Director - Virginia Despentes, Coraline Trinh Ti
Cast - Raffaela Anderson, Karen Lancaume, Celine Beugnot
Country of Origin - France
Discs - 1
Distributor - Arrow Films
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 3/5
Nadine (Karen Lancaume) is a prostitute and Manu (Raffaela Anderson) is a part-time porn actress. Both women live in a small town in the south of France and have struck up a friendship borne of their mutual hatred of civilized society and the way women are expected to be dominated by men. Manu and a drug addict friend are kidnapped and gang raped one afternoon, but unlike her frightened compatriot Manu refuses to put up a struggle or exhibit a trace of fear. Sex and love have lost all emotional meaning to her. Manu is confronted about the rape by her brother and during a heated argument that gets too personal she shoots him in the head with his own gun. Meanwhile Nadine gets into a violent struggle with her roommate and ends up strangling the woman to death. She meets up with Manu and the two of them decide to take a road trip, during which they survive by robbing and killing random strangers, imbibing loads of alcohol and cocaine, and having intense sex with a variety of male partners. Their violent crime spree draws the attention of the police and media and earns them support from unlikely sources. But as their depraved activities escalate into home invasions and mass murder Nadine and Manu realize that the only future for them is either imprisonment or death. It's all just a matter of what claims them first.
Baise-Moi isn't a movie preceded by its reputation, it's smothered to death by it. When it first hit cinema screens around the world thirteen years it was greeted almost everywhere it opened with controversy and censorship. To this day it remains banned in Australia; owning a copy will net you up to ten years' imprisonment and a hefty fine. The film, which was based on a novel by co-writer/co-director Virginie Despentes, dealt with disturbing subject matter in a blunt and provocative manner, and though it was hardly the first movie of its kind to blend violence and hardcore pornographic sexual content Baise-Moi was hailed as one of the best to do so. It was written and directed by, and starred, women who were intimately familiar with the business of selling their bodies to earn a living. I have a strange attraction to seeking out transgressive works of cinema such as this and seeing for myself if they live up to the many years' worth of hype and controversy and the countless magazine articles and astute critical analyses that were written about them. Once I get my hands on a copy I then dread the inevitable moment when the curious side of my personality assumes complete control over the better angels of my nature and the movie goes into my VCR or DVD/Blu-ray player. It happened the first time I watched Cannibal Holocaust, Eraserhead, and I Spit On Your Grave. But there are times when you have to stop pussyfooting around and embrace the pure rush of excitement instead of mistaking it for fear and running away from the challenge. Now that I have watched Baise-Moi and had plenty of time to think about it I can say that I understand why it was such a beacon for controversy when it was first released, but at the same time I also have to wonder if all that hype was for nothing.
The movie tries, and fails, to be one of the better entries in the rape-revenge exploitation sub-genre - a group that includes movies like Ms. .45, Savage Streets. and the aforementioned I Spit On Your Grave - because the filmmakers were somehow fooled into believing that their movie could be better than its sordid but classic peers by being about something more than sex and violence. Combining brutal violence and XXX-rated sexual content is nothing new in cinema - Shaun Costello's early-70's grimy grindhouse gem Forced Entry comes to mind - but Baise-Moi's attempt to rise above the pack ends in spectacular defeat, because at the end of the day it is not a feminist treatise or an intellectual experiment. It is exploitation, pure and simple, and by denying itself the only true identity it would ever have the movie comes off looking even more like a piss-poor student film made by egomaniacal arthouse auteur wannabes. Baise-Moi wants to be something more, like Ridley Scott's classic 1991 feminine road movie Thelma & Louise but with more shots of pee-pees thrusting in and out of hoo-hahs with great speed and savage poetry. It is simply fooling itself.
