Admittedly, Virginie Despentes’s notorious hardcore adaptation of her novel, co-directed with former porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi, is implausibly plotted, has wooden dialogue and patchy acting, and looks like a drab TV movie. And yet, Baise-moi is a fascinating and important film. The raw explicitness of the title (‘Fuck me’) sets the tone for this tale of two disenfranchised women on the run. Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) is a porn actress who lives on a brutal rundown estate. Nadine (Karen Bach) is a hooker who spends her time watching porn and getting stoned. After Manu is attacked in a barely watchable, vicious rape scene, her brother calls her a slut, mistaking the harsh, disillusioned impassiveness with which she reacts for indifference. She flips and kills him. Elsewhere in town, Nadine similarly loses control. The two women meet when Manu puts a gun to Nadine’s head, a fitting start to their desperate friendship and an almost aimless journey through France littered with indiscriminate murder, sex and drugs.
With two ex-porn actresses as the leads and unsimulated sex scenes, Despentes and Trinh Thi aimed to make Baise-moi real and visceral. Shot on DV, with no additional lighting and a tiny budget, the film (just like the source novel) was inspired by French punk music (Seven Hate, Virago and X Syndicate feature on the soundtrack). These low-production values mean that, aside from a couple of red-tinged scenes, it looks dismally ugly – but if it had looked prettier, it may well have been a more objectionable film.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baise-moi indeed caused a huge controversy on its release in France and abroad (it is still banned in Australia), and even the filmmakers were not quite prepared for the level of aggression and hostility they provoked. After a complaint by right-wing religious group Promouvoir, Baise-moi was banned by the French government. This was replaced shortly after with an 18 certificate following a petition organised by another female agitator of French cinema, Catherine Breillat.
The film has been criticised for its perceived hatred of men and arbitrary violence, but Manu and Nadine’s first victim is a woman, and in the book they also kill a child, a scene the filmmakers chose not to include for practical and moral reasons (which they intelligently explain in the insightful documentary included in the extras). True, most of Manu and Nadine’s victims are men, and most of the murders are associated with sex, but the reaction to Baise-moi seems entirely disproportionate given the number of films in which men subject women to horrendous violence, sexual and otherwise.
As for the accusations of pornographic content, Baise-moi actually offers a rare multifaceted, if dark, representation of female sexuality. Interestingly conflicted and boldly candid, it is undeniably disturbing, starting with the violence and sexual exploitation that Manu and Nadine are routinely subjected to. Reversing the situation in their murderous road trip, they punish the lecherous desires of the men they encounter by humiliating and killing them. But they don’t simply use their sexuality for power, they also enjoy sex, in one scene taking two young men back to their hotel room. Debunking another stereotype about women and hinting at the complexities of female desire, Nadine also likes masturbating to porn. Although sex is important to both of them, it is part of a wider portrayal of their lives which also takes in the weight of social expectations, hypocrisy and prejudice, violence (both suffered and inflicted), disenchantment, disaffection, anger, laughter and friendship.
Baise-moi is excessive, unrealistic, unpolished, clumsy, trashy and ugly, but its violent fantasy of female power has an uncompromising rawness, gutsy courage and angry energy that command attention – even respect.