Thursday, 29 September 2011

Baise-moi (2000)

In the movie Dodgeball, when Peter LaFleur is trying to come up with ways of making money to save his gym, a friend suggests that they sell blood and semen. After receiving some disgusted looks from the group, the friend clarifies: “What? Not mixed together.” Indeed, selling blood and semen separately can probably make you some money. However, if you try selling them mixed together, all you’ll get is shocked expressions and a heavy dose of controversy. Such was the experience of filmmakers Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, who released a thriller in 2000, based on Despentes’ novel, that courted near worldwide controversy and criticism for its use of pretty graphic violence and real sex. See, blood and semen, I wasn’t just talking nonsense.

Two women, occasional porn star Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) and part-time prostitute Nadine (Karen Lancaume), go on a spree of sex and murder after they each lose their last links with society when Manu gets raped and Nadine’s only friend is shot and killed. Meeting by chance, they get in Manu’s car and take off in a nihilistic voyage, robbing, killing and seducing all manner of people that they meet and trying to stay ahead of the law.

A few days ago, I was due to review a particular film in this journey through all I own. Unfortunately, when I went to watch it, I found the DVD had been damaged, likely done in a house-move a few years ago, rendering it unusable. As such, I was forced to move on through the list, and re-buy the broken film. Now, this would all simply be something of an annoyance at the best of times, but there was an extra point that made this especially galling… I don’t like Baise-moi. I watched it for the first time some years ago, aware of the controversy surrounding it (it was banned... a lot) and wanting to see it for myself. Good times when I found it for very cheap. However, those good times turned bad when it turned out I hated it. Until today, that had been the one and only viewing I had ever given it, hence the reason I was unaware that it had been sitting on my shelf with an almighty crack in it. However, since beginning this endeavour to give some sort of critique or review to all the films I own, Baise-moi was one that I rather looked forward to watching again, if only to try and engage with it more critically than I did the first time around. When you see a film that you seriously don’t like, there is always the temptation to completely destroy it on every level, which is only compounded when the film shows so much sex and violence, which some don't care for. The severe emotionality of such a reaction can occasionally get in the way of offering fair criticism, although it shouldn’t be ignored entirely, either. As such, I shall attempt to consider the film as fairly as I can… so here we go.

First off, I’ll consider the visuals of the film, which is perhaps the least contentious facet of the production. Baise-moi had a very low budget, being filmed on digital video with no extra or artificial lighting, and all on location. This, coupled with camerawork that’s clumsy and amateurish, does make the film look pretty bad, but it does rather add to what seems to be the overall effect. The world of Baise-moi is a pretty awful place, filled with low-down bars and unpleasant hotels, and the characters are equally awful. There is almost no one who is without some sort of guilt or objectionable personality. These are disagreeable people moving through an indifferent and fairly cruel world. That the visuals are so crummy does help to convey this sense that it’s a very crude world we are in. It’s nasty to look at, but I think that’s part of the point.
The characters… what am I meant to make of them? Neither of them is particular pleasant, really. Taking Nadine first, she’s pretty lazy, kind of a pothead, a bit of a drinker, and something of a user of people. She’s a pain in her roommate’s ass, who complains about Nadine watching porn and masturbating all day in the living area instead of her bedroom. Nadine says she’s tired of having to do it there. From these points, you’d guess that she is someone who doesn’t like hassle, likes the freedom to do what she wants without people annoying her about it. She’s also a part-time prostitute, which isn’t really a big deal, although the filmmakers would perhaps seem to suggest that there is some connection between sex with a prostitute and rape (during a session with a client, Nadine watches a movie on TV that shows a violent sexual encounter), as if the man is assaulting Nadine by using her sexuality for his own gratification. Nadine has one friend, a junkie (or drug dealer, I’m not sure) for whom she writes out fake prescriptions to be filled at his convenience. I would say that this is not a reason to like her any more, since she’s still committing a crime, regardless of how okay she seems to be with her friend. Especially since she has not long strangled her roommate and ran off with the rent money. So, she’s a lazy, unpleasant, thieving murderer and a hooker (though it’s the film that has the problem with that part). I fail to see why I should care about her, then.

