first character we meet) the elder sister hunts for humans by throwing herself in front of cars, 2Titane likewise opens with an auto accident caused by an Alexia. As a young girl on a drive with her father, the car-lover pesters him so much that he swerves and hits the highway barrier. Even as a child, even from the backseat, she’s the one driving the car. the resulting crashes yielding fresh bodies for her to eat.2 Raw’s Alexia revels in her flesh-eating, and eventually lands in jail for her defiance of the law of family and man alike.
When we meet Justine, by contrast, it’s as a passenger in the road trip scene described above, her family conceivably driving along the very same road where Alexia stalks cars for prey. Born a bottom, Justine naturally assumes the same position at school, where upperclassmen (Alexia chief among them) will soon bully her into eating rabbit kidney. This first, forbidden bite of animal will swiftly turn Justine’s social abjection into its physical equivalent, her body overtaken by a grody rash, stomachaches, and cravings for human meat.
Yet Justine’s transformation registers as both an ordeal and an exhilaration. Her longing for flesh—an urge simultaneously sexual and carnivorous—pushes her towards intensities of experience that she has clearly never tasted at home, and the audience shares in these euphorias. Our sympathy is born, in part, from having already seen her submit herself to a catalog of indignities great and small; it’s gratifying as hell to watch a good girl go wild. We therefore delight equally in her more standard-issue awakenings (vamping in the mirror as she puts on lipstick for the first time) and in her less orthodox ones (gnawing hard into the arm of her domineering sister). But Raw also aligns us with Justine at the involuntary level of the nerve. Ducournau takes an unusually intimate approach to body horror throughout her oeuvre, amplifying sound effects and zooming in on Marillier’s frenzied face during moments of physical ecstasy and agony. The result is an uncomfortable physical empathy: we’re shoved inside of Justine’s most outlandish experiences even as our minds recoil from them. We whimper with the girl as she scratches compulsively at the dry crust of her stomach rash; her dirty pleasure courses through us as she slurps at a dismembered human finger.
Ducournau gets us high on Justine’s newfound liberties only to withdraw them, however. For all the violent delights that they unlock, Justine’s physical metamorphoses very much take place against her will, and it eventually becomes clear that her body will remain yet another force that she is subject to, not the subject of. (“You never feel well, ever,” says her roommate in a neg that equally applies to Justine’s manifestations in Junior and Titane.) So, too, do Justine’s dabblings in the animal joys of meat and sex reap ever more miserable fruits, as when a video of her drunkenly chomping at a cadaver goes viral at school, or her lust for her only friend makes him a target for Alexia’s jealous, hungry eye.
By dragging us through the joys and terrors of freedom alongside Justine, Raw makes Justine’s eventual choice of submission both frustrating and utterly explicable. Although Justine indulges her cannibalistic urges during the movie’s middle, the film closes by implying that she will learn to suppress them. In the film’s penultimate sequence, the family visits Alexia in prison, where she’s serving a presumably very long sentence for having eaten Justine’s friend (oops). Afterwards, Justine lunches with her parents at home, the daughter submitting with downcast eyes to her mother’s culinary nags: “Finish your vegetables, Ju. Don’t leave the table until you’re done.”
By showing us Justine once again opting in to the first diner scene’s dynamic of infantilization through food, Raw’s final minutes suggest that Justine has metabolized the lessons of both her unruly sister’s downfall and of her parents’ successful assimilation. If she is to enjoy the privileges of professionalization and family, Justine must—and implicitly will—suppress her Ids through vegetarianism, monogamous co-dependence, and other bourgeois self-deprivations.
Nor do these pyrrhic victories even survive the extended storyline of Ducournau’s filmography. Sure, Junior’s Justine eventually emerges from the gooey chrysalis of puberty; likewise, in Raw, does she pass through the crucibles of sexual awakening and teenage alienation. Yet by the beginning of each subsequent film, she’s been reborn a spiritual child, her character older (in step with Marillier’s own aging) but no worldlier or tougher. In this, Justine is a perfect and perpetual sufferer, a blank slate of receptive innocence that clears itself anew each time the credits roll.
