The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) & Baise-moi (2000)
This review discusses highly unpleasant and tremendously brutal films. Though the brutality stems from very real, very raw social problems, their violence, described herein, may be too much for some.
What is the difference between retribution and revenge? And what happens when that line, if there ever was one, becomes so blurred that it no longer matters?
Such questions should not be nearly as far from the surface of cinema as they so often reside. Revenge films can and do hail from all corners of the Earth. As evidenced by the diverse global origins of the two titles considered here- 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, from Australia, and 2000’s Baise-moi, from France- no time, place, race, or gender can claim exclusively of intrinsically perpetuated discrimination… and the many abuses therein.
Though they’re often thought of as gratuitous grindhouse catharsis machines, they can also be found, from time to time, in loftier “art cinemas”. Though no one sold more revenge movie tickets than Charles Bronson, Quentin Tarantino unapologetically brought the form into the multiplex mainstream with Kill Bill– and has never looked back. It’s altogether formulaic for such films to stir up a bloodlust in the viewer and then satisfy it. But when the form really gets it right- when it’s being honest with itself- no one should come away feeling good about the justice that’s been served.
Both Chant and Baise-moi are tremendously brutal, rattlingly visceral, and unapologetically in your face. Ultimately though, they are truly hard to watch because the issues they address are truly hard to talk about. (Or more to the present subject, hard to watch play out). But, when such revenge movies get to us on a profound level, then perhaps some self-examination can begin. Which everyone can use at least now and then.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)
DIRECTED BY FRED SCHEPISI/1978
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 17, 2019/KINO CLASSICS
“Where would I be…? Where would I be…? Where would I be… if I didn’t do Blacksmith?”
That’s the very earnest musing of Tom E. Lewis, circa 2018, when he was interviewed by Kino Lorber to reflect on his career-launching starring role in 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. A gritty period piece of dramatized Australian history, Jimmie Blacksmith is something of an unforgettable revenge film.
Actually, “revenge” seems like the wrong word, insofar as “revenge films” tend to play on a very distinct eye-for-an-eye dynamic. The better word for this one is “vengeance”. There’s a presumed righteousness inherent in the word “vengeance” whereas “revenge” is, by definition, purely resentful, or vindictive in spirit. For Jimmie Blacksmith, one might say that what begins as vengeance turns on a dime into bloody revenge. The slow-churning cult classic film is based on Thomas Keneally’s award-nominated 1972 Australian novel of the same title. (Itself loosely based on the life of a real-life man called Jimmie Governor). Those who see it will not easily forget the experience.
Adopted and raised by an intensely practical reverend (Jack Thompson) and his wife (Julie Dawson), the half-aboriginal/half-white Jimmie (Lewis) finds himself ever the object of their race-savior fixation. At one early point, the couple details how he can go about “purifying” his future lineage. These wealthy Caucasian powers-that-be make it clear that his options can only improve in “marrying up” to white girl. And even then, the benefit wouldn’t be his own. It would be his children and their offspring who’d benefit, assuming a continuance of “whitening” continues.
In this dinner table scene, it is explained in passing that Jimmie taking a Caucasian wife would result in 3/4-white offspring. Then, if that offspring marries white spouses, the dark pigmentation is further filtered. And so on. In its matter-of-factness, it’s intended to play as revolting. Director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne; Six Degrees of Separation), though, refuses to insult any viewer’s intelligence in the slightest, never hanging a lantern anywhere near such moments. The very next exchange, one with a prospective boss, wields all the outward racist grotesquerie that the previous one renders as mannered.
Over the first hour of this authentically veneered back-in-time presentation, the cumulative effect of Jimmie’s different experiences that boil up. Wronged in a gross litany of such seemingly small infractions in work and life, young man Jimmie is repeatedly the victim of dismissive, 100-years-ago systemic racism. Again and again, he is denigrated, shortchanged, dismissed, and ripped-off. Then, it appears that the very white newborn baby of his white wife is in no way his. What’s a guy to do besides set off on an ax-murdering spree?
The initial strike is as sudden as it is barbaric. That the blow doesn’t land until one hour into the 117-minute film only sharpens its shock value. The fact that it’s taken against unsuspecting defenseless women and children (stopping just short of a baby) intensifies it into the realm of enduringly disturbing. From this point on, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a different movie. Schepisi and company have carefully led us into a moral quagmire of hopeless proportions, and history (even very recent history) assures us that we’re not getting out any time soon.
Kino Lorber has gone all out(back) with this special two-disc Blu-ray set. It includes the 117-minute international version as well as the 122-minute Australian version. Both are outstanding, handsome presentations, rife with late-1970s grit and film grain. Schepisi has endorsed the latter version with a recently recorded audio commentary. The track is a great resource in unpacking this most restless film. Other bonus features include an interview with Fred Schipani and DP Ian Baker together, and another almost painfully reflective one with star Tommy Lewis. Schepisi’s almost comically brief introduction to the film could’ve been left off, but film critic Peter Tonguette is a keeper.
