I’ll never fathom the strange workings that govern the process of decision-making that goes on at the BBFC these days. After being censored in the UK for the last thirteen years “Baise-Moi” has just been re-released in a rather nice widescreen DVD special edition from Arrow Video, which has prompted the BBFC suddenly to relent, completely reverse its previous decision, and to allow it to pass completely uncut -- with more erect porn star-sized cocks, close-up penetration shots and blow jobs performed to the accompaniment of rubbish French punk rock (even in the grotesquely violent double rape scene near the start) than anyone could ever need, as well as the infamous sequence with the pistol exploding some poor sod’s arse, which is now presented fully intact and in its entirety (the sequence not the arse) -- allowing us to see for the first time that it comes with a fade to red after the trigger is pulled … would it be too much to hope that this was a deliberate homage to Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”, then?
The truth is that since 2000 and the initial controversy which saw the movie banned in its makers’ native France, after which it became a cause célèbre for anti-censorship demonstrations in the country, there’s been a gradual chipping away by a succession of indie filmmakers at the notion that there could ever be a prescription that can be applied in all circumstances and be accepted by everyone, about what does and does not constitute pornography and what is and is not art. This process has succeeded in sweeping away the cosy categorisations the BBFC slavishly used to work with and which meant that an erection on-screen was automatically always classed as pornography; “Baise-Moi” was one of the first films instrumental in confronting the underlying certainties guiding this law of censorship in the portrayal of sex. A harsh, fucked up ‘feel-good’ movie about extremely fucked-up people, made largely by and for other fucked-up people, “Baise-Moi” (it translates as something akin to “Shag Me” rather than “Fuck Me” … and certainly not “Rape Me” as some territories chose to have it!) emerged not from a ‘respectable’ community of theatre and film school graduates, but from a former adult film director and several female pornographic performers (one of whom has since committed suicide) and was based on a bestselling French novel which was a fictionalised account incorporating incidents from writer and co-director (and hardcore punk fan) Virginie Despentes’ own diaries (presumably not the murderous rampages though).
In amove almost unheard of at the time, co-directors Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi shot the film cheaply on Digital Video using no artificial lighting. The resultant grungy, pixelated ‘punk’ aesthetic is these days almost ubiquitous, which is not necessarily a good thing; but it works here for conjuring the grim environment that defines the damaged personalities of the two antiheros of “Baise-Moi” and contextualises their brief and violent moment of emancipation from all moral norms through their warped but bizarrely touching female friendship. At the time it was produced it looked like few other films out there. The cheap-looking ill-lit murkiness that’s inherent to its production methods means that there is not enough resolution in the original image to make it ever worthwhile releasing it on Blu-ray, which is why the Arrow Video special edition is a DVD platter only, although it has been presented in the preferred 1.66:1 widescreen ratio, rather than the full-screen aspect ratio the previous censored DVD came in. The ironic thing is of course that nowadays just about every half-arsed, thrown together indie horror piece of drek looks exactly like this! The behind-the-scenes images that are presented with the excellent forty-minute extras documentary also on the disc, though, show us that a small but professional crew was involved in creating the movie rather than a couple of kids with a camcorder, which is the production method guiding most of the imitation homemade indie horror we’ve become used to since.
Indeed, “Baise-Moi” feels like it should be considered a horror film, too: part-time prostitute and porn addict Nadine (the late Karen Lancaume) and waifish amateur porn star Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) live separately hollow, grim lives in the poverty-stricken, immigrant-filled provinces of a Southern French city, where they are routinely used to being beaten, controlled or manipulated by a sorry collection of pimps, addicts and brutish gangsters who pursue their violent feuds in these districts. For Manu, being anally raped in an underground car park is a minor ordeal in an existence otherwise pock-marked by everyday violence and defined by her brother clouting her for no reason whenever he feels like it and calling her a slut for not resisting enough when he discovers she’s been raped. Both girls crack at near enough the same time on the same day, Nadine strangling her nagging female flatmate who won’t let her see her junkie boyfriend in the apartment, and Manu shooting her brother through the head when he pushes her too far with his abuse. They meet by accident while waiting for a train to Paris and set out on a road trip across France, killing random people along the way for kicks and becoming underground celebrities among fringe culture outsiders and feared ogres with everyone else.
