What Women Inherit: Pregnancy as Body Horror

Titane (2021)

Titane (2021) | art by Laura Tinald
illustration by Laura Tinald

This year, my birthday was a few weeks after I gave birth to my son, a punishing and unfathomable exercise in the limits of human pain. And now, at this juncture, having survived with a healthy tot in tow, I gathered with my family at a brewery while the baby slept soundly in the carrier nearby. A few drinks in, feeling a foolish rush of normalcy, physically unburdened, I started talking about David Cronenberg with my sister, who had recently gone down a James Spader rabbit hole. “I get it,” I said. “I think I understand why I love body horror so much. Being a woman is body horror.” 

“Think about it,” I said. “Basically a squid comes out of me every month.” My mother cringed. My dad blinked. My sister nodded. I didn’t know how else to explain. 

At the time, I did not yet have Titane as a frame of reference. But several months later, piqued by the Cannes buzz, my husband and I went to see it in the theater among a crowd of mostly 20-somethings at a late showing. In the film, the antiheroine Alexia moves through the opening scenes reptilian and nearly subhuman, relating more to the raw machinery of cars after a horrific accident as a child leaves her with a titanium plate in her skull. Her position as a dancer at car shows brings her within immediate proximity to the sexualizing of this machinery; then, in a high-camp sequence, she’s seduced by and has inexplicable sex with the flame-emblazoned Cadillac she was pantomime-humping in the previous scene. As if to highlight her lack of humanity, this copulation occurs not moments after she murders a fanboy who professes his love for her, jarringly affirming her preference for machine over man. 

It’s been well documented that women’s bodies are a point of obsession in horror films—though, historically, the fixation is on exterior sexuality, as in the Final Girl’s unflappable virginity that preserves her heroic status, and allows her to vanquish her captor or tormentor or whoever is in hot pursuit. Of course, this trope has been subverted throughout the horror films of the past 20 years in about as many ways as it was archetypal in the decades before. Another, more perplexing interaction with women’s sexuality is in the body horror subgenre—typically not classic horror movies themselves, but dystopian or science-fiction thrillers that present alternate realities in which the corporeal form is pushed to its fathomable limits, as a subject of experimentation or aberrant behavior or unanticipated metamorphosis. 

Most notably, the Canadian director David Cronenberg is often linked to the body horror subgenre. And indeed, many of his more disturbing turns involve deviant sexual encounters, depictions that necessarily involve or evoke female anatomy. Everything imaginable is a vagina, it seems, especially if that vagina isn’t actually located where it’s supposed to be, or even attached to an actual body. Cronenberg is undeniably a huge influence on the subgenre, and, more personally, a tremendous influence on me. I can’t even tell you the first Cronenberg film I saw in high school—Dead Ringers, maybe? In which twin gynecologists discover a mysterious woman who has three cervixes?—but it entranced me, and I dutifully rented or saw every Cronenberg in the theater for years to come. 

Titane has elicited many predictable comparisons to Cronenberg’s Crash due to its fetishizing of cars. Most confoundingly, the original press blurb for Titane was merely a technical definition of the titular metal, with zero hints as to the characters or plot. This may have been a good stunt, but the film was destined to create its own divisive buzz due to its messy, comical shock value. Frankly, I’m not certain that Titane is even a good film, but maybe this is characteristic of most body horror. After all, one would be hard-pressed to recall the absorbing intricacies of plot for many of Cronenberg’s greatest stunners. It’s almost as if the breadth of the story itself is an afterthought and the horror is the true spectacle, although Titane has more going for it in terms of representation than I believe it intends. 

Undoubtedly, Julia Ducournau’s films are so titillating because they present body horror as an almost exclusively female enterprise; the violent perpetrators are female, the gaze is female, the classic sense of dread centers around aspects of the female experience—most significantly, outside the patina of rape. When I saw Raw in the theater years ago, there were audible gasps during the ill-fated Brazilian-wax scene. I recognized and loved in that moment the fact that Ducournau centered the dread on a wildly painful experience that women electively endure repeatedly, every day, in environments as dubiously non-clinical as a dormitory bedroom. 

And yet, while Raw moved through scenes of gore and cannibalism to unbury its true, almost tender story about women’s inheritance and kinship, I find that Titane, while in some ways more superficial than Raw, also explores a notion of family that it aggressively tries to distract from in its drive to disturb. But there is so much, particularly in the grotesque depiction of pregnancy, that feels mercilessly and laughably accurate. 

The press coverage for Titane, in an effort to circumvent spoilers, focuses on the fact that its main character is a demented serial killer. In hindsight, I find this part of the story pretty negligible. Sure, Alexia needs to hide from the authorities searching for the murderess who impaled an entire party house of young, sexy things (as she was then the monster in the typical ‘80s horror flick) and burned her parents’ house down. But her compulsive panic seems to be primarily fueled by her total bewilderment at recently discovering her supernatural pregnancy—the apparent result of that fateful encounter with the custom Cadillac.

After seeing something of her own likeness in an aged-for-accuracy poster of a missing child, Alexia alters her appearance in order to be mistaken for the boy and is taken home by the muscle-bound Vincent, a walking tragedy of middle-aged fatherhood whose desperate loneliness leads him to accept this imposter as his ilk. Alexia is androgynous enough to pass for a while, but the undeniable and rapidly growing bump below her Ace bandage is bound to betray her. At this point, the concealment of her pregnancy is comparable to poverty-porn stories we hear about teen girls who are either ignorant to the functions of female anatomy or afraid to reveal their transgressions to unforgiving families. Of course, Alexia sees the punishing binding of her protruding baby bump as necessary for survival; Vincent, while kind, is somewhat unpredictable, and would likely balk at discovering this deceptive changeling. 

