Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Un Chien Nihiliste

Many films are broken by poor narration--woe be to Diary of the Dead, which can function as a good movie if you ignore the monotone rambling of an incredibly unlikable character--but every once in a while, the right voiceover can open a story to new depths. Dexter would lose a lot of dry wit without Michael C. Hall's briilliantly honest musings, and Fight Club's rabid punch would be much softer were Edward Norton not such a linguistically gifted insominiac. Nobody likes hearing dull speakers recapping their autobiographies; the same goes for a bland performer underscoring the events of a film plot.

Since film is primarily a visual medium, narration must also be justified by the needs of a story. The studio cut of Blade Runner is such an abomination because Decker never seems to be the kind of man to articulate his feelings, much less ramble on about them for an unseen audience to share. On the other hand, The Prestige plays with a diary reading, Cockney speaking Christian Bale as he ties Hugh Jackman's magician in knots and advances the plot along the way.

Thankfully Baxter, a 1989 French thriller (of sorts) utilitzes one of the most refreshing and necessary narrators of recent film history: a sociopathic, philosophically minded, and positively adorable bull terrier that may or may not have been the European answer to the all American, Bud-Lite swilling Spuds McKenzie.

Quick Plot: With the Camus-esque voice of Maxime Leroux, Baxter tells us how he has always been fascinated by human beings. Soon he is plucked from a dog shelter and placed with an elderly, not overly canine-friendly woman who can't decide what to think about her underwear-sniffing companion. Baxter, however, is fairly sure how he feels: he loathes his new madam for her bland lifestyle (best represented by her sterile odor) and wastes little time finding a replacement family in the young, amorous couple next door. It's a dog's life until the arrival of a weak, disgusting creature commonly referred to as the baby. Luckily for Baxter, a young boy in desperate need of a best friend lives nearby. The typical game of fetch and obstacle course adventure follow cheerfully and it seems that our purebred has finally found his soulmate...except, of course, said soulmate happens to be a budding Hitler afficionado already constructing a neighborhood replica of the Fuhrer's suicide bunker.

I've met dogs like Baxter--usually, they're shiba inus, chows, or some other beatuiful but aloof breed--and, as someone who spent a few years working in the dog industry can say, I wouldn't put it past some canines to spout off Sartre or muse about the importance of discipline during their generous spare time. While I truly believe that most dogs want nothing more than a scratch on the belly and a bowl of kibble, there are certainly exceptions. Observe a police dog interacting with his master and you'll notice little affection but serious respect. There are indeed animals that prefer the latter. Personally, I'll keep my lick-happy lab mix, but damned if I'm not thoroughly fascinated and impressed by the complexities of the Baxters in the world.

High Points
The choice of a bull terrier as the lead is perfect: as dogs go, they have the capacity to do serious damage, but those petite bodies and oversized football heads (they always remind me of the Canadian South Park residents) add such a unique cuteness to their overall impression that it's easy to sympathize immediately with our antihero

Young Francois Driancourt's performance as Charles is thoroughly unsettling

Baxter's self-loathing during a sex scene (no doggie style jokes, please) is just plain hysterical

Low Points
Some of the human drama, including a typical teenage rebellion, fall a little flat when all we really want is to hear Baxter's observations

Lessons Learned
Telling a girl she looks like Eva Braun will get you some L-O-V-I-N', at least in 1980s France

Pavlov knew his shit

For a typical French teenager, the death of four puppies is far more tragic and unforgivable than the death of 6 million Jews

The Itching Flea Question
I had some hesitations about watching this movie as I fall into that ridiculously unbalanced demographic of people who can stomach monsters ripping open human stomachs but get teary eyed and offended at the slightest suggestion of animal violence. There is a small amount of dog attackage in Baxter, but thankfully, the editing makes it fairly clear that no bull terriers were harmed badly while filming. In terms of the story, the dog is portrayed as such an animorphosized character that you don't really look at him the same way as say, Will Smith's dream shepherd in I Am Legend. The best example of this comes during Baxter's Baby Plan: as you watch, consider where your sympathies lie and if and how they change.

Sadly this DVD is rather empty, with no special features explaining how many pups played Baxter or what happened to disturbingly good child actor Driancourt. Still, it's a wonderfully weird and unsettling film that's unlike anything I've ever seen. You probably won't recognize anybody involved with the production, but Baxter--a favorite of camp king John Waters--is certainly something to remember.

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