Conspirators of Pleasure


Some movies frisk like pups, wagging their tails and begging for approval. Baise-Moi, however, doesn’t mean to lick your face so much as sit on it.

Porn is famously the most profitable form of cinematic expression in the universe, but moralists like John Waters, Nagisa Oshima, and Catherine Breillat aside, few serious filmmakers outside the avant-garde have cared to tackle it. Rushing in where commercial directors fear to tread, novelist and “feminist warrior” Virginie Despentes and porn star Coralie Trinh Thi created Baise-Moi, a scandal in Paris last summer.

Awash in red paint and more authentic bodily fluids, this ultra-violent, highly graphic digital-video feature was slapped with an X rating and initially limited to sex-shop screenings, until a lawsuit brought against the Ministry of Culture resulted in its being banned in France altogether. The content is porn, but the mode is blatantly new wave—just a gun and a girl, or rather two girls. Manu and Nadine (Raffaela Anderson and Karen Bach, experienced “adult” performers both) go wild not just by fucking and sucking, but also by robbing and killing, as well as drinking, posing, leering into the camera, and otherwise acting like they’re in a movie.

Manu is in fact a porn-film veteran; Baise-Moi is nothing if not programmatic. (The title, best translated as “Fuck Me,” has for the U.S. release been rendered the way Andrea Dworkin might interpret it: “Rape Me.”) Men are swine and women are wimps, and once the movie gets going, you can count on some sort of hardcore insert every five minutes. The table is set when three snarling skinheads abduct Manu and her junkie friend and savagely rape them both. The junkie is screaming throughout, but Manu just takes it. She’s a burned-out philosophe, tough and stoical. Cut to the prostitute Nadine, another mistress of ennui, ministering to and taking it from a john while watching Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone on TV. (Nadine seems to derive a certain pleasure from a scene featuring a sliced sausage.)

After Manu just shoots a guy more or less on impulse and Nadine attacks (and possibly kills) her prissy roommate, the women meet on a deserted train platform. Nadine, a porn fan, recognizes Manu and they bond—driving a stolen car off to a hotel where they can dance together in their underwear. Their campaign to scare the world begins that night when they mug and gratuitously murder a woman extracting cash from an ATM. “I feel great,” Nadine exults. Then it’s off to a bar to pick up a couple of guys for a standard porn foursome. “The more you fuck, the less you think,” Manu explains.

During the course of their spree, Manu and Nadine kill men and women indiscriminately, run down a stray pedestrian, shave their pubic hair, and criticize their dialogue: “Fuck, we’re useless,” Manu mopes after shooting the proprietor of a gun store. “Where are the witty lines? People are dying and we’ve got to be up to it.” This exchange and the actresses’ indefatigable smirks notwithstanding, wit is in short supply—although this journey to the end of the night derives a certain amount of punkish energy from its crude editing, cruddy-looking close-ups, strident soundtrack, and overall volatility.

Children are spared, but the movie’s transgressions are designed to offend in nearly every other way. Baise-Moi means to put “revolt” back into the revolting. Riot grrrls Manu and Nadine have neither the charm nor the glamour of Thelma and Louise. Still, as depraved as they usually appear, they do have their (briefly) kittenish moments. “For girls on the run, you’re pretty laid-back,” a sympathetic acquaintance remarks. “That’s because we lack imagination,” Manu explains. So does this intensely literal-minded movie, although Despentes has been clever enough to cite Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Abel Ferrara, and John Woo as her cinematic antecedents.

The rampage culminates in the movie’s funniest scene—indeed, its only funny scene. Having arrived in Biarritz, the pair pull a Woo on the denizens of an entropic-looking sex club, in effect executing the cast of a rival fuck film. Vengeance is theirs. Grit your teeth. More inanely insouciant than actively repellent, Baise-Moi is too pleased with the debased romanticism of its slapdash self to outrage a shock-primed audience. It would be interesting, though, to see what might happen if it were unleashed on the Playboy Channel or the unsuspecting patrons of an ordinary porn theater.

