Baxter (Jerome Boivin, 1989)

BEWARE OF THE DOG THAT THINKS

Jérôme Boivin’s faithful adaptation of Ken Greenhall’s novel Hell Hound takes viewers into the coldly logical mind of a bull terrier, creating a uniquely dark twist on the boy-and-his-dog story.

The inner thoughts of a brooding canine named Baxter reveal the animal’s unhappy search for an ideal master. Dissatisfaction with his elderly and afraid owners lead to the dog plotting their demise and it is not long before the ingenious Baxter finds the perfect guardian – a lonely, introverted boy with a macabre interest in Hitler’s personal life and a strategy to turn the pet into a thoroughbred killing machine.

Both chillingly satirical and bitingly terrifying, Baxter is an under-appreciated art-horror masterpiece that resembles American Psycho starring a sociopathic dog and set in a French suburb.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

  • Brand-new 2K restoration from the original camera negative, produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original French mono audio (uncompressed LPCM)
  • New English subtitles
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Brand-new appreciation by John Waters
  • New interview with director Jérôme Boivin
  • New interviews with actors Evelyne Didi, Catherine Ferran, and Sabrina Leurquin
  • Theatrical trailer
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Booklet featuring writing on the film by Bruce Cherry

Jérôme Boivin’s Baxter (1989) is often encapsulated as “that movie” told from the perspective of a sociopathic dog. While not necessarily wrong, Baxter is so much more than this. It’s a darkly funny satire of suburban life; a brilliant exploration of the coldly logical, highly sensorial mind of a canine; and an unsettling portrait of fascist appeal and resistance. The film is told only partly from the perspective of Baxter, a white bull terrier whose inner thoughts are revealed in the chilling voice-over of Maxime Leroux, and it is generally structured around the dog’s three successive masters – Margueritte Deville (Lise Delamare), an elderly woman with no interest in the animal until she begins to go senile; a young, happy couple (Sabrina Leurquin and Daniel Rialet) with a baby on the way; and Charles (François Driancourt), an isolated boy with a fascination for Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun and who rules over his makeshift bunker built in a dumping yard. Each of these chapters in Baxter’s life are marked by deaths, Baxter’s plays for power, and eerie moments of fantasy.

Baxter is immediately startling in its rejection of the typical “man’s best friend” trope. This is no G-rated presentation of a dog as some altruistic fount of loyal affection toward its human master. Baxter exists in a universe of sensory pleasure and compulsive coexistence with people, one never far removed from the tooth and nail that arm him. John Waters, a true fan of Baxter, describes the movie as being about “an S&M dog” and the encapsulation successfully describes the central tension between power and subservience that Baxter tragically negotiates. The film’s opening sequence, “The Humans,” has Baxter declare his aim – “My dearest wish was to live with humans, to see them, smell them, and try to understand the astonishing things they sometimes do. I’ve always thought I had a lot to learn from humans.” The humans that will surround Baxter are introduced as less than admirable subjects of study, including Charles’s father in an extramarital affair with the boy’s teacher (who warns against letting dogs lick you because “they use their tongues for toilet paper”); a voyeuristic spaniel-owner; Charles, who experiments in pain using a thumb tack; and the judgmental attitudes of the elderly Mme. Deville and her friend André.

