Note: As promised oh so long ago, here's my review of Jérome Boivin's BAXTER. I've also posted this over at The Screengrab, but the person who requested the review- the one and only Victor- is unable to access that site, so I'm posting it here for his benefit. Also, here are the links to the other requested reviews:
Jason Alley- Les Revenants (2004, Robin Campillo)
Steven Carlson- Les Anges du Péché (1943, Robert Bresson)
From the time we’re young, we’re told that dogs are “man’s best friend.” Indeed, the popular image of dogs is as friendly, playful creatures who love us unconditionally. It gives us comfort to believe this, but things are more complicated than this simplistic image would suggest. Far from being blindly loyal companions, dogs tend to react to their surroundings, especially the sounds, smells and behaviors of those nearby. How far of a stretch is it to imagine dogs actually thinking?
The plot of Baxter finds its canine protagonist cycling through a trio of different owners, each of whom treats him differently. Baxter’s first owner is the elderly widow Madeleine, who is frightened of him and keeps him around primarily to have another living creature in the house. After her death, he’s adopted by a young couple who shower him with love and affection until they have a baby of their own. Finally, Baxter ends up with Charles, a teenaged sadist who disciplines him. One of the central ideas of Baxter is the way he responds to each owner’s treatment. As a dog, he is never explicitly told his purpose in life, so he has to figure it out as he goes. This is fine by him- as he says in voiceover, “I thought I had a lot to learn from humans.”
One of the reasons why Baxter works is the casting of its lead “actor.” Most dogs in cinema fall into three distinct categories: cute, noble, or malevolent. Baxter doesn’t really fit into any of these classifications. With his small stature, beady eyes, and pointy ears, Baxter is shifty-looking, but not especially scary. In addition, he doesn’t make a great deal of noise unless he’s provoked. There’s something thoughtful about Baxter, which makes him ideal for a film whose tagline is “beware the dog who thinks.”
In the course of the film, we hear Baxter’s thoughts in detail, in voiceover. Interestingly, they sound like the kinds of thoughts an actual dog might have. Many of them focus on smells, especially as they relate to the people around him. It’s in Baxter’s nature to react to smells, whether it’s the fear of Madeleine (“I’m uneasy when people are scared,” he says) or the love bestowed on him by the young woman. Throughout the film, the sense of smell comes to symbolize deep-seated instincts, an idea that’s made most explicit when he meets a female spaniel in heat whose smell he can’t resist, try as he might. To his shame, Baxter discovers that smell brings out “unnatural thoughts”- which of course are the most natural thoughts in the world.
By contrast, Baxter also believes he has a higher purpose for himself, even if he can’t figure out what it is. The old woman doesn’t help him in this regard- she mostly keeps him cooped up in her home as her own life falls into disarray. He flowers under the attention of the young couple- love brings out the goodness in him- but this love turns to jealousy when they have a baby. It’s not until he meets the boy that he’s truly in his element- Charles is a harsh master, but Baxter finds comfort in servitude, and respite from his “unnatural thoughts.” He calls his relationship with Charles “the greatest pleasure I ever had. He commands, I obey.”
One of the most interesting touches of Baxter is the way Boivin shows us the lives of his characters independent of Baxter. Much of the film is seen through Baxter’s small black eyes, but occasionally we are given insights into his owners that he couldn’t possibly know. Early in the film, Madeleine tells a friend, “growing old is a matter of dignity,” a statement that takes on irony after she becomes a shut-in and refuses to see anyone. By contrasting the lives the characters lead with Baxter’s impressions of them, we see the difference between his point of view and the traditional human perspective.
Consider Baxter’s behavior after the young woman gets pregnant. The first change he senses is her smell- “now it’s like smelling two people.” He refers to her pregnancy as “sickness,” and remarks at how her husband treats her differently now, no longer making love to her in the evening. After the baby is born, he can’t understand their love for “the creature”, stating “I’ve never seen anything so weak and mindless.” Only later does he experience this for himself, after the spaniel gives birth to puppies who smell like him.
It’s in the final third of film, in which Baxter meets Charles, “a human who’s just like me,” that Baxter takes on a new level of fascination. Once Baxter has discovered his function- to obey- there is conflict between his instincts and what he perceives as his higher purpose. After his “shameful” experience with the spaniel, Baxter finds he has to regain the boy’s respect through a show of strength, which he accomplishes by killing another dog. Yet Baxter will not let himself kill mindlessly. “I killed when the situation was unbearable of when I felt threatened,” he says, but the boy doesn’t understand. At the film’s climax, Baxter finds himself in a spot that places his function at war with his “unnatural thoughts,” and unfortunately for him, he decides to serve that higher calling. It’s then that he learns his final lesson, “never be obedient.”
The recent Lionsgate DVD release of Baxter positions the film as a conventional killer-dog thriller. However, Cujo this isn’t. There’s something philosophical about the film that makes deeply troubling in a way most films of this sort don’t even try to be. Boivin’s view of human nature isn’t an especially hopeful one- even the film’s most loving characters are seen more as exceptions than the norm. In light of the suffering we see, Baxter’s point of view becomes perfectly understandable. If nothing else, it gives me pause to wonder what The Girls think of me.