What about Manu? She actually does have a bit more to be angry about. She’s kind of a slacker, not really wanting to get a real job, and so makes some money by doing work in porn films or borrowing from her brother. Her brother is a dick, overbearing and abusive for no real reason. And, although she doesn’t back really back down, she does take some abuse from random people in the street who are looking for her… friend? Again, I’m not really sure on that one. Manu also does experience a genuine assault, when three men take her and her junkie friend to a warehouse, where they are both raped. Whilst the friend screams and writhes, getting her a severe beating for her trouble, Manu takes it without sound, movement or complaint. One of the attackers says that having sex with her is “like fucking a zombie”. Afterwards, she tells her clearly traumatised friend that they didn’t take anything from her because she removed everything of value from her sexual self, so there was nothing to take. It rather does sound like she’s dead inside, and voluntarily so. Shortly after, when at her brother’s house, he realises what happened (although his automatic leap to rape is a bit flimsy) and, finding his gun, asks her who did it. When she refuses to tell him, he implies she enjoyed it. Manu takes the gun and kills him, and then steals his savings. I am more inclined to feel sympathy with Manu than Nadine through all of this, although she’s still not an entirely a nice person. That said, she doesn’t really have to be entirely nice. In fact, her character is drawn fairly well in the beginning. It’s only as things go on that you care less about her.

You can pretty much pinpoint the exact moment things start to go off the rails, and it’s about the time that Nadine and Manu meet. Walking in opposite directions at the train station, post-murders, Manu stops Nadine and almost right away asks her if she knows how to drive because she has a car and they could drive away. This scene just feels odd, too simply done. Later Nadine remarks how strange it was that the two met the way they did, to which Manu replies that it wasn’t, that it was then or never… what does that even mean? It’s not an affirmation of pre-ordained fate bringing them together, because it acknowledges the possibility that they might not have met. So, it was just coincidence, so it was strange for them to meet in that way, so it is illogical nonsense. It would have made more sense if they had met as they were independently on the run, bumping into each other as they try to escape or lay low, instead of just on the street, where clumsy dialogue forces them into an initially unnatural union for the purposes of story progressing.

It’s interesting to note that, in some places like the US, the title of the film was translated as Rape Me, although the filmmakers and many people who liked the film hated this title. Rape is, for those who don’t know, a crime driven not by lust or physical attraction, but by power. The whole point is for the aggressor to force themselves on the victim, taking from them the power to stop it from happening. Now, Nadine and Manu are often said to be, for lack of a better word, “agents” of a feminist spirit, out to reclaim their own identity and sexuality from the male populace, who have subjugated and oppressed the female populace for so long. Effectively, the pair is out to take back the power that was stolen from them, even completely turning the tables on others. Theirs is a thrill-ride, with both parties drunk on freedom.

Personally, this is why I think things crumble after the pair meet and go on their spree. After they get together, the film exists in a world where they just go around doing whatever they feel like, regardless of what that may be or why. I suppose that we’re meant to take this as both women enjoying the full reign of freedom that they never had before, but it just becomes tedious. At one point, both Manu and Nadine say that everything they did was somewhat pointless because they don’t really feel any different. Now, I’d be willing to accept this as a statement that, after adopting the mindlessly violent characteristics of their male oppressors, they feel ultimately unfulfilled by their actions because it did nothing to erase the pain they have felt all along… but this doesn’t really hold up too much because they’ve clearly been having a great time with themselves, having sex and stomping faces. For them to suddenly say that it was all for nought rather comes out of nowhere. If there was a hint of desperation in their activities, with them trying to reclaim their initial thrill at their first taste of freedom (which was killing a woman), then I’d be able to accept it more. However, the whiplash-inducing shift in their feelings smacks of an attitude that we should really start trying to end this thing. Once again, it’s this crummy leap of logic stuff that gets in the way of telling the story effectively, so it’s tough to take it seriously.