The world the film takes place in is a horrible and unforgiving one. Violence happens around every street corner, women are pulled off the street in broad daylight and viciously gang raped and the police are powerless to do anything about it, and the only recourse of action in this case is not to get revenge on the responsible parties but to make others pay for those crimes in blood and misery. There are no moments of joy and love for our main characters to enjoy in between their rampage of moral degradation and hedonistic excess. We don't even really get a chance to know Nadine and Manu much before they hit the road with a vengeance; they end the movie the same way they began, as fatalistic sex industry workers with little in the way of the crucial empathy and humanistic qualities that would make spending an entire movie with them not feel like a road trip with angry, pretentious intellectual types.
There are no interesting or sympathetic characters in this movie, and few are granted even a shred of development. The people we encounter are merely targets for our supposed heroines to take advantage of and typically cut down violently in order to sake their sadistic blood thirst. We're supposed to see their odyssey the same way the film's creators do, as a howl of rage against a societal structure that is oppressive for women. If that's the case they wanted to make then maybe it wasn't such a good idea to make their lead characters a prostitute and a porn actress who care nothing for the problems other women face in the everyday world and everything for stealing and killing from anyone they choose. Some of the people whose lives they destroy along the way are women, making the movie's claim to be feminist desperate and questionable. Plus we are never given a window into the minds and souls of Nadine and Manu, so we are prevented from getting a sense of who these women are, or were, before this all began. The performances by real-life porn stars (Lancaume, who died in 2005) and Anderson achieve a naturalistic quality, but since their characters are so two-dimensional they can never do much acting-wise to rise above the lackluster material. Violence seekers will thrill to the many bloody death scenes, one particular highlight being some poor sucker in an underground sex club who gets his brains blown out via a gun shoved up his ass. But none of these scenes exist except to give us a gory thrill. Nothing in Baise-Moi makes any emotional impact outside of the gang rape in the first act. The movie is good for what it is, but to believe it can be anything but hollow exploitation cinema is to have delusions of grandeur that not even Michael Bay could have on his worst day.
Arrow presents Baise-Moi in a 16 x 9 enhanced 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, compressed from its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The digital video photography by Benoit Chamaillard looks extraordinarily grainy with too much of a reliance on natural lighting. Though this adds to its cinema verite documentary feel the picture quality isn't done any favors by the DVD upgrade. It's a fine transfer and at least it respects the directors' artistic intentions. Arrow even admits that Baise-Moi will likely never see a Blu-ray release due to the fact that it will never look any better than it does on DVD. The French 2.0 mono audio track is all over the place with dialogue that is pumped up so high it sounds distorted and an unbalanced soundtrack featuring high volumes on the rock and techno song selections and a jazzy original score by Varou Jan that often gets totally drowned out whenever the characters are conversing. Nothing spectacular but it does the job decently enough. English subtitles are also included.
"The Making of Baise-Moi" is a 40-minute documentary that explores the inception, production, and reception of the movie and controversy that greeted it upon its worldwide theatrical release. Interviews with the directors and stars that go into many topics of interest are intercut with candid behind-the-scenes footage, resulting in a fascinating doc fans of the movie will find absorbing and informative.
Directors Despentes and Thi also conduct a Q&A session following a screening of Baise-Moi, answering several pertinent questions about the movie and the filmmakers' philosophy regarding it. This feature runs eight minutes and makes a nice supplement to the longer documentary.
The bonus features wrap up with a theatrical trailer. Arrow has also included a booklet featuring essays about Baise-Moi by Despentes and writer Kier-la Janisse and a reversible cover sleeve featuring new artwork by Joe Wilson.
Baise-Moi takes an unflinching approach to its subject matter and has the courage of its convictions to take its story to a logical conclusion. But the lack of sympathetic characters and a crushing sense of nihilistic dread make this a difficult film to recommend as anything but a fascinating cinematic experiment to be viewed only once. At least Arrow Video has made a commendable effort with their DVD release by giving the movie the best possible picture and sound quality it will likely ever have along with some terrific bonus material. As I usually do when it comes to a film like this, I recommend Baise-Moi with strong reservations.