The greatest joy derived from watching Coralie Trinh Thi and Virginie Despentes electrifying movie debut Baise-moi (2001) is the rare and thrilling sensation of cinema being invaded. Baise-moi is a film unlike anything else around at the moment. This swaggeringly punkish, defiantly amoral tale of sex and mass murder is the creation of four women – the two directors and the stars, Raffaëla Anderson and Karen Bach – who have all had experience in the sex industry, Despentes (upon whose novel the film is based) in prostitution and the others as hardcore porn actresses. For once, it is not an outsider using such people to express their ideas, but rather those with first hand knowledge of this subculture; and it is their vision that has influenced the film in ways unique to cinematic representation.
In terms of storyline, there is nothing new here – in one form or another, the killing spree road movie dates back to when Warner Bros. gangsters jumped in cars and escaped the hitherto dominant environment of the Big City. What is fresh and exciting about Baise-moi is the haunting, understated sense of knowingness with which the heroines embark on their adventure, a calm self-knowledge and knowledge of the rottenness of their world. The matter of factness with which they accept and transcend the ethical consequences of their crimes is the same matter of factness which allowed them to survive the appallingly depressing lives they are seen leading at the beginning of the film, most vividly depicted in the rape of Anderson’s character. During the assault she remains so indifferent and unresponsive that the attacker is at last put off. The transformation of this unshakable passive resistance – perhaps even more passive in Bach’s character who spends her time lying around watching pornography and cadging drink and drugs from her flat-mate – into homicidal, impersonal rebelliousness is not viewed moralistically by the filmmakers, as an event that could have been averted given better social circumstances. Rather, the film and its characters are suffused with an unshakable, unsettlingly serene nihilism. Not since Godard’s À bout de souffle (1959), a film Baise-moi resembles in tone perhaps more than any other, have audiences been presented with such a balance of detached cool and murder in characters that remain sympathetic without the director(s) making excuses for their actions.
The biggest difference is that in place of all Godard’s words, Baise-moi remains, for all its fury, chillingly quiet. Each act of sex and/or violence plays against a subtle though constantly palpable sense of a blankly indifferent world immersed in heavy, heavy time. The violence occurs, with precision and style (often achieved through stylised editing that elides the actual moment of death and momentarily splits reality open), and then it vanishes until next time. The quiet moments – in the car escaping after Anderson’s first murder, on the beach, at the end after Anderson’s death – have an atmospherically direct relationship with the physical world which colours everything else that happens. The low budget look of the film, shot in predominantly natural light, captures the mood of its unglamorous locations with a rare evocative clarity of the sort best explored by Rohmer and seemingly available only to films produced with little money on a scale more traditionally associated with documentary filmmaking.
The scene that exemplifies this relationship between the still reality of the world and the escapism of violence is when the heroines invade a man’s home and murder him. After the murder, the camera moves from his corpse to a window, through which the heroines can be seen sitting on some garden furniture, chatting. Somehow, the impression of ordinariness of the image of the garden conversation is far stronger than that of the presence of the corpse. The corpse is dead meat, it has ceased to matter. What matters is the calmness of that plain, rather ugly little garden at that time of day. It is as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
If for these poor, socially disenfranchised characters violence (or at least the particular, almost ritualised form of violence they practice as opposed to the casual slaps, beatings and rapes that define the world of their men early on in the film) is a rejection of victimhood and an escape from a world of boredom and brutality, what are they escaping to? They are, in a way, escaping to cinema; their will to violence is also a will to make of their lives a certain genre of movie. With, so to speak, the Dardenne Brothers hiding around every corner waiting to kidnap the heroines and force them into a socially conscious study of poverty, ethnic minorities, etc, their bid for self-liberation is as much an aesthetic choice as anything else. This is made evident in scenes such as Bach’s solitary ‘war dance’ in the bathroom in which, clad only in her underwear, she poses with her gun and aims it at passersby in the street below, and in the extraordinary dialogue exchange that follows another bout of carnage in which the heroines try and then fail to come up with some smart lines to go with their murders. It occurs to them to script these lines in advance but they decide not to, denouncing such a practice as unethical. This scene is far more than mere post-Tarantino glibness; the heroines appear to be not only characters in the film, but directors pausing between ‘takes’ (i.e. murders) to consider how best to play the scene, to work out an aesthetics of mayhem. The ‘war dance’ scene is more like a rehearsal, as if Bach were getting into character, defining an image for herself.
The difference from Tarantino lies in the realism of the world they occupy. It is not a stylised, postmodern genre playground. Rather, it is a landscape Bach and Anderson must be at odds with and fight against in order to preserve their self-created identities as genre characters. If Baise-moi was made on a larger budget with glossy techniques and an artificial look, it simply would not work. In fact it would appear hideously gratuitous and self-indulgent. As it is, these two killers move in the apparently effortlessly poetic tradition of Feuillade, the thrill of Irma Vep suddenly appearing on a perfectly ordinary rooftop translated into the new millenium. Of course, other directors, notably Rivette, have consciously drawn on this legacy and several female characters in his films – the heroines of Celine and Julie go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau, 1974) and Pont du nord (1981), Juliet Berto in Out 1 (1971) – have embraced larger than life personae that enact similarly elaborate, self-generated ‘fictions’ in the atmospherically contrasting visual context of the everyday. But the endless, often disturbing complexities of Rivette, with his incessant testing of reality with fantasy and madness, is in many ways the opposite of Baise-moi, a film without neurosis. The heroines of Baise-moi are in complete control of the world they create (even if it does ultimately destroy them), while Rivette’s characters are the victims of theirs. Where Rivette is cerebral, Baise-moi is completely physical. What the two women, and therefore the entire film, become exists only through gestures of violence and sex. The only alternative Baise-moi offers is the unendurable weight of stillness.
