This French comedy/thriller is one of the strangest, most demented movies of all time. An evil dog whose misanthropic thoughts are voiced on the soundtrack? A deranged kid obsessed with Adolph Hitler? This is by no means a perfect film, but it’s one you won’t soon forget!
BAXTER (1989) has become something of a cult classic over the years, but one integral element that seems to have been ignored is Ken Greenhall’s 1977 novel HELL HOUND, of which BAXTER is a fairly literal adaptation. Although long out of print, the book is well worth seeking out, being a provocative, compelling, powerfully original piece of work that is naturally better known in France (where it was titled DES TUEURS PAS COMME LES AUTRES) and England (where it was published under the pseudonym Jessica Hamilton) than in its native country. If you’re a fan of the film, or even if you aren’t, I’d strongly advise seeking Greenhall’s book out–I also hope someone reprints it in my lifetime.
Say what you like about the film’s co-writer/director Jerome Boivin, but his literary taste is impeccable: his follow-up to BAXTER, the equally eccentric BARJO (1992), was adapted from Philip K. Dick’s classic mindbender CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST. Neither film, alas, was a huge success, which seems to have stranded Boivin in the netherworld of French television. My question is when is this defiantly idiosyncratic auteur going to make another feature? I’ll definitely be first in line!
Baxter is a bull-terrier who can think like a human. We known this because he voices his thoughts on the soundtrack…and they’re NOT pretty! Taken from the dog kennel where he was brought up, Baxter finds himself in the company of a lonely old woman he despises. He spends his days staring out a window at the young couple who’ve just moved in next door, wishing he could live with them. He realizes this desire when he knocks the old bag down the stairs, ending her life, and dashes across the street.
Baxter’s days with the young couple are idyllic, at least before the woman becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child Baxter finds repulsive. He decides to drown the baby in a backyard pond, but barks for help too soon, inadvertently saving the kid’s life.
Finding that Baxter’s presence evokes painful memories of the accident, the couple gives him away, and Baxter ends up in the care of a deranged boy and his distant parents. Obsessed with Adolph Hitler’s final days, the kid constructs a miniature bunker in a nearby junkyard in tribute to the place of his idol’s death. Baxter, meanwhile, takes well to the harsh, disciplined lifestyle forced on him by his new master. Said master meets up with a comely girl who reminds him of Eva Braun, and whose female dog is jumped by Baxter, who can’t control his sexual impulses despite the fact that he finds the other dog revolting. A litter of puppies is born, but the boy kills them all, driving a wedge between him and Baxter. Worse, he tries to force Baxter to kill another kid scavenging in the junkyard. Baxter will have none of it, reasoning that he only kills when circumstances force him to. Clearly, a boy-dog showdown is evident, a confrontation only one of them will survive.
BAXTER’S strengths are in its compellingly naturalistic atmosphere and solid performances, particularly those of Francois Driancourt as the deranged kid, Lise Delamare as the old lady and Maxime Leroux, who’s simply unforgettable as the voice of Baxter. I also liked the fantasy sequences that periodically pop up, such as the one wherein a dead woman appears beside her widowed husband beckoning him to the beyond, and the black and white specter of Eva Braun that haunts the boy’s dreams.
BAXTER was a freshman effort, however, and Boivin’s inexperience is evident in the perfunctory storytelling; the pacing is a bit too brisk for its own good, which more often than not has the effect of reducing a complex satire on the wily nature of evil into a sub-Monty Pythonesque exercise in gross out comedy. The staging isn’t always up to par, either; the final boy-dog face off in particular is a bit of a bust, an epic confrontation in the book that is reduced onscreen to a minute or so of shouting and hurled debris. Furthermore, the dog abuse inherent in this and other scenes looks a bit too realistic for comfort.
What ultimately redeems the film is its peerlessly imaginative narrative, bequeathed from Ken Greenhall’s amazing novel. Boiven was wise to stick so closely to it, creating something increasingly rare in today’s movie marketplace: a totally original film.
Director: Jerome Boivin
Producers: Patrick Godeau, Ariel Zeitoun
Screenplay: Jerome Boivin, Jacques Audiard
(Based on a novel by Ken Greenhall)
Cinematography: Yves Angelo
Editing: Marie-Josee Audiard
Cast: Lise Delamare, Jean Mercure, Jacques Spiesser, Catherine Ferran, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Sabrina Leurquin, Daniel Rialet, Evelyne Didi, Remy Carpentier, Jany Gastaldi, Francois Driancourt, Eve Ziberlin, Malcom Scannage, Lea Gabriele, Maxime Leroux