What is incredibly interesting, though absolutely typical of the internet, is the fierce conflict of opinion of those who have seen the film. Many decry the film as sick, perverse, immoral, stupid, badly made crap; others call it a masterpiece, a brave and courageous work shining a light on aspects of society that others are afraid to talk about. Many people who like the film often employ the argument that those who don’t like the film are prudish, reactionary, or simply too stupid to engage with the themes and events of the film. I will agree that some of the negative opinions do come from a particular knee-jerk sensibility, causing the speaker to voice an opinion before mulling things over appropriately, but many people don’t like it because they simply don’t like it. The people that love the film are generally possessed of a rather smug sensibility that I actually find even more distasteful. A regular comment I find somewhat perplexing and kind of funny is when they say that people who don’t like the film probably just want films with great lighting and good camerawork and effects and Oscar-winning acting and for things to be explained. It’s odd because, aside from admitting the poor quality of Baise-moi’s lighting, camerawork, effects, acting and ability to make sense, it tries to make some sort of virtue of them. Just because something looks like crap and doesn’t have big names in it, doesn’t mean it’s any good.

“Why did they make this film?”… it’s a question that is asked regularly of the most controversial films to be released. Ones deemed to be too violent or graphic or offensive or any number of other crimes that people throw around in such circumstances. More so than any of the other accusations of immorality on film, this is the question to which it ultimately breaks down. Why would the filmmakers unleash such a nightmarish work upon the world, filled with such inflammatory and offensive material? Shock value is often suggested as a reason, since using seditious images is a virtual guarantee of much publicity. Really, they would have to release it because they have something to say. Rarely is something so contentious released without reason. There is also the school of thought that would suggest that, if a piece of art can inspire such a vast amount of discussion and criticism, then it does hold some sort of worthy place in society, even if the piece is deemed “bad” and the discussions are on topics that most find uncomfortable. Indeed, Baise-moi hits on virtually all of the taboo subjects like it’s ticking them off a checklist. It’s use of violence and sex and blood, and the apparent enjoyment in such nefarious acts as murder and rape, does force the viewer to confront some pretty nasty things. However, does it really try to offer any sort of comment or observation on these things? Is it enough to simply show something terrible happening, and then place the onus on the audience to discuss what they see? If it were, then there’s no need to attempt any kind of storytelling, or concern yourself with how things may be perceived or considered. You could just show a rape and see where the feelings land.

I generally don’t see too much evidence for any kind of engagement from the filmmakers’ side about what it is they want to achieve from the film. Is it a porno? Absolutely not, since it’s in no way arousing, and it was clearly never the intention. Is it an effective thriller? Not really, because it quickly becomes kind of boring since the storytelling and characterisation goes all to hell from the minute the pair get together. Is it a good feminist text? I just don’t know about that. Certainly, it shows two women striking out on some sort of march of freedom that happens to include murder and theft, apparently taking power from a society that victimises them, but it’s hardly a positive one. Besides, it seems to be angry with everyone in general, occasionally glancing in the general direction of feminist principles as a sort of theoretical alibi.

… well, I sure seem to have talked myself in all manner of directions on this one. To a degree, I think that this is what most people would do when trying to engage with Baise-moi, though smarter people than I would do a much better job of things. After all of that, talking about it as much as you think you can as an intellectual property, there is still one last thing to consider, the thing that I said from the beginning couldn’t be entirely ignored from the process: the emotional reaction.

Honestly, when all is said and done, I still don’t like Baise-moi. For my money, as a film, the script is clunky and a complete stranger to logical storytelling, the direction regularly loses focus on what’s meant to be happening, and the acting is of a standard that mostly lands only on passable. I don’t think it’s brave, just a bit more willing to exploit things others would know better not to. I also get the feeling that I’ll end up putting much more effort into getting any meaning than the filmmakers did in conveying them. More than anything, though, I just get the feeling that this film doesn’t like me very much, and its reasons for that are pretty scattergun.

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