Baxter’s brand of sadism is distinctly dog-centric. Beyond his enjoyment of backyard freedom and the sounds and smells of the young couple’s intercourse, much of Baxter’s pleasure comes from imposing his will on lesser figures like cats and birds (“Birds have always amazed me. Maybe someday I’ll kill one.”), vermin (“Sometimes I capture a creature and give it to her so she understands who I am.”), and babies (“Damp, toothless, and nearly hairless.”). In other instances, Baxter’s attention is on ensuring the respect of his master. While the dog seems initially satisfied to simply be recognized as a strong and capable example of his species, fear becomes a compromised success in the face of misunderstanding. Baxter notes during his time with Mme. Deville that “I’m uneasy when people are scared” (“My Life with the Old Lady”), but he ultimately prefers the smell of fear in her over the absence of a scent on her entirely. Later, Baxter takes his gifting of dead rodents to the young wife (in “Happy Days”) to another level when under the care of Charles (“A Human Who’s Just Like Me”) by killing a rival dog in front of the boy. Baxter observes, “Now the boy is really mine. He pets me with caution. He knows I could do to him what I did to that creature. Now that he knows who I really am, he respects me. That’s good.” In the face of an inferior choice, Baxter prefers a certain degree of intimidation as his basis for human interaction (“I liked it better when she was scared.”) and so fear, respect, and individual worth quickly become synonymous for the animal.

Operating in tension with Baxter’s ideas of pride and self-worth are thousands of years of domestication that compel him to associate with humans. Mme. Deville proves to be an unsuitable master in her hermetic residence. Baxter complains, “I don’t know what she wants. She gives no order. She asks nothing of me, except for boring things like staying beside her.” And while Baxter finds some measure of happiness moving between the young husband and wife, he finds true fulfillment with the despotic Charles who runs him frequently, teaches him to attack, and who yells at and kicks him into accepting his authority. Baxter is “taught sounds” that he cannot disregard, remarking that when Charles speaks these words, “it feels like a chain tightening around my neck. It hurts, so I obey. But there’s more to it. It gives me pleasure, the greatest pleasure I’ve ever had. He commands, and I obey.” Charles’s tyrannical behaviour provides Baxter with the masochistic joy he craves, different from the existential discomfort that resulted in the engineered demise of Mme. Deville and the near drowning of the young couple’s baby.

The film concludes by exploring the limits of Baxter’s subservience. Having been taught by Charles to attack a stuffed dummy on command and having already killed another dog, Charles demands that Baxter attack his classmate and the dog refuses. “The boy had me all wrong, ” Baxter states. “When I killed, I had reasons to do it. I killed when the situation was unbearable or when I felt threatened. I won’t kill for no reason. I can’t trust him now. He’s changing but I don’t know why.” Further betrayals by Charles evidence the boy’s growing callousness and inhumanity, culminating in a dispiriting power struggle between Charles’s fascist authority and Baxter’s resistance. The dog’s final lament – “Never be obedient” – is pitiable given the animal’s instinctual desire to serve humans, but it feels allegorically political as well, a statement against acquiescing to unjust authority for fear of never regaining that control. Ours is not a dog’s life after all, except perhaps for Charles who sits staring out the window of Mme. Deville’s second floor bedroom dreaming of killing his parents and joining the young couple like Baxter himself once did.

As a StudioCanal/Lionsgate film, Baxter is an unlikely title to join the Arrow Video library but Boivin’s film is an unheralded, art-horror masterpiece in desperate need of greater appreciation, so why not imagine it in the meantime with a stellar Arrow Video treatment? This unique horror-cult contender awaits its deserving canonization. Its uncanny view of the faithful pet, like some version of Benji: Portrait of Serial Killer, is utterly unique and disturbingly accurate in its insight. In the glut of slasher films and monster movies, the absence of a film as artful and intelligent as Baxter is felt particularly strongly. MMC! would be happy with an quality edition of Boivin’s film, but we’d be especially pleased to see folks at Arrow Video lovingly celebrate this very distressing film. After all, every dog is supposed to have its day.

Credits: The provided cover summary is heavily adapted from the old and out of print DVD edition of Baxter. John Waters was chosen to provide an appreciation of the film having previously programmed the movie as his annual selection for the Maryland Film Festival and for his John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You series for the here! network. Bruce Cherry was selected to provide a booklet essay further to his IFC listicle, “8 Bad Movie Dogs Who Need a Serious Shaming.”

This article was assisted by reviews by Vincent Canby, Marc Savlov, Adam Groves, Ben Lane Hodson, and T.L. Bugg.

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