Welcome everyone to another brand new feature here at the Lair. One of my favorite bloggers is Ms. Emily of The Deadly Doll’s House of Horror Nonsense, and she has agreed to swap films with me once a month. This time out I chose for her the 1976 wormy feature Squirm, and in return she chose for me the 1989 French film Baxter. I had heard tell of this movie before, but I didn’t know what to make of it. Often I saw it listed as a horror movie, but I’ve seen discussions of it in art film circles as well. So I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it was about a dog with a bad disposition, but I wasn’t expecting the French version of Cujo to bound across my screen. So I put my faith in the judgment of Emily and watched the film with no expectations, and Baxter rewarded me by being a complex and wholly original film.
It would be almost impossible to synopsize the film without first saying that a great deal of the action is told from the point of view of a Bull Terrier named Baxter. Born in a kennel, he knows nothing but his longing to be with humans, and that longing takes Baxter on a strange journey though a series of owners. Baxter‘s first owner is a widowed woman who has never owned a dog. She finally warms to the dog, but Baxter is unhappy with her and obsessed with the young couple who live across the street. Feeling like the widow doesn’t treat him respect, he causes the old woman to fall down the stairs to her death. The disgruntled canine then finds himself adopted by the couple that he watched from the window for so long. Baxter feels like he has found happiness, but when the young couple has a child things change too much for Baxter. Soon he meets his final owner, a young boy named Charles (Francois Driancourt) who is obsessed with Hitler’s final days with Eva Braun (including building his own bunker). The budding sociopath and Baxter becomes quite a pair, but eventually they are set at odds where only one of them may survive.
I don’t want anyone to make the mistake and think this is a talking dog movie. The bull terrier never has any conversations with anyone, but instead narrates the film like a demented version of The Incredible Journey. As a dog owner, I’ve often wondered what my dog was thinking, but I’m not so sure I want to know anymore. While Baxter was clearly a troubled mutt, it was easy to see how his worldview could be a product of instinctual desires. The bull terrier breed is feared in Europe due to a number of vicious attacks (similar to the pit bull which is more popular in the U.S.), but I think many American viewers will take one look at Baxter and think “Spuds McKenzie”. Younger readers may not recall Bud Light’s #1 Party Dog, but it was the first thing that sprang to my mind. While I might have thought that “Spuds” might have a drinking problem, I never assumed that he would have a mean streak to him.
When it comes to talking about the acting in the film, it seems a bit strange to discuss. Baxter was voiced by French actor Maxime Laroux who also appeared in the 1990 Jeff Goldblum film Mr. Frost. Laroux gives the dog a voice that contains equal parts menace and innocence that perfectly fits the troubled dog. If we are to understand Baxter, then the voiceover has to hit a certain tone, and it fit perfectly giving the dog an aggressiveness while still illustrating that there is a certain sense that he doesn’t really understand why he acts or feels the way he does. The human actors in the film are not really the main focus of the film, and while the widow and the young couple are both interesting, we get to know very little about them. They are there for Baxter to react to rather than be fully formed characters. The same can’t be said of Charlie, played by Francois Driancourt. The young actor does a great job creating a character that is more frightening than the canine that becomes his companion. At first Charlie seems like a kid with some strange interests, but as the film progresses the cruelty and callousness of the young man becomes clearer. In some ways, the film poses an important question as to which of them, the boy or the dog, was the real vicious beast.
Baxter is not going to be a film that will appeal to everyone. Its mix of horror, black comedy, and art film combines to make a film that kept me attentive throughout. It is a challenging film that makes one reconsider what is going on in the mind of man’s best friend. So I can’t thank Ms. Emily enough for picking this one for me this month, and I encourage everyone to go check out her great review of Squirm. Next month we’ll be back again with another film swap, and I’ll be waiting to see what Emily has in store for me. For now, I think I’m going to watch Milo & Otis and regain my faith in the inner thoughts of dogs.