In everything I say about Baise-Moi from here on out, much of it negative, some of it blasé, a dash of it intrigued, it’s important to distinguish between the art of an individual film and what it represents in a broader context. It’s also necessary to state that my interaction with any film is singular, and what I derive from it is solely my own reading based upon I interpret its statements as its own entity, and the cultural and artistic cache it carries within broader filmmaking trends.
I think the fact that I wouldn’t pre-empt a film like say, I Spit on Your Grave with such a forward statement means there’s at least something within the caustic inner workings of Baise-Moi that raise it above a certain subset of unpleasant grindhouse vacuity. As the title might suggest, it’s a confrontational film, one that’s aggressive, nihilistic, uncompromising, with a virile cocktail pornographically explicit sex and violence. The film has a genuine DIY punk aesthetic, shot without any regard for lighting on low grade digital video, leaving many of the films dim scenes swarming in harsh, buzzing noise. Audio seems abstracted from the characters, dialogue, gunshots and music all mixed to a similar peak intensity. There’s undoubtedly a passion, a desire to communicate superseding the expertise and tools necessary to fully talk. Through its most favourable lens, an apt description might be if Russ Myers went a little Dogme95 and a lot hardcore.
And it is hardcore, infamously greeting many countries not only with their first erect penis on film, but full penetration. As if that wasn’t taboo busting enough, these two innovative features appear in an early rape scene. The actual violence is relatively uninspired, save for one creatively phallic use of a gun barrel, but it’s the melding of explicit sex and violence which has earned Baise-Moi its reputation, one which is carried to this day. There is intent to this approach, no doubt, though how much is genuinely transgressive and how much is shock for the sake of shock is difficult to discern.
Much of this murkiness comes from Baise-Moi low budget approach. Whilst it’s certainly striking, maybe even admirable, it can’t escape a certain amateurishness. This goes beyond its aesthetic presentation and into issues of direction and structure, with the film occasionally stopping to luxuriate in hardcore yet placidly uninvolving sex scenes, overlaid with unimaginative punk rock. The vast majority of these scenes feel isolated, splices of cheap pornography that seem tonally counterintuitive to the rest of the message. The two leads are bizarrely understated, in a way that speaks to their inner hollowness but almost accidentally. The bit performers are uniformly terrible. Thankfully, most manage very few lines before being killed.
The script, co-written by directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Tri and adapted from Despentes novel, is rudderless, eventually relying on a repetitive rhythm of escalating brutal set-pieces, finishing abruptly in a quick and dirty denouement. At a touch over seventy minutes, it’s expedient in its button pushing, though any real clarity is sacrificed. By itself, Baise-Moi would be a slightly confused novelty, a modern video nasty mostly known for its censor-baiting rapsheet. At least, that’s a very superficial reading. Maybe it’s the easy one.
Baise-Moi could be considered ground zero for the French New Extremity, a transgressive movement of films recognised for their transgressive content. What separates French New Extremity from most loosely assembled exploitation films is a through line which focuses on a sense of genre appreciation, and themes that seem to spin on an inherently contradictory axis. That is, stories that both portray extreme material whilst embodying conflicting values. While the content of the films broached beyond much of the extreme cinema which came before it, French New Extremity places an emphasis on anti-Hollywood filmmaking, developing a more aggressively conscious and underground approach in the sex, violence and combination of the two. In many ways, films of the New French Extremity often cycle around to become films about extreme cinema, whether that’s through the restructuring of violent events in Gasper Noe’s Irreversible to achieve a lucid, ambient approach to the unpleasant material, or through the numbing antithesis to erotic thrillers in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day.
Baise-Moi distinguishes itself from the early films in this movement in several key ways, all of which coalesced to present it as something of a posterchild. Indeed, the image of Karen Lancaume wielding a pistol in lingerie has become something of an iconic symbol, alongside the stalking tilted angle of Monica Bellucci wandering down a dimly lit Parisian underpass. Crucially, it disavowed the more conventionally dramatic arthouse ponderings of its fellow films, eschewing the pretentions of the insipid and obvious Fat Girl and the heavyset character crafting of Noe’s I Stand Alone. Baise-Moi’s conscious artlessness, it’s dallying of hardcore porn and softcore violence, has a way of coming back around to be its defining aesthetic. Its sheer lack of desire to express profundities or be conventionally cinematic is at times fascinating, occasionally even invigorating.
Baise-Moi did, however, set the tone for French New Extremity films to come. Moving away from the movement’s origin in more overtly arthouse fair, it firmly roots itself within genre cinema. There are easy comparisons to Thelma & Louise, feminist overtones and all, but the splattered attack of Baise-Moi reads differently. It’s impossible to ignore the film’s feminist messaging, but it’s knotted differently, more angry, propulsive and radical than the tepid empowerment peddled by Hollywood, where female sexual agency exists either for pure pleasure or pure violence, with little in-between.
In Baise-Moi, the entanglement of sex and violence is both a fantasy and an indictment. The whole time, recalling the gang rape near the start of the film, the true intentions start to seep out. The disconnected empowerment fantasy exists as a response to its own sexual violence, the extreme luridness a challenge to the normality of filmmaking and societal attitudes towards rape as a whole. It’s a trap, a gambit, set to lure obvious, male gaze critiques which cry and squawk over the pettiness of this female hysteria, as if they should just learn to accept the male cruelty in their lives. The notion that the violence inflicted upon them is somehow acceptable, in contrast to their murder spree. This is what separates Baise-Moi from a film like I Spit on Your Grave. I Spit on Your Grave gives easy revenge. Baise-Moi doesn’t. Its rapists go unpunished, and so revenge is attempted upon society. Only it leads nowhere, with one woman dead and another arrested before she can commit suicide. Even in attempting to end her life, she has no real control over her body.
It’s this postmodern self-critique of both form and content that defines Baise-Moi within French New Extremity, and extreme cinema as a whole. It is a deeply unlikable film, devoid of polish or a desire to placate. It uses the tools of exploitation cinema to push further, and in the process removing the eroticism and overall appeal. The sex is impressively unarousing, the violence spectacularly unexciting, and there’s a sly sense it’s all purposeful. And, despite the degradation on screen, it must be said that Baise-Moi admirably earns its feminist stripes. While that may be even more of a turn-off for some, I can only see it as a good thing.
In some ways, I don’t get Baise-Moi. For a long time, I’ve thought about why. I blamed the muddled direction, the garbled script, the unflattering cinematography. As I’ve grown older, and grown up, perhaps there’s another reason, and it’s a tough one to chew on and fully validate. Perhaps the film’s sheer radicalism and expression of its feminist ideas, expressed with spitting acidity, simply didn’t make sense when I was younger. It was just another rape scene, just another sex scene, just another violent montage. Taken to new heights of explicitness, yes, but perhaps disturbingly familiar. Now, when placed in context, they seem to be pushed with an intent I still struggle to grapple with.
Which is actually quite liberating. There’s a certain dulling of the senses with extreme cinema. Watch enough depravity and it gets more difficult to immediately shock, immediately disturb. But now, there’s a different kind of engagement, and a more satisfying one, which is engaging with extreme cinema with a broader understanding of its landscape and how it collides with yours. I’m still unconvinced by Baise-Moi as a film. I’m also unconvinced my readings is within the realms of plausibility. However, that Baise-Moi provokes more than a shrug, that there might be some sort of searing insight underneath it all, is rewarding. In a fucked up sort of way.