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Director: Coralie & Virginie Despentes

France - 2000



Coming to us from across the Atlantic at the crest of a tsunami of hype and shock is the latest naughty French film to earn many degrees of notoriety for its explicit sexual content. Baise-Moi, which translates as an imperative I can't print here, kicks out at the viewer with equal portions of Gregg Araki's The Living End, John Waters' Desperate Living, Meir Zarchi's I Spit on your Grave, and Gaspar Noe's Seul Contre Tous/I Stand Alone (which it features during a notable interlude and whose director is thanked prominently in the credits). Co-Directors Virginie Despentes (who wrote the novel the film is based on) and Coralie Trinh Thi have crafted an amateurish, visceral, and timely examination human fury and hurt, the kind of film that, like Pasolini's Salo, surpasses its flaws and jaw-droppingly disturbing images to become the kind of film that is called important but isn't watched a whole lot because of the toll it takes on your soul while you're watching it.

Manu (Raffaela Anderson) is a young woman and erstwhile amateur porn star with no immediate job prospects ("there's no work in France," she declaims to her possessive and headstrong brother) whose friends make their livings through drugs, welfare, and sexwork. Organized society barely notices her, keeping her marginalized and removed, welfared up and out of sight. It is no accident that her ethnic identity is an unspoken strike against her, and the film scores broadside hits on the lurking spectre of xenophobia and how it expresses itself politically. So Manu slips through the cracks, and she and a friend are graphically assaulted and raped, in what is easily one of the most horrifying scenes in a film in many years. Despentes and Trinh Thi pull no punches whatsoever, and the viewer is left dazed by what they see. As human beings, we pride ourselves on our empathy, and as such we are with Manu after she escapes. We are with Manu as she is unable to save her best friend Radouan (Ouassini Embarek) from local thugs. And we watch as her brother, rather than expressing any concern for her after discovering that she has been raped, grabs his gun and demands "who did this to you?" And in this chilling moment, she yells "Bastards like you always have to hit someone to make you feel alive." And by then it's too late. Manu is inextricably bound to the gun, keeping it as mediator between herself and reality.

Into this mix comes Nadine (Karen Bach aka Karen Lancaume), an erstwhile prostitute who has also recently shed blood (her insufferable roommate) and watched as her last connection to life has died in front of her. Her junkie friend Francis (Patrick Eudeline, working a definite Gallic Gary Oldman vibe) is the only person who shows her basic human decency, and with his tragic death, Nadine is cut loose from society and drifts away.

The two drifters meet and recognize something about themselves. It is unspoken, but as Manu later says, "It was then or never." They decide to travel together for a while, and Nadine recognizes Manu from some of her porn work. "Does your man like that?" Manu asks. But Nadine herself enjoys porn, and that is the first way in which Baise-Moi becomes an agent of subversion rather than a hardcore John Milius descent into cartoonish nihilism.

The film's very first scene sets up the guiding theme. Nadine sits in a bar and watches as a young woman debases herself by hanging around her boyfriend even when he openly is disdainful towards her and asks her for money and to leave. All we need to know is that Nadine in no way allows herself to be qualified by a man's definition of or use for her; her contempt for both is evident. The iconic image which serves as the film's poster in the U.S. is of Nadine in a bikini holding a gun. A nice little fetishized bridge between Tits and Ass and Guns and Ammo. An image from the film that seems tailor-made to the dueling American neuroses of sexuality and weaponry. What is omitted from the poster, oddly enough, is the fact that Nadine has her CD walkman tucked in the side of her panties. She isn't posing for the delectation of the masses; she's looking at herself in the mirror and playing with her gun because she thinks she looks cool. The viewer may derive any kind of thrill or shock that he or she wants from the image, but their thrill is not the motivator behind the action; it is Nadine's. And that is why I can't honestly call this film pornography, because it does not define itself as such. The essential ingredient to most pornography today is the money-shot, which you will find completely absent from this film. Male sexuality in no way motivates or defines any aspect of Baise-Moi, and that is one of the more subversive things about it.

Shortly after the two meet and decide to travel together, they let their hair down and have a little house party in their hotel. As cut to "I'll Stay Outside" by the Cox 6, the whole thing seems like the prelude to the inevitable girl-on-girl action, but again the film is about thwarting expectations, and that action, which would be intrinsic to the film were it in fact made as pornography, does not exist. It's a scene of two women dancing together, and the baggage the viewer brings into the experience makes the schism between what is expected and what is depicted very apparent.

But as Manu and Nadine careen further into psychopathy, any sort of academic deconstruction of their actions becomes more and more problematic. Their first victim is an innocent woman, so from the beginning their spree is tainted by blood. It would be far too easy to accept the cold-bloodedness with which the two dispatch their targets if their victims were all disgusting, violent, and hate-filled pigs. Granted, a number of them are. But is revenge still an honorable pursuit when the objects of its wrath have nothing to do with how the perpetrator was wronged in the first place? Manu and, to a lesser extent, Nadine, strike out with adolescent viciousness and lack of forethought that should strike dread into the heart of any civilized person. "Too bad for them" becomes a recurring litany for the doomed who cross their path. There is an irrationality at work in the two, which may spring from their previous experiences with the deaths of Radouan and Francis, or, in their own words, "because we lack imagination." Their response to the situations that life presents to them become less and less rooted in sensible action and more and more tied to becoming surreal messengers of death.

The banality of Manu and Nadine's psychopathology becomes more apparent when, after several killings, they wonder  "where's the lines?" finding that they should have appropriately clever things to say in situations where people are dying. It makes explicit the baseness of much of modern entertainment's propensity for serving up horror with snarky one-liners, leaving us with a sick numbness where our senses of compassion used to be. The two decide that it would be unethical to come up with appropriately clever and ironic phrases to use in their business of death, which one of the film's few notes of (very Gallic) humor.

Baise-Moi is both a beat-down of the soul and a rewarding experience for the adventurous viewer, but I do not in any way urge anyone who isn't one hundred percent certain that they can handle its blend of graphic sex and violence to see the film, because this is a film that steps over the line, then erases the line with its stiletto boot. It defies any kind of star rating, and I would advise uncertain parties to read up on the film before they rush into a potentially unpleasant experience.



-- Copyright 2001 by Jason Shawhan





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