Feminist screed or fetish-screwfest? Flip a coin
Female revenge films aren’t exactly an unknown quantity, especially in the exploitation circuit. Pam Grier was one of the genre’s superstars in the early 1970s; in films like Coffy and Foxy Brown, she coolly dispatched any number of corrupt pimps, politicians, and pushers. Hong Kong had its share of tough women then too, most notably Angela Mao Ying, who kicked, punched, and slammed her way through an army of men in movies like Deadly China Doll and Deep Thrust. Trashier examples appeared throughout the ’70s as gender politics got more heated. The 1978 I Spit on Your Grave is considered the apex (or nadir, depending on your view) of the genre. In that film, the victim of a gang rape methodically murders her attackers (“This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition… but no jury in America would ever convict her!”) The erratic Abel Ferrara also tossed his two cents worth in with Ms. 45 (1981), where the titular heroine includes male dogs in her victims.
The fantasy of women who turn on that wacky institution the patriarchy is an enduring one, but inevitably later examples have mostly been coopted a la Thelma and Louise, which drained much of the power of the image of women out of control with its glamorous stars, plush production, and cop-out ending. Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi returns some trashy integrity to the genre with Baise-Moi, a hardcore French art film that was banned in, of all places, France. Whether it’s got more trash than integrity is up to the viewer.
Baise-Moi‘s street credentials are impeccable. Codirector Coralie Trinh Thi is a former porn star, as are the two leading actresses. The film has the look and feel of Denmark’s Dogme school; it’s shot in video rather than film; employs natural light; and uses “normal people” instead of high-falutin’ stars. Most daring, it includes many scenes of penetrative, close-up sex, with a particularly brutal rape scene that has brought the wrath of censors around the world. Canada, always free with the scissors, has simply lumped it in with the porn, refusing to let it be shown in Ontario in mainstream theaters despite an enthusiastic reception at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival and testimonials by such luminaries as Atom Egoyan. That it’s getting a release in America at all is more than a little surprising.
Based on codirector Despentes’ novel of the same title, the film follows the adventures of Manu (Raffaela Anderson) and Nadine (Karen Bach), two bored, beleaguered, sexually aggressive young women. Manu is an underage porn star; Nadine is a prostitute. “There’s no work in France,” one of them says, and we can believe it as we watch aimless youth and the not-so-young wandering the streets, setting up cheap dope deals, smacking each other around, loitering in pool halls, and generally running (make that slouching) amok. This is not exactly Paris in the Spring.
Nadine’s curse is an anal roommate who bitches constantly about Nadine pilfering her beer. Manu is involved with a noxious pack of slackerboys who abuse her regularly. Nadine eventually gets tired of her roommate’s complaint and slams her head into a wall in a bloody murder. Manu watches her alleged friends kill her best friend on the street; then she’s raped. Serendipitously, the two join forces to fuck their way through the byways of France, in the process killing a slew of men and the occasional woman who foolishly crosses their path.
Nadine and Manu kill the way they fuck, with a mix of the methodical and the passionate. Some of the killings fit the feminist schema, for example, when Manu blows the brains out of one of her tormentors. Others are gratuitous, as when she robs and then kills a woman at an ATM machine. Most troubling, at first glance, is a John Woo-style balletic assault on a sex club, with innocent revelers dispatched mid-fuck. This scene, along with the ATM murder, would seem to undermine the film’s feminist/liberationist stance. But there’s ultimately more nihilism than party-hearty here, with the nonstop killings laid squarely at the doorstep of a society that’s dehumanized its citizens.
While some critics (and certainly the censors) have objected to the rape scene as “gratuitous,” it’s hard to fault the film’s insistence on showing the gruesome details of this event to capture its ugly reality. Codirector Despentes has commented, “We had to go to a place that everyone tries to avoid. We had to be so in your face, that we will end up in your mind with images that you just can’t ignore.” This is not to say it’s all grim, grainy reality. Some of the encounters are warm, almost sweet, particularly when our heroines, who seem most alive during sex, pick up two hunks that they don’t kill. (Size queens will be happy to know that, at least in the world of Baise-Moi, every man in France is well hung, a fact perhaps traceable to the filmmaker’s porn background). The film provides another respite in a scene in which the women, clad in fetishy black bras and nylons, dance together in a hotel room. There’s a joyousness and abandon here that hints at another, more pleasurable world, always close but never quite here, beyond the brutality. The actresses’ ease with their sexuality may be partly responsible for making such scenes, which could easily degenerate into foolishness, work.
Some of Baise-Moi‘s scenes are overlong and lack dramatic punch, a criticism that can also, of course, be leveled at life, as Dogme-ites and their followers would no doubt remind us. And the film plays a risky game with the audience in alternating hardcore sex scenes with violence. It’s hard not to feel voyeuristic, even complicit in what transpires onscreen. But this is undoubtedly the directors’ intent, and the film’s ability to foster this sense of complicity in the viewer makes it a disturbing but worthwhile ride.