Speaking of guilty pleasures, The Vertical Ray of the Sun is the third feature by the Franco-Vietnamese filmmaker and arch aesthete Tran Anh Hung—and surely the most mysterious in its sense of unbroken, otherworldly serenity.

The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Tran’s delicately hyperreal evocation of his lost homeland, reconstructed a 1950s upper-class Saigon milieu on a French soundstage; his high-powered, lowlife melodrama Cyclo (1995), filmed in the chaotic midst of actual Saigon’s unending traffic, combined bloody action and languorous chic. The Vertical Ray of the Sun, shot on location in Hanoi (albeit mainly indoors), is a quietly busy melodrama, a lush reverie on disappointment suggesting a spot of subtropical Three Sisters.

Maybe Chekhov is too prosaic. Verdant even in its interiors, Vertical Ray blatantly mythologizes its subjects. The movie opens with—and repeatedly returns to—the spectacle of brother and sister twins waking, well into the morning, on their adjoining pallets. Putting on a languid bit of Lou Reed (!), the beautiful siblings stretch, do their morning tai chi, or simply dance together. Openly incestuous, Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) fantasizes that people on the street mistake them for a couple. Or, perhaps, people just take them for a celestial vision. This swan-like actress—Tran’s wife as well as an axiom of his cinema—is impossibly beautiful, especially when her angular cheekbones and wide, slightly mashed features dissolve into an all-enveloping beatific smile.

Lien lives with her brother, an actor, and works as a waitress in her eldest sister’s café. The ambience is vaguely artistic. The oldest sibling is married to a photographer, the middle one to a writer. Vertical Ray has scarcely any narrative, at least on screen—it mainly feasts on the succulent spectacle of three sisters hanging out, telling each other their secrets or not. Elusive as a breeze, the action transpires during the month between the anniversaries of their mother’s and father’s deaths, events that prompt the sisters to muse upon and protect the memory of their parents’ idealized lives.

Filled with bird sounds, Vertical Ray is almost surreal in its paradise imagery—the movie is a sultry, harmoniously expressionistic riot of pale greens and deep yellows. As in Tran’s earlier films, lavish attention is paid to the preparation of food. Beneath the movie’s calm surface, the married sisters have problems with their husbands. One is newly pregnant, the other carrying on a mysterious love affair. The men go to Saigon and return. Nothing is exactly resolved.

Vertical Ray is the opposite of Tran’s roiling Cyclo, a movie of nightmarish depths. Here, the lustrous opaque surface placidly deflects the turbulence of the characters’ inner lives. Throughout, Tran redirects our attention elsewhere. His gently inquisitive camera repeatedly pans away from the action toward the thin, billowing curtains that mask the light.

Film Forum is devoting a week to the films of the Czech puppet animator Jan Svankmajer. The last card-carrying Surrealist, the maestro of dank whimsy and morbid tactility, the poet of mildew and autumnal rot, Svankmajer is an alchemist whose formula (per countryman Milos Forman) is “Buñuel + Disney.” In his very first film, the marionettes dismember each other.

The screenings match Svankmajer’s three features—Alice, Faust, and Conspirators of Pleasure—with his earlier shorts. Alice is overwhelmingly textural, featuring a real child in a wonderland populated by an army of homemade creepy crawlies. Organic and inorganic mix it up in surprising ways—among other things, Svankmajer has an endless appetite for the inappropriate use of food. Faust, less disturbing and more detached, sometimes suggests an uninflected remake of Un Chien Andalou—with a similar emphasis on dismemberment, slapstick, and street theater, and a kindred use of a shifting invented geography.

Conspirators of Pleasure, Svankmajer’s masterpiece, is a radical mix of de Sade, Freud, and Rube Goldberg, in which a sextet of Prague kinkmeisters play out their elaborate, ultimately interlocking, autoerotic fantasies. There’s no dialogue (albeit lots of sound) and the homemade special effects are wondrous. To end the show, Film Forum is previewing Svankmajer’s most recent feature—Little Otik, a suitably visceral version of a Czech folktale, set to open in the winter.