A director’s decision to trap her creation in an eternal loop of self-aborting character development could easily be written off as schadenfreude, a smear that any body horror filmmaker worth her salt eventually becomes familiar with. But the Justine trilogy is less an excuse to watch a beta actually bleed again and again than it is a protracted study of the stubborn psyche of victimhood, of that paradoxically static way of moving through the world. Call it ontological, not corporeal, sadism. A sadism that forges an unusual degree of sympathy with the object of its torments, at that. Ducournau’s commitment to repeatedly immersing us in Junior’s/Justine’s interiority bespeaks her films’ interest in why one might choose subjugation, and how subjugation might in fact make possible an odd kind of power. Ducournau’s curiosity about the mind of the submissive seems all the more nuanced when we contrast her Justine triptych with the novella that expressly serves as the source material for her name: the Marquis de Sade’s Justine; Or, the Misfortunes of Virtue (1787).
Like Ducournau, Sade continually revived his main character for further misfortunes, resuscitating her in ever longer and more brutal editions of the book in 1791 and 1797. (Justine’s death, for instance, grows nastier with each subsequent installment: in the first book, she’s killed by a lightning bolt to the heart; in the second version, the lightning strikes her stomach; in the final revision, it leaves her body through her vagina.) What this means is that by the time Ducournau revives Sade’s creature, Justine has in fact been made to roll the boulder of her body up hell’s hill not just for years, but for centuries.
In Sade’s novel,3 3This essay quotes and draws on the 1791 version of the novel, which formed the basis for the first critical edition of the work. which the author conceived of both as titillation fodder for libertines and as an object lesson in the futility of religious faith, the pious title character recounts her unremittingly cruel life story. Effectively orphaned and impoverished at the age of 12, Justine leaves home in search of work and refuge. But the loss of paternal protection leaves her vulnerable to men of every age and station, and she meets only rape and abuse both on the open road and within the walls of her country’s many institutions: the Church, the court, the bank, the school.
It’s a travel story, at the end of the day, a Tour de France of pain that spans an impressive distance—from Chantilly in the North to the southern province of Dauphiné, from the forest to the mountains, the village to the city. After half a book’s worth of beatings and deeply perverse sexual assaults, Justine heads southward, “Imagining that the peace and quiet so cruelly denied me in my homeland perhaps awaited me on the other side of France. Fateful error! How many torments I still had to suffer!” For Justine’s male contemporaries, travel could mean adventure, conquest, and heroic individualism, as the era’s ample genres of journey testify: the picaresque; the travelogue (a genre that Sade himself dabbled in); adventure novels set on land and sea; the real-life Grand Tour. But Justine logs most of her miles against her will, either frantically fleeing an assailant or in the clutches of one kidnapper or another. Wherever she goes, there are men; wherever there are men, there is danger. Justine thus has less in common with Robinson Crusoe than it does with The Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson (or, to put it in automotive terms, it’s less On the Road than Lolita). Movement is but a moving captivity, Justine forever the one being driven.
And so Sade’s Justine lays the blueprint for the cognitively dissonant being that Ducournau will later revive into an unhappy second (or, depending how you count, fourth) life: the passive protagonist, belovèd of narrative space (she’s even granted the lion’s share of words in Sade’s novel, narrating her own “confession” of her life’s misfortunes), but mistress to her own life. After more than a decade of travel and suffering, Justine’s titular martyr remains naive of mind, spirit, and body. Stubbornly and solipsistically attached to the belief that all humankind is or can be as virtuous as she, Justine somehow never learns to distrust the various moustache-twirling men she encounters on her odyssey, no matter how obvious their dastardly intentions are to the reader. “I cannot bear to see you constantly coming to grief on the dangerous roads to virtue,” chides a less devout female acquaintance, using the book’s ubiquitous idiom of travel. “How many more examples are required to convince you that the course you are taking is the worst one of all?” Infinitely more, it would seem. Justine “Never Give[s] Up.”