The thing is, pregnancy on public display is a fairly recent phenomenon. And even so, a deeply uncomfortable one. What other societal opportunity do we have to walk around physically broadcasting for everyone—even your boss—the fact that you had unprotected sex? Traditionally, wealthy-enough pregnant women entered confinement as soon as their bump was no longer disguisable, even into the 20th century. While this practice is rightly out of favor, it does, in some ways, acknowledge the fact that the changes happening to the body during pregnancy are largely private. No one, no matter how loving and open to the experience, can share in the way fluid suddenly oozes into your pants even after diligent hygiene, or the purple webs of stretch marks splintering as your skin tightens and breaks, or the endless radiating pain from your overstressed hip joints, or the numbness of your fingertips and tautening of wrist tendons as your limbs fill up with blood and water. 

Many moments in Titane comically exaggerate this transformation. Alexia’s breasts swell and leak oil, straining under the bandage, causing fear and embarrassment when Vincent notices. In one otherwise terrifying sequence, she voraciously scratches a spot at the base of her belly where a pregnant person’s skin is known to stretch to the point of maddening itchiness—only in this story, of course, Alexia manages to break the skin and form a hole that pulses with motor oil. Much like in real life, strange liquid pools beneath her as she sleeps and showers. This is actually what it’s like. It’s frightening. There’s really no one you can talk to about what’s happening, unless you make pages of notes for the doctor you see once a month, or spend time probing the dregs of message boards online, filled with their own singular stories of pregnancy horror.

And then, there are moments of such sweetness. As Alexia slowly cultivates an affection for Vincent, whose hyper-masculine dysmorphia serves as a funhouse mirror for her own, she begins to understand the ever-forgiving nature of good parenting. Vincent accepts her—damaged, taciturn, distant, skittish. He establishes himself as a flawed but stalwart presence whose sole duty is to love and care for her. With this gracious model of parenting, Alexia begins to open herself to the baby inside of her; when she sees its tiny hand protrude from the gleaming metal womb, she pokes back for an attempt at contact. When I was pregnant, I would spend what felt like hours pointing my phone camera down at my belly, trying to capture the incomprehensible rumbling of the ever-growing parasite within. When I felt his little feet jab up towards my ribcage, I would force my thumb and forefinger into my skin in an attempt to grab and massage his heels. It’s actually something I’ve continued to do when I hold him, as if to maintain that connection. 

But birth and delivery are their own form of torment, and, some would argue, always traumatic. There’s really no time when you’re more vulnerable; the affrighted animal Alexia has been the entire movie is now disarmed—naked, scrambling around on the floor amidst contractions. When my water broke, I had just lumbered from the hospital bed to go to the bathroom and the warm, acrid-smelling substance splattered onto the floor and all over my feet. My contractions were, at their worst, minutes long at the crest, totally unmanageable. I could only clutch the rails of the bed and howl in unbridled agony. You can’t see or hear anything; you can only be totally within yourself and feel it all. Even with all the various exercises in institutionalized torture known to women, nothing prepared me for such pain. 

To that end, one of the most unexpected after-effects of having given birth, finally, to a 10-pound boy via unplanned C-section, thrashing on the operating table through violent, fever-induced chills, was my nearly calm, unflinching acceptance of the body horror in Titane. In one of the early, wince-worthy scenes, Alexia, having just taken a pregnancy test, brandishes her weapon of choice—a chopstick-length hairpin—in an improvised attempt at a self-administered abortion. The audience around me sucked air through their teeth and squirmed in their seats. I sat there, oddly placid, in a fugue state, with my mind returning to my own cervix, which had refused to dilate 24 hours after beginning induction medication. My obstetrician suggested inserting a bulb filled with saline to trigger the labor process. I lay there on my back with no anaesthetics, clutching my husband’s hand while the doctor tried and failed, over and over again, to shove a plastic ball—a half-dollar in diameter—into my limp but closed cervix. Each time, the bulb emerged from my body, ever more coated in slimy blood and tissue. Then, she gave up. 

But then the baby arrives, through whatever hard-fought means, and the memory of expansive pain is supposed to wash away as a tide of maternal affection chemicals rush through you. In a sense, this happens in Titane almost as an easy fix to a morally repugnant character; she dies in childbirth so we can forgive her cruelty and adore her exceptional baby. But for me, and anyone who lives through it, the postpartum healing process is its own, separate horror: jaw swollen beyond recognition, cheeks crusted with eczema and pus, bleeding out the syrupy contents of my rapidly contracting uterus for weeks on end. I grew frustrated trying to reason with what was happening to me. I endured torment, had a beautiful baby, and yet I still felt uncanny and not myself. 

Directors like Ducournau are beginning to reclaim body horror, which in Cronenberg’s legacy has dabbled so much in women’s bodies without fully being able to understand its true non-male gaze capacity for gruesomeness. It doesn’t feel new, but it feels like a resonant honesty that often goes unspoken. There are so many more horrors of women’s experiences yet to be metaphorically broadcasted to a general audience. Hopefully this era of filmmaking is the advent of more unstated, private ones.