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Julia Ducournau poses with the Palme d'Or Best Movie Award for Titane during the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival, on July 17, 2021.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

French director Julia Ducournau’s Titane won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on July 18. The win is significant for two reasons. It’s only the second time in 74 years that a female director has won the Palme d’Or. More importantly, it’s the first time in history that a film with a heroine who is impregnated by a vintage Cadillac and then lactates motor oil has won the Palme d’Or.

I guess the big question is: What cologne was the Caddy wearing in Titane when the lead character, Alexia, knew he was the “one?” Alexia, mind you, is a serial-killing erotic dancer, who as a child, was in a terrible car accident that required her to have a titanium plate surgically fettered to her head.

Perhaps the Cadillac attracted Alexia’s attention by wearing Ford’s new fragrance Mach-Eau, which Ford developed because market research showed that almost 70 per cent of drivers will miss the smell of gasoline as electric vehicles (EVs) become the norm. According to Olfiction perfumer Pia Long (whom Ford hired to create the fragrance), Mach-Eau honours the launch of Ford’s new all-electric Mustang Mach-E GT (Mach-Eau is not available for purchase – it comes with the Mustang-E GT). Long was inspired by the chemicals found in car interiors, engines and gasoline. She added “an ‘animal’ element,” according to a news release, “to create an impression of horses and underline the Mustang heritage.”

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What better fragrance for a car looking to procreate? After all, “Cad-Eau” (the Cadillac-inspired cologne) has yet to be created.

North Americans will have to wait to see Ducournau’s body-horror film; no release date is set. But it’s part of a lineage of film and literature that examines our relationship with the automobile. In the 1970s, English writer J. G. Ballard wrote The Atrocity Exhibition, in which a central character finds that a “car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than destructive event.” He crystallized the dynamic in his 1973 masterpiece Crash (which David Cronenberg adapted into a film in 1996). Crash tells the story of TV scientist Robert Vaughan, a car-crash survivor who enlists fellow victims and indulges in a series of “auto-erotic” atrocities. A mesmerizingly disturbing novel, it shows what novelist Zadie Smith has called Ballard’s “gift for defamiliarization.”

Ballard takes the familiar roads and automobiles we think we are driving and shows that it’s in fact the other way around – they are driving us, often in dark sexual ways. Benign everyday life is a lie. “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind,” he wrote. “The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent reality.”

Thanks to EVs, self-driving technology and social media, car culture is experiencing an enormous shift not seen since the sixties. That means a new “fiction” of what the automobile means and our place in that relationship, about the difference between human beings and machines. It’s no accident that Titane’s Palme win appears to be ushering in the next wave of this discourse. Like Cronenberg’s Crash when it was released, its screenings are notable for walk-outs, dismayed shrieks and revulsion.

At Cannes, critics were divided. Some hated it because it is vulgar and sensational, and some loved it because it is vulgar and sensational. Its take on the “mentality and sexuality” trigged by a traumatic automobile accident hits on everything, according to Deadline, including “birth, maternity, independence, sexual preference [and] unconscious bias.”

Ducournau is in good company.

“If you are dealing with the kind of subjects I am,” Ballard said of Crash, “Trying to demystify the delusions we have about ourselves, to get a more accurate fix on human nature – then people are unsettled. And the easiest way to deal with that is to say it’s weird or it’s cold.”

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Forget The Fast and the Furious. In 2021, we’re getting The Aghast and the Curious.

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