These repeated tortures are in some ways made all the more pointless by the resilience of Justine’s body, which (like the body of Ducournau’s Justine, in the space between films) heals with supernatural speed from the parade of horrors visited upon it. After a typical rape and beating by a tradesman and the judge presiding over her upcoming trial for arson and murder, Justine is left “black and blue, but what surprised me was that [the men] healed my wounds in less time than they had taken to inflict them, and not the least trace of them remained.” Even a branding scar that Justine receives early in her travels is later erased through an operation so scantily described—a half-sentence calls it simply a “treatment” by “an excellent surgeon”—and medically implausible for the eighteenth century that it verges on the magical. Sade, like Ducournau, constructs an oddly outsourced experience of trauma: the reader/viewer, not the victim herself, bears the burden of remembering Justine’s accumulated suffering.
By contrast, Justine’s sister Juliette—much like that other big sister, Alexia—learns quickly from her adverse experiences, reshapes herself accordingly, and profits. Orphaned at the same time as Justine, Juliette exercises far more agency than the novel’s ostensible heroine. Though initially penniless, she murders and whores her way up society’s ladder, eventually becoming a countess. When Juliette and Justine are reunited near the book’s conclusion, the willfully submissive Justine is impoverished and sentenced to be hanged (for an act of arson she’s been framed for, and for an infanticide she committed accidentally). On the other hand, Juliette has accumulated so much wealth and power by evolving herself to navigate a corrupt world that she’s able to save her sister from the gallows. (That lightning-bolt soon ends Justine anyways, though, in a final repudiation of God’s supposed benevolence towards the righteous.)
Sade divides the world into born agents and inveterate victims, and offers especially little hope that the latter might become the former. Change, after all—besides the involuntary change that is physical mutation—requires the motor of a will, and Sade’s Justine displays precious little of that. It is this hollow plaything that Ducournau picks up and breathes consciousness into, though not so that she may make Justine a heroine. Instead, each piece of the triptych is a bodily immersion in the anguish of freedom so that we, like Justine, soon long for the comforts of subjugation. By the final scenes of Raw and Junior, her choice to hoist her chains back on rings both gently tragic and eminently true.
Yet in the long durée of Ducournau’s filmography, rather than within the compassionate arc of a single story, repetition has begun to flatten Justine, as a mallet slowly thins a sheet of metal. Watching the character return to victimhood both within and across Junior and Raw and Titane, we learn to expect less and less of her—and Titane makes good on this expectation, whittling down her volition so dramatically that she at last vanishes entirely. Ducournau’s films, like Sade’s novel trilogy before them, have gradually begun to shift their narrative attention and affection towards the meaner, more powerful character. Even when one Alexia ends up in prison and the other ends up dead, at least it’s her own engine that got her there.
What, precisely, is the filmmaker leaving behind as she sheds Justine? An avatar of her own, slightly cringe past as a genius daughter, perhaps. After all, Julia Ducournau, too, is a privileged “Juju,” the child of a dermatologist and a gynecologist (spiritual dead ringers for the double-vet parents of Raw). And though Ducournau has followed a less traditionally lucrative and prestigious path than her parents, the gory work of horror filmmaking still grounds her in the family medium, flesh and blood. Some things are thicker than water. Now, the director’s significant critical and financial success have finally afforded her the leeway to get a little nastier, to make art like an Alexia even as she retains the highbrow status of “elevated horror” among art circles that love to be provoked. Meanwhile, Justine moves and metamorphoses without escaping, forever trapped in the car that Ducournau is driving.
Chelsea Davis is a writer living in San Francisco. Her essays on film, literature and culture have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and the Public Domain Review, among other publications. More of her work can be found on her website, and she's on Twitter @UnrealCitoyenne. She was once tasked with guiding Mia Farrow from one administrative building to another, a distance of several hundred feet. The operation was a success.