DIRECTED BY VIRGINIE DESPENTES, CORALIE TRINH/FRENCH/2000
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 27, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Harsh and outright aggressive, 2000’s Basie-moi persists in reputation as no less than one of the most controversial films ever made. Directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh (based on the 1993 novel by Despentes) the film is consistently disturbing in its unflinchingly violent depictions of wanton murder and unstimulated intercourse.
That’s a rather boring way to describe a film that is incapable of being boring. It crams an ungodly abundance of raw anger, confrontation, and twisted female rage into its mere seventy-seven minutes. Despentes and Trinh, clearly venting something fierce, cast actresses with backgrounds in pornography in order to utilize their severely lessened inhibitions and whatnot.
The French film stars Karen Bach (actually Karen Lancaume, who tragically died in 2005) and Raffaëla Anderson (sometimes known as “Raphaëla”) to play protagonists Nadine and Manu. “Dejected” doesn’t begin to describe the headspace of these two victims of rape, abuse, violence, and all-around systemic dismissal. Baise-moi is the story of their revenge, a road trip with a hell of a body count.
Baise-moi is part of a late-1990s/early-2000s cinematic movement known as “New French Extremity”. It’s a movement that U.S. viewers in particular (and distributors, for that matter) didn’t know what to do with. Consequently, films of the New French Extremity tended to be buried. Therefore, Baise-moi and its fellow “extreme” cohorts (including but not limited to Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy , Leos Carax’s Pola X , and Catherine Breillat’s Romance ) did not undergo the degree of high-profile scrutiny that they did in many other parts of the world.
Baise-moi, in its untethered hyper-grittiness combined with its unapologetic lack of restraint, feels particularly like an unearthed remnant of a bygone wave. Yet, the truthful heart of Despentes and Trinh’s primal scream of a film remains tragically relevant. That is, insofar as woman not only continue to be attacked and marginalized, but for a variety of terrible reasons, reporting and discussion of such widespread instances continues to be altogether taboo. For proof of that, look no further than the history of varied global stigmatization that this film was made to endure. While most would concede that Baise-moi is never in a million years appropriate multiplex fare, there nonetheless needs to be a legitimate place for such challenging (and, it should be said, decidedly anti-erotic) work.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics, boldly doing what few domestic distributors ever would, has released Basie-moi on Blu-ray in its fully uncut form. In what could be a seminal audio commentary track, film historian Kat Ellinger has opted to go personal. Ellinger, consciously putting aside the strictly analytical approach she’d prepared, identifies herself as a sexual assault victim. Her approach, though, is not one of “victimhood”, but rather a matter-of-fact stance that sides with the film’s radical notions that rapists are generally only as empowered as the struggle they put up. In other words, a woman’s sexuality is not “takeable” by anyone else; it is controlled by her and her alone.
Ellinger of course stops short of advocating for Baise-moi’s sadistic murder spree, though she spends much time articulating her opinion of the value of such a blunt metaphor. Her forthrightness in this track- one both cinematically informative as it is personal- is a tremendously commendable, enlightening, and even heroic effort. Such accolades are clearly not the reason Ellinger took this angle, though her words, in their approachable delivery, are frankly quite powerful. One wishes that her message, as she delivers it, might’ve been made available via a wider platform as opposed to this highly niche avenue- speaking over a film that is the very embodiment of “not for everybody”.
Lumping The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Baise-moi together for this dual review is in no way intended as a slight to either picture, as both are uniquely significant and worthy of fully individualized analysis. Rather, this pairing is the result of coincidentally viewing the films back-to-back, and then accepting the self-challenge to produce something of a compare/contrast piece. These films, as wildly differing was they are, stand as examples of the many gross injustices prevalent all over the world, and the cyclical bloodletting which they conjure upon themselves.
Their Blu-ray presentations are both quite impressive in the A/V department, palpably presenting the respective real-world grit (there’s a reason that word has been utilized at least three times here) and harshness of each very different time and place.
If we opt to step up and recognize the festering rage and anger of victims of systemically warranted injustices (and we absolutely must), then we must also confront the shape of the imminent uncorked retribution. If someone has been continuously dehumanized for his entire life because of the color of his skin, does he get to them turn around and brutally kill a cabin full of white women and children? If a woman has been repeatedly raped and then silenced about it, does she get to then take it out on strangers, going so far as to sodomize a random man with the barrel of a gun, and then pulling the trigger? Where are the lines? If there was true justice and (even better) proper treatment of all people in the first place, this needn’t even be discussed. Evil breeds evil.
Recognition of such thresholds are vital to our continuing struggles across the board, from and in response everything from #MeToo to #TimesUp to #BlackLivesMatter. For example, if a hard-won mom & pop business is destroyed in the crossfire of a protest against racism, to what degree are we willing to look the other way in the name of collateral damage? Wartime logic enters in, as the initial injustices at the core of such demonstrations are far and away the central priority. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Baise-moi, in all their confrontation, are not advocating for such brutal recourse. They are, however, boldly proclaiming their inevitability- and, in the far greater scheme, small echoing pieces of larger retribution.