It used to be the case that any film that was by, for and about women was marked with the values and virtues of good old-fashioned feminism. Baise-moi, the latest French movie scandal to cross the Channel, is neither good (in the sense of virtuous), nor old-fashioned. Whether it is feminist depends on how liberally you define the term. A heady mix of explicit sex and exploitation violence, the film is a porno road-movie featuring an explosive cocktail of girls gone bad and the well-hung studs they use and abuse on the way. It's a kind of Euro-Thelma and Louise, with more guns and fewer clothes. Clearly, it is by women: co-directed by first-timers Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, from a screenplay adapted from Despentes' bestselling 1995 novel. And it is certainly about them: a female buddy movie, starring real-life porn performers Karen Bach and Raffaëla Anderson. For my money, it is also for women: for all the weapons and wantonness, this is nothing so much as a latter-day woman's film.
Like Thelma and Louise, Baise-moi also turns on a rape (the title has variously been translated as "Fuck me" and "Kiss me", though Despentes prefers the oxymoron "Rape me", after the Kurt Cobain song). While in Ridley Scott's film, Louise saves Thelma before she is fully violated, Baise-moi goes – as it were – all the way. Before pairing up with the hooker Nadine, porn actress Manu and a friend are gang-raped in an appropriately nasty early scene that shows us in unflinching close-up the palpable horror of forced penetrative sex.
Or rather, it would have shown us this if only the British Board of Film Classification hadn't decided that the close-up penetration shot, which features during the attack, was inappropriate. A 10-second cut was duly made before Baise-moi could be released in UK cinemas with an 18 certificate.
The cut was justified in a curiously fulsome press release from the BBFC last year. Without the contentious penetration shot, they wrote, "the sequence remains a compelling portrayal of the ugliness and horror of rape. With it, the scene takes on a more explicitly pornographic dimension and is a matter of serious concern". Virginie Despentes compares this to the French response. "People in France see X-rated sex on TV every night," she told me. "Most under-18s have already seen porn, so why shouldn't they see Baise-moi?"
Despentes believes that the BBFC has got its values in a twist regarding the rape scene: "In France, I think the only bit they wouldn't have cut would have been the rape. They would have thought, 'Well, they are showing something that is so bad, so they should be allowed to show it'. But in England it is the opposite."
For the BBFC's part, some representations have no place in mainstream cinema. "The graphic presentation of violent non-consensual sex is unlikely to be acceptable to the British public at any level" it said of Baise-moi. But given that "violent non-consensual sex" is an unwelcome fact of life, how should a film-maker go about representing it? Why is this explicit detail at the heart of Manu's story just too taboo to be told? Despentes agrees that Baise-moi's rape scene is shocking, but insists that it should be: "The close-up that has been cut was very strong, because this is what happens in rape. Were they frightened that it made rape exciting? I thought it was a very sick scene and it couldn't turn anyone on."
Despentes has herself been raped, and sees the film as a form of release: "I think some girls would feel relieved watching this movie, a reaction I understand. It's a catharsis – you have lots of frustrations and then during one hour and 20 minutes you get rid of them. It's not real but it just feels good. I was raped when I was 17 and I would have enjoyed seeing this movie afterwards. It would have made me feel less lonely."
Filmic rape stories are as old as cinema. Baise-moi is only the latest in a long line of rape revenge movies in which victims avenge their violation. Perhaps its most notorious precedent is Meir Zarchi's 1978 I Spit on Your Grave, a "video nasty" released in 1982 on video in the UK before being withdrawn in the wake of the Video Recordings Act, although recently reissued with cuts to the rape scenes. But while its heroine focuses her rage on her rapists, Nadine and Manu are not fussy. Though their first victim is a woman at an ATM (a crime of property rather than passion), they then try out and spit out a series of men, randomly chosen amongst sex partners and total strangers, and a few more women.
If the combination of forced penetration and pleasurable fornication weren't difficult enough, real sex makes an uneasy bedfellow with fabricated violence. For the most part, Baise-moi buoyantly handles this erratic oscillation between cartoon conflict and palpable porn – the sex and its pleasures are for real, the shooting and blood aren't. No-one really dies, but quite a few people actually get off. This can produce confusion over the veracity of the image. Baise-moi compounds this with a cine-literate insistence on referencing other films, its sex scenes quoting the real play of hardcore, its violence looking to an exploitation heritage stretching from Roger Corman to Gaspar Noé. A 1960s drive-in audience would recognise this movie.
But even Despentes and her fellow-film-makers had their limits. The original novel features a small child being killed. The director-writers chose not to include this largely because of the impact of playing the role on the child actor: "It's adult stuff," she said. "A four-year-old kid has nothing to do with it, and the question we asked ourselves was, if we had kids, would we ask them to play in this movie, and the answer was No." Though Despentes sees the whole film as a fantasy, she knows the reality of working on set: "If Baise-moi had been a cartoon, we would have put the scene in with no hesitation. But you have to find real human beings who are able to understand what they are doing and who want to do it."
Something of this difficulty underpins the rape scene. While of course the actresses who perform in it (including Anderson) aren't actually being raped, they are actually being penetrated, and simulate (very convincingly) the rape victim's response. Anderson is (consentingly) penetrated, but her character Manu is raped. This unsettling mix of the fictional and the visceral makes a problematic scene much more difficult. But is this any reason to censor it?
Things may get even more troubled for Baise-moi on the question of its video release. The BBFC is waiting to see how the public respond to it in the cinemas before considering certificating the film on video. Banned for a time in France following Front National protests, it also caused a furore in Canada. Despentes argues that audience response is faith-related: "They wouldn't like it in Afghanistan, or anywhere where people are very marked by religion."
The female market for sexual material on video, designed to be enjoyed on the sofa rather than in the grindhouse cinema, has exploded over the last 10 years, and it may be that women viewers would be the most obvious target audience for this film. Despentes, though acknowledging that "some women were very angry", sees her ideal viewers as "girls and women". She also wants the film's dark pleasures to encompass more than just sexual spectacle; when asked if the sex was meant to be arousing, she replied: "Arousing not in the sense of touching yourself, but in the sense of feeling that sex can be great even without love, even without perspective."
Despentes is happy to lay her gender politics on the line, paying her debts to history in the process: "I really do view myself as a feminist," she says. "This movie just could not exist without the feminist struggle." When blowing away their (often unpleasant) victims, Manu and Nadine may be fleshing out a common female fantasy. Does that make it a feminist film? The truth is, Manu and Nadine probably wouldn't care. As Baise-moi slides wildly between the immoral and the amoral, the relationship between cause (rape) and effect (revenge) becomes ever more tenuous. This is ethical freefall, not guerrilla mission, which may in itself be liberating. The girls' journey is both perversely affirmative and wildly nihilistic, a careless exercise in "suck it and see" – snare, enjoy, destroy. They may be our sisters, but they're only doing it for themselves.
'Baise-moi' is released on 3 MayReuse content