Something open-ended about humans, hybrids, automata, cyborgs and Titane

I have always found fascinating the space where human and non-human cross over, the grey area that asks questions around what it is to be human.

I also love automata the original robots, mechanical wonders with life breathed into every link and chain… the haunted movements of The Writer, the sublime beauty of the Silver Swan endlessly dipping its head for fish; the simple delight of a clockwork animal or the mellifluous sound of a mechanical bird. I have little interest in modern technology, where all the workings are hidden by an irremovable silver case, but to see the insides of a clockwork creature that is indeed something. 

poster image from Amazon.

Other films that I have enjoyed centred around the question of what it means to be human: I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Okay, a Korean film where Young-goon insists she is a cyborg who needs batteries to stay alive and is sent to a psychiatric ward. Also A.I. Artificial Intelligence where David the perfect robot child, searches to be reunited with the mother who abandoned him… not forgetting the enduring mystery of Deckard’s parentage in Blade Runner, both of which have obvious echoes with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the monster’s need to reconcile himself with the creator. Yet more recently there was the brilliantly taut thriller Ex Machina, which plays out like the replicant test in reverse. Where am I going with any of this?

Titane 2021 by Julia Ducournau

(cont. spoilers) I was called upon to re-examine humans and hybrids in startling fashion after seeing Titane at HIC (Hull Independent Cinema) last week. The French language film centres around a girl who has a horrific car crash – this happens within minutes of the opening credits so not a spoiler – and then as part of her reconstruction surgery she is fitted with a titanium plate in her head. She grows up into an adult with a wholly unnatural interest in vehicles: think Crash (1996) Cronenberg and Ballard. 

Her view of relationships and the world is warped beyond all reckoning. Her view on the world and other people is never really explained, just shown to be damaged by how she reacts to confrontation, and situations where she feels threatened. You could say the elements that makes up a person’s humanity have been switched off in her. Either because of the presence of the titanium plate in her head or through the original injury sustained in the accident itself. I am leaning towards the former and ask what is the origin of the titanium plate in her head? Would any other plate have had the same dehumanising effect? You wonder how she has grown up without normal socialising skills, and for nobody to have noticed. 

It is also a film about hidden identities, like many human robot stories there is an element of deception. Can I build a thing that will fool others that it is human, can I build a thing so that the thing itself thinks it is human? Is sentience only the preserve of the living? If you remove all ‘normal’ human responses and functions what is left? 

In Titane Alexia Agathe Rousselle covers up her female body to carry out the subterfuge that she is Adrien, a long lost son of a grieving father. In doing so the film introduces a layer that questions gender presentation through graphic scenes of binding and body modification. It is excruciating the lengths Alexia has to go to maintain the illusion she is in fact Adrien, a boy. So now there’s a thread about passing. Can Alexia pass as Adrien, can she pass in her new home; can she pass in the workplace? Will her fabrication fall apart if someone finds out her true identity? 

She does not want this female body, she doesn’t want to be recognised as Alexia, apart from anything else Alexia is wanted in connection with a series of brutal killings. She also doesn’t want this body that appears to be undergoing changes that are both painful and horrifying: a fair definition of body dysmorphia, coupled with gender dysphoria, a neurologically diverse brain, and all in need of love and redemption. Throughout the movie there are hefty doses of body horror that Cronenberg would be proud of, and some equally bewildering Lynchian dislocated scenes of firemen dancing, posing even more questions. 

It seems I can’t escape the grey area between human and hybrid. First year fine arts students exhibition during the same week, artist Jess Allman has made a series of humanoid wire maquettes, and then on an adjoining wall paintings of sections of endoskeleton, that might serve as supporting structure for skin, tissue and blood vessels.  

Me as Rachel from Blade Runner image by Quentin Budworth for Hull Icons 2017.

There’s something irresistible about exploring that which exists on the boundary between human and non-human, the constructed and the natural.  

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