France’s constitution is built upon the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, but these seemed to have been forgotten when the Conseil d’Etat, the French state council, banned the violent and sexually explicit thriller Baise Moi (in English, "F*** Me") three days after its release. The action was prompted not by complaints from the public, who were happily handing over their money to see the bloodstained road movie, but from Promouvoir, an extreme right-wing organisation allegedly defending "Judaeo-Christian and family values".
Here, newspapers have been sharpening their knives in anticipation of Baise Moi’s arrival for some time. Outraged articles - mostly written by people who either have not seen the film or who have only seen part of it - have appeared in the press attacking its lurid mixture of stylised violence and hardcore sex, but making no attempt to address the context in which it places them. One journalist I met recently (who had watched the film) was so disgusted by the movie that he refused even to discuss it. Depressingly, the spirit of Mary Whitehouse appears to be alive and well.
Baise Moi is a brutal and deliberately provocative piece of work. Everything about it seems designed to ruffle feathers. It was co-directed by former punk Virginie Despentes, who adapted her own best-selling novel, and ex-porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi. It stars two other adult-film actresses, Raffaela Anderson and [the late] Karen Bach, and looks as grubby as a peep-show floor. Furthermore, it features possibly the most harrowing and realistic rape scene (trimmed slightly by the BBFC to remove a close-up of vaginal penetration) ever shot.
Baise Moi’s high quota of throbbing erections, penetration shots, blow jobs and bare flesh make it easy for its detractors to dismiss it simply as pornography. But the film-makers are actually far cleverer, and have far more serious intentions, than this suggests. For one, they use hardcore sexual imagery in a manner that refuses to fulfil the primary function of pornography.
For example, sex scenes in porn movies have to last a certain amount of time in order for the person watching to be completely satisfied. But this is not the case in Baise Moi, where form and context constantly work to change our (male) perception of and response to the content, by effectively turning the tables in favour of the female gaze. "The sex scenes aren’t done for the spectator; they’re done for the girls, the characters themselves," says Anderson. "If the person watching doesn’t come, that’s just too bad."
It was no accident that one reviewer found it "impossible to have a hard-on" when he watched the film in Cannes in May 2000. If he had not been concentrating so intently on what was (or rather was not) happening in his trousers, instead of complaining, he might have realised that this was the point. Ultimately, Baise Moi is not about sex as much as it is about power - and who has it.
Despentes wrote Baise Moi, the novel, when she was 23 and laid-up in bed, bored, with a debilitating skin complaint. In it, Manu, a sometime porn actress, and Nadine, a hooker, embark on a sex and murder spree after Manu is raped. Dark, brutal and troubled, the book reflected Despentes’s mood at the time.
"I was in a bad state," she recalls. "My clothes hurt my skin, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any money, bad things were happening to a lot of people around me, like prison and death, and I didn’t think I had a future. Also, I was a prostitute, not every day but occasionally."
Despentes believes she became a prostitute as a result of being raped when she was 17. "They are related," she says. "What you’re saying to yourself is: ‘It can happen again and again and I’m not dying.’ It’s not revenge but, in a very strange way, it’s you re-building yourself again."
Baise Moi encourages women who have been raped not to be a victim. "It’s good to realise that rape is really bad and it’s a crime, these are very important things, but you have to have something extra," asserts Despentes. "You have to say to women: ‘You didn’t want it, you didn’t deserve it, you didn’t look for it, so go ahead and be strong.’"
After Manu (Anderson) is raped in the film, she says that even though her body has been violated, there is an essential part of her being which remains untouched. For Anderson especially, this was an inspiring and, over time, empowering statement, because she had also been raped three years before filming Baise Moi. "For me the rape happened twice," she says, shaking. "There was the actual rape, and then because I was already making porn movies at the time, when I went to make a complaint before the court, they suggested I could only expect this kind of behaviour from men. So I also felt raped mentally."
Although playing Manu was difficult for Anderson, who needed to get drunk in order to shoot the rape scene, she says the film has changed her life for the better. "Before Baise Moi," she says, candidly, "I accepted humiliations. If I was with somebody I loved and they hit me, or something, I’d accept that like a little dog. But when I began to understand the movie, about a year and a half after making it, I found a way of learning to say no and refusing humiliation. Baise Moi has given me the power to say that I have a right to exist, that I’m a woman, and nobody has the right to harm me."
Baise Moi is a cathartic howl of rage from the margins. It is concerned not just with issues of sex and gender, but also poverty and race. In this regard, it follows on from other controversial French films, such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (Hate) and, more explicitly, Gasper Noe’s Seul Contre Tous (I Stand Alone), in which characters from the fringes of society express their frustration and anger through violence.
The opening scenes specifically locate Manu and Nadine within a working-class milieu where the opportunities for everyone, male or female, are limited. "There is no work in France," Manu tells her brother, who spends his days behind the bar in an empty, dingy tabac. Amèlie this isn’t. "They don’t have any work, they don’t have any money, they don’t have any real education or any real voice, so this isn’t just about gender - it’s more political than that," claims Despentes. "Here rape becomes a metaphor for what rich people do to poor people. I think they really understood this in France, but they didn’t want to hear about it."
Nor, it appears, did they want to talk about the North-African roots of the principal actresses (one is half-Moroccan, one half-Algerian). For Despentes, the newspapers’ silence on this issue spoke volumes. "We’ve still got a really big problem with Algeria and the Algerian War, and people don’t want to see North Africans with guns," she says. "We’re not supposed to talk about racism in France because it’s not supposed to exist, but it does. It’s just very hidden." This interview took place, by the way, before this week’s surprise election victory by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
"No-one in France ever said Manu and Nadine came from a poor suburb," continues Despentes. "All they saw was girls, violence and sex. Perhaps the thing they really found pornographic was that we showed something about poverty and being an outsider, and you’re not supposed to talk about these things either in France. They think if they don’t talk about something, it won’t exist."
Baise Moi could not be silenced, however. After the Conseil d’Etat revoked its visa d’exploitation, Catherine Breillat, who herself caused a stir with another sexually explicit film, Romance, a few years ago, got filmmakers - including Jean-Luc Godard, Miou-Miou and Claire Denis - to sign a petition supporting Despentes and Trinh Thi’s right of free expression. The state compromised by awarding the film an X certificate, confining it to porn cinemas. Then it quietly reinstated the long-abolished 18-certificate, and the film was re-classified and re-released last year.
Now we can make up our own minds about Baise Moi. While there will no doubt be those who simply regard it as exploitative smut, others will perhaps find its defiant, two-fingered punk spirit exhilarating, even cathartic. "I know that when I was 23," says Despentes, now in her thirties, "watching this kind of movie would have made me feel relieved. It sounds strange but it’s a feel-good movie, I think".
First published in The Scotsman, April 25, 2002