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
BAXTER (1989) has naturally 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,