When the heroines arrive at a seaside hotel they complain that they feel nothing is happening, then question this impression, finding it weird considering the mayhem they are creating. But, as in the post-murder garden chat, when the moment of sex or death is gone, it is cold ancient history. Although Anderson and Bach presume that they are wanted by the police, they appear indifferent and at no point does Baise-moi have the feeling of being a man-hunt drama. Until Bach’s capture, the only contact they have with the law is in killing a policeman who tries to apprehend them. The audience remains as uninformed about police progress on their case as they are. Fame and media-notoriety that play such an important part in films like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) and especially Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) is not a factor here. In their quest for pure sensation, presumably the media exists in a reality at too many removes from their immediate actions – or maybe they’re just too cool to care.
The characters of the heroines, both perfectly incarnated by the lead actresses, form an interesting contrast with each other. Raffaëla Anderson is small, feisty and furious, a kinetic intensity animating her every gesture. Karen Bach is tall, beautiful and relaxed, displaying an unusual and intriguing passiveness, a sort of quietly amused ironic distance from whatever’s happening. She is certainly the most original of the two characters. At the start of the film they both appear to be in abusive relationships, Anderson with her brother and Bach with a junkie friend at whose beck and call she has placed herself. Anderson shoots her brother in anger, sickened by his reaction to learning of her rape, his desire for revenge so strong that he doesn’t even ask how she feels. Bach’s friend is murdered in the street. The two meet on the night that this happens and bond almost immediately. (The scene of their meeting is particularly strong – fleeing her friend’s murder, Bach walks through a subway, her ears plugged into a walkman, the beat of her music loud on the soundtrack, perhaps indicating her need to submerge feeling in pure sensation, as provided by the beat of the music. The camera tracks her to the exit where she passes Anderson who grabs her. She removes her headphones and it is only then that the audience realises the source of the music.) This synchronicity is presumably a factor in their relationship, but they never discuss the past, at least not on screen. Nothing they do is theorised or explained by them, still less justified, and this is the chief reason why Baise-moi is such a disturbing and intelligent film.
Is their embracing violence a revenge for the violence they have suffered from men? It is not that simple. For a start, why did two such strong women stay in such degrading situations for so long? And they don’t only kill men, they kill women also. Their first victim is a seemingly middle-class woman whom they murder for money. Perhaps this is symbolic – first their men are killed, then a woman whose image represents conventional womanhood. Also, the woman is Bach’s victim, the more submissive of the two in her relationship with the junkie and the one who has still not shed blood. Having cut loose from their men, they do not struggle to create something better. Rather they choose to drown themselves in the always-interconnected patterns of sex and violence they have abhorred in men but enjoy with a more conscious intensity than their mindless males ever displayed. This is a very different situation from a gooey piece of sentimentally manipulative garbage like Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1990). Here, no one is innocent, least of all the heroines. In taking on board these destructive traits, the heroines also bring about their own destruction – and maybe male violence does ultimately have the last word, bringing down the women when they practice it in a way that it couldn’t when it was inflicted by the men. But perhaps such an analysis is too moralistic to remain appropriate to the tone of Baise-moi – these women are fleeing from everything beyond immediate sensation, the only thing left in their morally redundant world apart from their friendship that provides any joy, and the film is disconcertingly true to this vision. They are even fleeing thought – as one of them points out in a wonderfully terse line which probably constitutes the nearest thing to a fully worked out philosophy they articulate: if you fuck more, you sleep more, and you think less. If their men treat the heroines as objects rather than humans, then that is also the way they treat themselves, but the killing/fucking machines they deliberately become are their objects, their creations, their objectified image of themselves, just as the ‘genre’ narrative they set in motion in contrast to the ‘documentary’ looking background is also their own creation.
The film’s climax, a massacre in a sex club, contains its most gruesomely memorable image, one that would seem to be the ultimate revenge for sexual misuse and objectification: the club’s owner is forced to drop his pants and simulate sex on the floor while one of the heroines anally penetrates him with her gun and fires. But it must be remembered that in the preceding mass murder, the heroines killed everyone in the club, both men and women. And it is this hellish scene of indiscriminate destruction pouring down on these copulating bodies that best encapsulates Baise-moi‘s bleak vision, an almost apocalyptic view of heterosexuality, a loveless, predatory sexuality that has everything to do with the sex-industry perception and marketing of body as object for exploitation and sometimes abuse. Baise-moi succeeds in both embracing and confronting this image, its impeccable cool and undeniable visceral intensity avoiding any overt moralising. Instead it allows the audience to take responsibility for its own reaction to this at once horrifyingly pessimistic and exhilaratingly seductive exploration of the privileges and limitations of the most extreme forms of freedom. . In this era when violence is marketed as pure voyeuristic spectacle, Baise-moi is one of the few films with the conviction and authority to prove that Mizoguchi’s idea that cruelty in cinema constitutes moral spectators still retains some relevance. (1)
About two years ago I had a conversation with a friend that has haunted me ever since. The subject was the future of the cinema. One of the comments he made was that what is needed is a cinematic equivalent to rap music. I mentioned such films as Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) and La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) which appeared to be formally influenced by rap, but this wasn’t what he meant. He wasn’t talking about rap movies, but films that are the equivalent of what rap is in music. Ever since, I have frequently pondered the question of what formal or narrative elements might constitute a ‘rap cinema’ and kept my eyes open for possible candidates for such a category. So far three films have suggested themselves, two of them being the visionary masterpieces of Harmony Korine and the third, Baise-moi. Its violence, energy, smartness and unapolegetic confrontationalism in celebrating, rather than preaching about, some dark truths of our times which certain elements of society might be happier sweeping under the carpet sets it apart – love it or hate it, Baise-moi is new blood in every sense of the word.