The novel Baise-Moi is a raw expression of rage. The story chronicles a spree of fornication, drinking and killing in which the two main characters, Manu and Nadine, run head-long toward death and nothingness, attempting to push themselves to the limits of moral disregard. This is a story of nihilism in which the main characters single-mindedly seek to destroy the world they hate and to overcome any last vestige of civilization that they find within themselves.
The French title literally translates into English as “Fuck Me,” but has been rendered by the American publisher, Grove Press, as “Rape Me.” The author, Virginie Despentes, has objected to this translation; and I think she is right to do so. “Rape Me” is a title that emphasizes victimhood and passivity, which is certainly not what this story is about. While the character Manu and her friend Karla are raped early on in the novel, Manu’s attitude toward the attack is defiant, not passive. Just as her friend is distraught and hysterical after the assault, Manu is enraged, explaining to Karla the spiritual precautions she has taken in order to deny this sort of attack any power over her:
It’s like a car that you park in the projects, you don’t leave anything valuable in it ’cause you can’t keep it from being broken into. I can’t keep assholes from getting into my pussy, so I haven’t left anything valuable there…
It is a shocking statement, but one also filled with profound implications. It suggests that Manu has been sexually attacked in the past and that she has resigned herself to the probability that it will happen again in the future. However, she has also resolved that this is a meaningless detail of her existence; a fact like any other that has no significance in-itself. Rocks fall to the ground when dropped. Water flows down stream. Her body is sexually vulnerable to attack. The world is filled with such facts, and Manu seems to be telling her friend that if she wants to get on with life, she needs to be aware of such raw truths and learn not to expect some sudden change in the nature of reality.
There is something both sad and empowering about Manu’s attitude. Obviously, her repeated victimization is what has pushed her to view here own body as a thing with no inherent value or meaning of its own. In this, it may seem to many of us that she has lost a part of herself, and that she is forever damaged and tragic in her woundedness. However, Manu also gains a sort of vicious power by distancing herself from her own body. She comes to see it as an instrument, a tool for her nihilistic life project, and in so doing she obtains a kind of self-determinism that she might have otherwise lacked. Given that the world she has been thrown into is one in which women’s bodies are objectified and used by others, Manu embraces this situation and twists it to her own purpose. Her body becomes a vehicle through which she expresses her lust, rage and vitality. Characterizing Manu as simply a sad, passive victim, then, is not quite right. She aggressively confronts her existential situation and harnesses it with vigor and purpose. She is defiant toward anyone who tries to use her, refusing to allow them to take anything from her that she has not already resolved to give away. In this she is angrily commanding others to “fuck” her, not “rape” her. She can’t be raped anymore. She now becomes the one who attacks.
After murdering Moustaf, a drug dealer who beat up her friend, Manu meets up with Nadine, who has just murdered her own roommate. Nadine is described as a nihilist on the book’s back cover, but she is a conflicted nihilist. She still struggles with whether her actions are right or wrong. She is also susceptible to flattery, craving acceptance in a way that Manu does not. I get the sense that it is Nadine with whom the author identifies most, as the story is framed by her perspective. The book begins with Nadine, and it is with her that it concludes. Nadine is mostly quiet throughout the novel, taking great joy in being around Manu, who is constantly drunk and out of control. Manu seems to act as Nadine’s alter ego, the way that another nihilist, Tyler Durden, acts as the alter ego to the narrator of Fight Club. Ultimately, Baise Moi is about Nadine, and how she learns, through Manu, to defy and reject all of civilization’s commands.
In one pivotal scene, Nadine and Manu are acting obnoxiously in a tea shop when Nadine all of a sudden decides to pull out her gun and shoot a young boy in the face. She does so for no reason other than it is helpful in “taking things to the limit.” They end up shooting everyone in the shop, and as they flee, Manu expresses her surprise at Nadine’s actions:
That caper was risky. That’s why it was so cool. A kid, that’s going too far. Tell the truth, I wouldn’t have done it. But you’re right: got to take it to the limit.
Manu is not at all disturbed by the murder of the kid, but she does warn Nadine that she “doesn’t want any carnage with Arabs.” Is this because Manu is an Arab, or is it because Arabs are a minority discriminated against in France? Does Manu empathize with Arabs because they are members of an underclass? Nadine doesn’t care, responding:
I don’t give a fuck about Arabs. I believe in taking it to the limit with them.
Manu cautions that they “Got to take it to the limit, but not every time. There’s a clever balance to find.” As it turns out, the two women do end up befriending an Arab by the name of Fatima later in the book. It is this friendship, in fact, that results in events that will bring the story to its mundanely nihilistic crescendo.
There are no great surprises or mysteries in this book. Manu dies in a shootout with a store clerk, and Nadine is denied her own suicide when she is apprehended by the police. But this is not a novel that one reads for the sake of subtle plot points or surprising turns of the situation. No, what really drives this story is the deadpan and relentless pursuit of nihilistic dissipation engaged in by the main characters. These are two women who have decided that they just do not give a fuck about the future. They live in a culture that has debased them to such a degree that they have nothing left to take away; and this is what makes them into the dangerous figures that they become.
Baise-Moi is written is a perfunctory, staccato fashion, which is appropriate for the nature of this story, evoking as it does a sort of matter-of-fact sense of spontaneity and immediacy. As I read it, I felt as if I was absorbed into a world unfolding right now, cut off from future consequences or concerns. I lived viciously, moment-to-moment along with the main characters. For those of us who sometimes bemoan our own imprisonment within the iron cage of modern culture, this is a story that is exhilarating in its angry simplicity.
It is interesting that the movie version of Baise-Moi, which was co-directed by the author, fails to capture the full extent of nihilism evoked by the book. The film, which was banned in France, provoked quite a bit of controversy upon its release, but this seems mainly due to the inclusion of graphic, pornographic scenes of sexual penetration rather than by the really disturbing attempt to “take it to the limit,” and to go beyond good or evil, that is the main strength of the written story. In fact, the movie, in the end, comes across as a conventional moral tale that seems to reinforce, rather than to subvert, social norms. Yes, we do have the main characters fornicating, drinking and killing their way through the story, but some of the most subversive scenes from the novel are are missing. For instance, the key scene from the book in which Nadine shoots an innocent child in the face is left out of the movie; presumably because it would be just too upsetting to mainstream sensibilites. In the book, this is an act that earns the pair of outlaws outrageous infamy, but in the movie their crime spree is depicted in a more conventional manner that is understandable in terms of their sexual victimization and their consequent hatred of men. Toward the end of the movie there is a scene – absent from the book – in which the two women massacre the participants at a sex club. This culminates with Nadine shoving her pistol into a man’s anus and firing it. While this is certainly horrifying and cruel, it is also an act that encourages us to view the heroines of the story as sexually damaged victims, motivated by resentment and a desire for revenge rather than as amoral beasts who have been cut loose from the influences of society.
Paired with a reading of the book, however, the film does help to clarify just what it is about the novel that is so powerful. It is not the violent or sexual content, so explicitly depicted in the movie, which is shocking, but the rejection of moral constraint and the evocation of Dionysian excess that makes the story effective. While in the movie Manu and Nadine retain traces of victimhood, in the book they more successfully take their nihilistic project “to the limit,” transgressing the boundaries of good and evil and rushing toward the abyss of absolute nothingness.