Saturday, December 10, 2022

Baxter (1989)

Directed by:
Jérôme Boivin

Even though talking animals have been a long-standing tradition in fairy tale and fantasy novels, as well as in animated films, I'm not sure just how far back live-action talking animal movies go. I'd say the earliest one to really catch on in a big way was Francis the Talking Mule, who debuted in 1950 and was popular enough to headline a seven film hit comedy series. A nearly identical concept was then recycled for the sitcom Mister Ed, which lasted on TV for six seasons. Though these first two heavy hitters were of the equine persuasion, later films would feature all kinds of other animal species either given human voices (typically only audible to each other or one flustered, disbelieved human character) and / or human thoughts (typically presented via narration or voice-over from the animal). What most of these films seldom were was targeted specifically toward an adult audience. Nearly all of the films in this category are made for kids (see: Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, Babe, Cats & Dogs, etc.) and nearly all of them are light and comedic in tone. That in itself makes Baxter automatically stand out from the pack. While this film is also humorous at times, one thing it will never be accused of being is light!

Baxter also differentiates itself in its audacity to turn man's best friend into something much more flawed, much more self-involved and, well, much more akin to ourselves. While we as a species are kept from indulging in our darkest urges by our own concept of morality / willingness to please our Gods, dogs are usually kept from indulging in theirs by their domestication / willingness to please their food providers. And thus this film's subversive qualities have only been amplified tenfold in the years since it was released due to how we as a society anthropomorphize dogs more than ever before. They're generally treated as if they know what we know, feel what we feel and have been sent to us from the angels above. They know nothing other than being agreeable, obedient and loyal, and they freely give us unconditional love and emotional support, right? Right? 

And yet there are daily news stories detailing once-beloved family pooches suddenly and unexpectedly turning against their families and, say, ripping a toddler's face off, that are either completely ignored or blamed entirely on (usually unproven) allegations of abuse from past owners or provocation from the human victims. In recent years, our culture has bizarrely romanticized dogs into infallible, pure beings as opposed to animals with primal instincts whose more natural, and far less wholesome, impulses have to be trained away. Clearly that training is done with varying degrees of success. Boivin amusingly starts his film out by literally rubbing our noses in our own poo-poo; namely our pristine perception of human / dog relationships. You know those "doggie kissies" pet parents live for? Well, if you think about the fact you're getting 'em right after the dog licks its own asshole ("They use their tongues as toilet paper!"), it starts to approach a whole new territory, doesn't it?

Maxime Leroux provides the sonorous voice of the titular white bull terrier as we follow him from dog pound to various homes while he searches for the proper master who actually gets him and what he's about. He's first hooked up with the elderly, uptight widow Marguerite Deville (Lise Delamare), who's bitter about her past and emotionally walled off from even her family and closest confidants. As an unexpected and unwanted present from her daughter, Florence (Catherine Ferran), Marguerite initially doesn't want Baxter. She's both fearful and distrustful of him, confiding to her friend Andre (Jean Mercure) that she wants to get rid of the dog yet is reluctant because of the backlash she may receive from her daughter.

As Marguerite attempts to, and eventually does, warm to Baxter, little does she realize he has no real intention of returning the favor! In fact, he can't stand her and has been plotting against her the entire time. He dislikes her smell, her voice, her inactivity, her passivity and her eventual co-dependence, which gets in the way of him going out into the backyard as much as he'd like. After all, a dog still wants to dog at the end of the day and those small rodents, cats and birds can't rip themselves apart all on their own. As she slips further into dementia and withdraws further from society, Marguerite refuses to acknowledge visitors, becomes a recluse living in filth and is eventually found dead after an "accidental" fall down the stairs.

Florence opts not to take Baxter ("I don't like dogs." / "You don't? I thought your husband bred them?" / "My point exactly.") so he's then sent to live with neighbors Noelle (Sabrina Leurquin) and Jean (Daniel Rialet). Baxter has already been eyeing them from across the street, listening to them have sex and fantasizing about living with them, so he's quite pleased with the arrangement at first. The young, happy, energetic married couple start out with plenty of free time to cater to his every desire but that all changes when stress enters into the equation and Noelle discovers she's pregnant. Now the couple have greater concerns than tending to the dog they've adopted. Soon after the baby arrives and it almost "accidentally" drowns in the backyard pond, it's time for our misanthropic mongrel to move on.

Baxter finally finds what he thinks is going to be his dream home with pre-teen Charles (François Driancourt). Though he's bright, mature and does well in school, Charles is somewhat neglected by his unhappy parents. He's also showing troubling sociopathic tendencies and a penchant for pain and suffering, which he first achieves by impassively slamming his hand down on a thumb tack (!) Dad (Jacques Spiesser) is involved in a secret kinky affair with a respectable schoolteacher (Evelyne Didi) while mom (Jany Gastaldi) is always busy hosting Tupperware parties. That leaves the alienated Charles to fend for himself much of the time. He takes refuge at the city dump, where he runs across old WWII era magazines and finds someone he can finally relate to. Unfortunately, that person turns out to be Hitler. He starts studying him, collecting photos of him and even builds his own replica of Hitler's Führerbunker at the dump. He's also the kind of master Baxter has been wanting all this time.

Charles mostly ignores his parents and locks himself in his room whenever he's home. Otherwise, he spends most of his time with naïve schoolmate Veronique (Ève Ziberlin), whom he likens to Eva Braun, and Baxter, whom he likens to Hitler's dog, Blondi. He puts Baxter through a rigorous physical regimen that includes running, jumping, an obstacle course and attacking a dummy, with his ultimate goal being to teach his new companion to kill on command. Baxter, meanwhile, has been craving the structure, disciple and domineering hand of someone like Charles, which helps to squash any "unnatural thoughts" he may want to keep under wraps. However, with that also comes whippings, beatings, torture, getting locked up in a dark room without food or water for days on end and the killing of a litter of puppies he eventually sires with Veronique's abusive father's (Jean-Paul Roussillon) hunting spaniel.

Even all of these years later, Baxter remains a fully unique viewing experience with some challenging and at times offensive content, which inescapably means it's also not going to be for all tastes. It was based on a 1977 novel by American writer Ken Greenhall, which was sometimes called Hell Hound and sometimes called Baxter: A Novel of Inhuman Evil, with Greenhall sometimes taking the billing "Jessica Hamilton" (his mother's maiden name) for his work. It received little to no recognition when it was first released as a cheap paperback, but now it, along with Greenhall's previous novel Elizabeth (1976), is finally starting to receive some long overdue attention. The adaptation, from the director and Jacques Audiard, is surprisingly faithful to the book. The two also collaborated on a seldom-seen adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Confessions of a Crap Artist in 1992.

Baxter was first screened at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in January 1989, where it won a special mention award for the director, before hitting its general theatrical run in French theaters later that same month. It played select big city cinemas here in the U.S. in late 1990 into 1991 and made its VHS debut in 1997 courtesy of Fox Lorber. Strangely, while the film received a fairly good reception from critics of the day, it was mostly ignored by both genre fans and genre publications upon release. Since then it's picked up a decent following due in large part to greater availability, including a 2007 DVD release from Lions Gate and a 2021 Blu-ray release from Scorpion.

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