Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Baby Blood (1990) dir. Alain Robak

a.k.a. The Evil Within

Logline: Yanka (Emannuelle Escourrou) is a circus performer who becomes the unwilling host of a parasitic, telepathic, prehistoric creature who wants nothing more than to be born. Unfortunately for all the men in Yanka's world, this baby needs their blood in order to grow strong.

The constant spray of arterial blood throughout its running time may belie Baby Blood's more passionate concern: exploring the rotten, unfortunate position of women in "a man's world." The world that Yanka, our heroine, occupies is nightmarish in its treatment of the female sex. Its men prey upon its women without mercy or cognizance of their shared humanity. But when Yanka begins to turn those metaphorical tables by becoming a sexualized predator herself, dispatching men in the goriest of fashions, this lack of human empathy makes sense, for this may be a man's world but man is surely an animal. The intimations of humankind's bestial nature are bubbling just beneath the film's surface, discernible through symbolism (the large, predatory circus cats going wild in Yanka's presence, just as the men do) and a bit of provocative lip service. This latter hint appears in a discussion between Yanka and the telepathic spawn residing in her womb: Yanka admits to liking men "who look unhappy," while her parasite questions whether or not "unhappiness is a sign of intelligence," pointing out that the primary difference between humans and animals is that animals don't know that they're unhappy. The blind, unemotional sexual compulsions of the film's various men make it apparent that any sort of self-awareness is beyond their ken, but the tragedy lies in the fact that Yanka's own awareness of her situation is eroded over the course of her travails. She trades one form of violent male dominance for another, as she smiles blankly through the numerous murderous transgressions her situation forces her into and only intermittently pauses--bathed in blood--to realize her own unhappiness.

She's unhappy, at least partially, because the men in her world are extremely unpleasant creatures who beat her, gawk at her, control her, swindle her, and attempt to rape her. Up until her final moments on screen, the men of her world objectify and devalue her. Regardless, it seems a little too easy to read Baby Blood as an unsubtle, tactless horror film that celebrates the violent reprisals of women against male violators, propped up under the banner of some skewed male notion of feminism. (Director Alain Robak is, of course, a man). I'd argue that Robak's film is a more complicated and nuanced (though maybe ultimately more ambivalent) iteration of the same female revenge theme present in a film like I Spit on Your Grave (1978). In the latter film, no matter how queasy such revenge can be, one never notices the film questioning Camille Keaton's character's actions; her rapists are awful human beings, and her violence against them is "justified" in the narrative's logic. Baby Blood's narrative is less certain of Yanka's bouts of murdering, as is--occasionally--Yanka herself: few of the male characters are at all sympathetic, but should they be killed for eying her breasts or agreeing to sleep with her?

Yanka is less in the position of doling out revenge than aggressively preying upon men. She tempts several men to their deaths in order to feed her parasitic child (and sometimes kills total innocents to protect him), but most of the time she's initially reluctant to do so. The only man who has seriously wronged her is her boyfriend back at the circus, who would beat her and keep her confined to their trailer, and she actively struggles against her creature's telepathic influence when he commands her to kill him. At the same time, she's not totally without culpability: her murder of a man who proposes to her is one of only a few that are not egged on by her child's bloodthirsty voice-over, perhaps implying that (parasite or not) she is independently resistant to men trying to dictate the course of her life. This all leads to the film's central irony: Yanka violently revolts against the control of men while under the control of a man. True, her child parasite is a prehistoric creature, but he's certainly coded as male and even intimates throughout the film his essential human characteristics. (Not to mention his creepy, phallic implantation of himself inside of her and the fact that he can writhe around while in there in order to give her pleasure). So, because he physically tortures Yanka (ripping at her insides, causing her to spit up blood) whenever she disregards his orders to kill, we see him as only a further extension of the selfish, thoughtless abuse men have brought upon her (because, as he tells her about another man's cruel actions towards her, "that's the way things are in a man's world").

Because of her lack of autonomy, Yanka's experiences don't restore order or deal out justice. They are, in the scheme of things, meaningless, making of her not an avenging angel but an empty host. (Chillingly, when asked by another character what she's accomplished in her life she responds, "Nothing. In my life I've done nothing"). Her unhappiness (and so, by extension, her humanity in an inhumane world) is what's at the center of the film's thematic concerns. She dislikes being abused and controlled, but she's also not a fan of killing in retribution. She maintains that not all men are evil, though every one that she encounters is a disappointment. She has hope for her totally hopeless world, so much so that in the film's final moments it appears that she doesn't wish to see this new organism she's birthed take it over (though it's fair to admit that the conclusion is a tad ambiguous on this point). If Baby Blood is a feminist film (which I'd argue it is), then it is so because of its rather harrowing representation of the emotional effects of men's abuse of women, not because of any celebration of slaughtering.

Baby Blood is a dour French horror film, it's general melancholic air standing in weird juxtaposition next to its manic, cartoonish intestinal splatter. I think the default--and faulty--reaction would be to read the film as a trivial bit of nonsense. This is, after all, a movie about a woman who is having conversations with her homicidal, blood-guzzling belly. Its many unexpected moments of sudden and copious gore give the film a late '80s/early '90s visual aesthetic somewhere between the works of Frank Henenlotter and those of Tromaville. (Though the film does, intermittently, shoot for a surrealism a bit more firmly placed on the artistic side of things; see: a Fantastic Voyage-esque journey through Yanka's innards down to her heart). But even total cartoon moments--like when Yanka kicks the head off of a man she's driven against a wall with a taxi cab--are never funny. The film plays everything completely straight, excepting the boorish performance of Yanka's weaselly admirer, Richard (Jean-François Gallotte), who I suppose we can call the comic relief. The sombre tone is a benefit, reenforcing the themes mentioned above while using its brutal, bombastic aesthetic to jolt the audience out of its complacency. That the violence may sometimes seem comical is an unintended effect of its morbid excess. In a lot of ways, Baby Blood is a film working in the same mode as Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981), though it's a bit less frenetic than that earlier film's domestic grand guignol. As Isabelle Adjani does in Possession, Emmanuelle Escourrou powers through her every scene as a force of nature, giving everything to her role with nary a concern that she be presented in a flattering light. Her arc is a fascinating one, with her beginning as a repressed and demure kept pet and ending up as a powerful but conflicted woman. (Especially at the film's start when she's creating psychic connections with tigers and leopards, Escourrou resembles--in both appearance and demeanor--Nastassja Kinski in Paul Schrader's Cat People (1982)). But what's most remarkable is her ability to remain distant and aloof throughout this development. But then, I suppose Robak intends the entire film to be distant and aloof-- an art film dressed up, unabashedly, in incongruous B-movie clothing.

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