MPAA Rating : Not Rated
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : Lise Delamare (Madame Deville), Jean Mercure (Monsieur Cuzzo), Jacques Spiesser (Michel Ferrer), Catherine Ferrán (Florence Morel), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Joseph Barsky), Sabrina Leurquin (Noelle), Daniel Rialet (Jean), Evelyne Didi (Marie Cuzzo), Rémy Carpentier (Roger Morel), Jany Gastaldi (Anne Ferrer), François Driancourt (Charles), Eve Ziberlin (Veronique)
If the question is, "What do animals think?," then the answer supplied by "Baxter" is, "You don't want to know." The titular canine, whose thoughts provide the voice-over narration to this twisted tale, is a sort of anti-Lassie. While the majority of movie dogs have been sentimental, lovable heroes àla Lassie or Old Yeller, Baxter stands as their complete antithesis, both emotionally and physically. Baxter is a bull terrier, hardly a fluffy, lovable creature, and he is looking for a human like him--one who feels neither love nor fear. Baxter is a unique cinematic pooch whose droll narration (by Maxime Leroux) privies us to his bizarre-yet-understandable take on the situations in which he finds himself.
The movie follows Baxter's life as he goes through three different masters, all of whom he finds problematic in one sense or another. His first master is an elderly, single woman, Madame Deville (Lisa Delamare), whose daughter gives Baxter to her as a present. At first, the old woman doesn't want the dog, but she gradually begins to see him as a companion. Baxter, who craves authority in the form of being told what to do (otherwise, he thinks "unnatural thoughts," which he declares are "bad"), is not happy with the old woman. "I don't know what she wants," he tells us. "She gives me no orders." Baxter is much more interested in a young married couple who live across the street, and after the old woman has two mysterious "accidents" that involve her falling down the stairs, Baxter goes to live with them.
This section of the film is preceded by a title card that reads "The Happy Days." Baxter is content living with the young couple (Jacques Spiesser and Jany Gastaldi), that is, until they have a baby, about which Baxter says, "I have never seen anything so weak and mindless." Finding himself shut out by his masters in favor of the new baby, Baxter makes an ill-fated attempt to drown the tot in a goldfish pond. After that, he moves on to his third and final master, a teenage boy who turns out to be, as the third title card indicates, "A Human Like Me."
The boy's name is Charles (François Driancourt), and on the exterior he appears to be a normal, healthy 13-year-old boy. However, we know better because we have seen snippets of his life in the earlier portions of the film that have shown him to be an aspiring Fascist. Charles is obsessed with Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, and at the local dump he has constructed his own fort based on the floorplan of the underground bunker where Hitler committed suicide. His room is filled with magazines about Nazism, and he even find a girl his age who pretends to be interested in the subject.
Baxter is comfortable with Charles because Charles trains him and gives him discipline--a purpose in life he never had before. Some of this training involves running obstacle courses and practicing attacks on a stuffed dummy. Charles is twisted kid, and it turns out that his sadistic inner demon is more than Baxter is willing to bear. The film ends on a downbeat note, suggesting that Baxter's obedience led to his demise, and that his more deranged animal ambitions are embodied in Charles, as well.
All told, "Baxter" is a decidedly offbeat film, one that truly defies simple description and categorization. Some have gone so far as to label it a horror film, but the video packaging makes it look like a zany black comedy about a talking dog. In fact, it is both of those and neither of those. Parts of it are dramatic; parts of it are quite funny; and parts of it--especially that ending--are infinitely disturbing.
Director Jérôme Boivin makes interesting use of camera angels, often setting his lens close to the floor and filming from Baxter's canine perspective. When filming Baxter himself, Boivin does everything in his power to make the bull terrier appear somewhat otherworldly. For instance, in the scene before Madame Deville takes her final fall, we see Baxter sitting at the top of the stairs, with only the edges of his squat body illuminated. Boivin effectively makes the dark suggestion that it is the dog who kills the old woman without actually showing the deed, but at the same time leaves the act open to speculation. Boivin often films Baxter in extreme close-up, sometimes showing only his eyes. For those familiar with the physical appearance of bull terriers, with their torpedo-shaped heads and small, beady black eyes set wide apart, it isn't hard to imagine that close-ups and odd angles make the dog look almost like an alien.
Because "Baxter" is such a perplexing bit of cinema, it has been subjected to numerous social and political interpretations. Indeed, the film lends itself easily to a variety of readings, and even the most strained attempts to shoehorn it into a particular ideology are not too far off. I've read interesting interpretations that see Baxter as symbolic of the human race, simple and craving direction from others, and the three masters as symbolic of different political systems, the old woman being a limp, trite system that gives its citizens no structure, while Charles represents the obvious extreme of totalitarianism.
I won't say that readings of this sort are wrong, but I will suggest that they might be more complex than necessary. To me, "Baxter" is simply a way of looking at a wide range of human behavior from a perspective outside of our own. It's hard to step outside of human vision to look at ourselves, and the purpose of telling this story from a dog's point-of-view is precisely to achieve another viewpoint--something similar to what many science fiction films in the 1950s hoped to achieve by looking at the Cold War through the eyes of visiting aliens. Boivin and his co-screenwriter, Jacques Audiard, working from a novel by Ken Greenhall, remove us from the action of Baxter's masters by having us identify with the dog more than with them.
Baxter's voice-over narration lets us know what he is thinking and why he responds in the manner in which he does. Although some of his actions are not what the majority of humans would do, Baxter has a rigid logic all his own. He is an utterly unsentimental dog, one who is willing to kill and maim, but only when he has reasons. The movie suggests that this animalistic behavior, which allows Baxter to maul field mice and kill another dog, is vicious, but still more respectable than some human behavior because at least it adheres to instinct and reason.
When Charles tries to sic Baxter on a young boy collecting bottles in the dump, Baxter refuses because he has no reason to kill the boy. In this way, we can see how Charles, the human, is capable of true evil that knows no logic or boundaries, while Baxter is capable only of following his built-in instincts. And, even if Baxter were to kill the boy, it would be because he had been trained by humans to do so; it's not anything he would do on his own. Of course, this is the dog that earlier tried to drown a baby, but even then the movie goes out of its way to explain his rationale and why Baxter does not see that act as being particularly bad.
"Baxter" is not a particularly easy film to recommend to others, although it is certainly an achievement of some sort. Despite the fact that it is a French-language film that takes place in France, it is not hard to see the same story taking place in America. In many ways, it has a kind of worldly resonance because it covers a broad spectrum of human behavior. The human characters are not always particularly interesting, perhaps because they are designed more as archetypes rather than flesh and blood people. Nevertheless, "Baxter" is never boring and it provides a great deal of thought-provoking imagery and ideas.
©1999 James Kendrick