Many initially tried to categories this film as being an indie cross between “Thelma & Louise” and “Natural Born Killers” but Despentes and Trinh Thi have come up with a much more radical, disturbing and challenging construction than the easily digestible formula of the classic female road movie revenge thriller; it’s more a punk rock take on the Nouvelle vague with existential languor behind its dead-eyed porn star glazed gaze. Nadine and Manu are products of their ruthless subculture and are no more sympathetic than the men who brutalise them, but through the glorification of a series of immoral acts they find a love for each other neither has ever been able to experience elsewhere before. There's no glory in the acts themselves, though: the first person they murder is a blameless woman standing at an ATM, and they immediately bond over it by giggling about and re-living the experience; in the original novel they also kill a baby – a scene cut from the film’s screenplay only because there was no ethical way to realise it realistically.
I’ll never fathom the strange workings that govern the process of decision-making that goes on at the BBFC these days. After being censored in the UK for the last thirteen years “Baise-Moi” has just been re-released in a rather nice widescThese are not meant to be misunderstood ‘nice girls’ who can be assimilated by the rest of society: they are convinced outsiders and they don’t even appear to particularly blame or hate all men for what they have become; they’re quite happy to indulge in an easy shag without necessarily feeling the need to murder every male they happen upon straight afterwards. One of the men they do murder though (and mutilate by stomping on his face in high heels) gets it merely because he insists on wearing a condom during sex -- hardly a misogynist hate crime; another is shot to death because he tries to understand and sympathise with them (admittedly somewhat condescendingly) even as he’s being robbed (‘Not so sure of yourself now, are you!’). The usual revenge thriller format doesn’t apply here, then (‘we’ve no excuses,’ admits Manu when they meet an ‘admirer’ willing to harbour them at one point). Neither does the glorification of the getting-your-own-back style of violence that’s innate to the revenge sub-genre: the girls are frequently caught striking thrilling ‘iconic’ gangsta poses (Nadine aiming her Berretta in a mirror while dressed in sexy underwear, etc.) and murder scens and un-simulated sex scenes alike come with a blaring soundtrack of scrappy garage punk which serves the purpose of documenting the adrenaline rush they experience during their misadventures. But that exhilaration is always short-lived: at one point the girls are bemused by their inability to come up with snappy dialogue during their kills: ‘We’re useless. Where are the witty lines?’ bemoans Manu. ‘We’ve got the moves,’ recognises Nadine. ‘That’s something.’ ‘No … people are dying; the dialogue has to be up to it!’
As they continue their dissolute spree across the country Nadine ponders the headlines, and their picture splashed all across the nation’s newspapers, from the drab stillness of a shabby hotel room: ‘Isn’t it odd how nothing is happening?’ The girls use the temporary thrill of random violence and cheap, largely unfulfilling sex acts to cement their solidarity and friendship, and the film’s unique slant becomes its ability to show that relationship develop between the cracks of a shitty world otherwise utterly mired in degradation, exploitation and squalor. They are capable of forging this love only through repetitions of the same class of violent act which formed them, eventually combining the animalistic sex and random murder into a symbolic anal rape with a pistol up the anus of a patron at a swingers’ club, after having already massacred its male clientele and its all-age female sex workers utterly indiscriminately … yet when it all comes to an abrupt, unheralded end (this film is not the least interested in perpetrating any conventional idea of narrative progression or suspenseful build up) , I at least, felt genuinely felt sorry for the both of them, even though they are ultimately as grotesque as the world they emerged from.
“Baise-Moi” is a genuinely ground-breaking piece of shock cinema, a grimly fascinating yet disturbingly moving plunge into some distasteful corrupted waters. It’s not shocking because it’s got lots of graphic un-simulated sex or rather poorly executed acts of violence with rudimentary special effects in it (it has loads of both, of course). It’s shocking because it somehow manages to elucidate a simple, unadorned and frequently unpleasant vision of contemporary womanhood that feels authentic but which just happens to emerge from a marginalised quarter of society populated by sex workers, drug addicts and amoral gangsters, while still making them seem like real people, even though what they do can never be acceptable to the world at large. The only negative poin which comes of the way it was made is that most of the males seen performing sex for real with their female co-stars in the film, whether it be in rape scenes or depictions of consensual sex acts, seem necessarily to be drawn from a pool of ‘stunt cock’ porn performers, meaning that they all have unrealistically humongous dicks. It’s the only thing about the movie which plays into the hands (pardon me) of those who would dismiss it as nothing but disguised porn posing as arthouse cinema.
The Arrow Video DVD looks as good as the digital video origins of the project could ever allow it to look. It comes with a terrible Americanised trailer that attempts to make it look like a female buddy movie and a brief but quite enlightening Q & A session with the directors and some female critics in London. The forty minute making of documentary is superb and comes with behind-the-scenes footage and an impassioned interview with both stars and the two co-directors. The DVD comes with a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Joe Wilson; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by authors Kier-la Janisse and Virginie Despentes.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!