More Than Just Film
In the 2002 French Presidential elections, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National shocked the political world by becoming the first candidate from an extreme-right party to reach the second round of voting. As well as calling for a return to the traditional gender roles of the ‘nuclear family’, Le Pen struck a chord with the electorate by addressing the state of anxiety regarding the perceived threat of random violent crime by linking it to unemployment and immigration. In the second round run-off against Le Pen, the incumbent president Chirac won 82% vote, but despite this landside result, a political taboo had been broken.
Cinematic taboos were being broken two years earlier by rape-revenge narrative Baise-moi (2000) in which Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) and Nadine (Karen Lancaume) rail against an unjust social order by killing, maiming and fucking their way across Paris. Punctuated with graphic portrayals of sex and extreme violence, the film exploits the same fears regarding urban crime and changing gender roles, presenting a bleak portrait of French society at a time of social unease and political upheaval. Baise-moi positively seethes with anger and indignation and yet attempts by viewers to find a coherent message are likely to lead to frustration.
If we look for an ideological stance in how it represents its female protagonists, Baise-moi can be seen mixing incompatible viewpoints from opposing ends of the political spectrum. Manu is an unemployed second-generation North African immigrant and, in line with traditionally left-wing views, Baise-moi goes to great lengths to present her as a victim of France’s prejudiced attitudes to race, class and gender. In the film’s opening minutes, Manu is shown being physically and verbally assaulted by members of her community, a local gang of toughs who seemingly control her local neighbourhood, and by her domineering brother, all of whom demand she plays a submissive and subservient role.
When she briefly escapes this oppressive control by visiting a local park, she and a friend are abducted, driven to a warehouse and gang-raped, an act represented as brutal punishment for her attempt at independence. The attackers are white and affluent, and the gang rape can be seen as the physical embodiment of the daily aggression directed toward Manu by a wider society that has trapped her in the position of second-class citizen.
Feminist theorists have long viewed the act of rape as a means of social control, or as Robin Morgan termed it ‘political terrorism’. Manu’s refusal to act like a conventional rape victim during the attack (she is impassive almost to the point of indifference) effectively counters this process of social control. When her second attacker berates her for acting like a corpse, Manu sneers at his sexual prowess causing him to end his attack. It is as the gang withdraws that Manu catches a glimpse of the vulnerability and fragility of the patriarchal order.
Immediately after the rape, she confronts the local gang and then, following a fierce argument, kills her brother. Taking his gun and car, Manu meets up with Nadine (a lower middle-class prostitute of Anglo-Saxon descent) at first taking her hostage but quickly finding in her a willing accomplice. Their subsequent killing spree across Paris violently rejects male control and inverts its political terrorism. It is portrayed as a direct response to the segregation and oppression Manu and, to a lesser extent Nadine, have had to endure their whole lives, and works as a symbolic act of revenge against French society.
As the body count steadily rises, the media rewards Manu and Nadine with widespread notoriety and a celebrity status as France’s most wanted criminals, allowing their infamy to reach all of French society. As a counterpoint to the radical feminist theory that all men are potentially rapists, the killing spree succeeds in spreading the fear that all women are potentially a threat to the patriarchal order that has historically oppressed them.
As Manu and Nadine create new liberated identities for themselves, Baise-moi can be seen as a fantasy of female empowerment and revenge. Early in the killing spree, Manu shoots a drunken male character that approaches her with a degrading sexual proposition, and in doing so offers the audience a form of wish fulfilment and a sense of retribution against everyday sexism.
And yet notions that Baise-moi is a feminist text are problematized as it appears to enforce the extreme-right view that females who seek sexual pleasure beyond the traditional gender roles pose a threat to society. In addition to this, the new identities that the female protagonists create with their hard-earned freedom merely mimic the behaviour of their oppressors. Enforcing their control though physical violence and sexual dominance, they become surrogate violent men, or as one critic put it, female versions of Rambo.
Witnessing the abusive treatment of Manu by her society, her community and her family had invited us to share her sense of empowerment when she temporarily breaks free from this patriarchal control. Sustaining audience empathy becomes increasingly problematic as Manu and Nadine commit the final and most extreme acts of the killing spree which transforms them from modern day folk heroes into psychopathic killers who seemingly must be stopped. The point at which any remaining empathy is likely to become exhausted coincides with the massacre of a dozen patrons of bourgeois sex club. This is Baise-moi’s most concerted attack upon the liberal beliefs of its art house audience which effectively prevents further spectator satisfaction from the acts of revenge. By the film’s conclusion, Manu is presented as a toxic by-product of the elements of society directly linked by the Front National to immigration and unemployment, namely gang culture, random violence, drugs and poverty.
Due to these contradictions and seemingly shifting sympathies regarding its female protagonists, the film’s impact upon the viewer can be limited to an extension of Manu and Nadine’s killing spree – a gesture of provocation and antagonism devoid of any firm political grounding. And yet, by evoking both left- and right-wing arguments, Baise-moi can be seen making the radical move of ultimately discrediting both ideological perspectives. In doing so, it offers us a more complex and compromised portrait of a society fragmenting along fault lines of race, class and gender.