How safe do we feel within our sense of humanness, untouched by animal feelings? What is on the other side of our humanity?
Baxter, a 1989 French film, discloses a tangle of desires and resentments of what essentially is the human par excellence.
When things go his way, Baxter is a friendly, lovable dog, a dog with a not-so-faint sense of morality. When things go badly, we have an disturbed creature—unable to fulfill immediate desires—who plots and schemes to satisfy himself regardless of his previously expressed values.
Baxter is a bull terrier who thinks and narrates most of the movie. Actually, not really thinks; he narrates how he feels. Thus, when Baxter thinks, he renders his inarticulate dog feelings into acutely poignant, often funny, more often disturbing, observations. Baxter feels things he cannot render into words, which is why his narration and thoughts only roughly represent his desires.
Yet, what feeling and desires he has! To the extent that Baxter (the movie) diminishes all past and future movie representation of animals talking and acting like humans.
In the opening shots, we come upon an image of Baxter’s earlier days in a dog pound; a vision of noises and pain. The dark aspects of his nature emerge in a later scene while he stands at the window sill gazing outside into the yard.
“Birds have always amazed me," he says. "Maybe one day I will kill one.”
It is only a small step to thinking the same about his first owner, Madame Deville, an elderly widow, who initially dislikes the dog and then becomes too attached and doting. Meanwhile, Baxter grows contemptuous of her—or, more specifically, of her old-person smell. Finally, his contempt transforms itself into the quasi-murderous act of tripping her as she descends some steps.
To the dog’s delight, neighbors across the street, a young couple, take ownership of him. He had often stared across the street and wished he could belong to their family. This period of Baxter’s life is idyllic. The man and woman treat him like a child, at one point dressing him as a ballerina.
Then, soon, Baxter with his strong dog sense of smell knows something has changed. The wife is pregnant and gives birth. The dog dismisses the baby, calling it “the creature.”
From his point of view, this creature is an intruder, and quite an unworthy one at that. However, the balance of attention decisively has shifted toward this new creature.
Can we blame Baxter for wanting to get rid of such a dangerous rival for his owners’ affections? Unfortunately, he miscalculates when to bark (he does it too early) to alert the parents of their baby drowning in a small pool after he's nudged it in.
The baby is saved at the last second, although the parents are unaware of Baxter’s actions. They are shaken up enough (they were about to make love and momentarily had left the child unattended) to sell the dog, as if Baxter reminded them of their negligence. What the dog had considered an act to win back the love of his owners initiated his downfall.
He is sold to a family with a twelve-year old boy, Charles, who at the time has grown emotionally distant from his parents. The dog, he hopes, will actualize his Adolph Hitler-Eva Braun fetish. He had read that the elite Nazi couple had a dog which was killed when the two finally committed suicide in the Berlin bunker.
Charles has constructed his own makeshift bunker in a junkyard and gotten close to one of his schoolmates who, he believes, resembles Eva Braun. Baxter becomes his final piece of Hitlerania. Then Charles puts the dog through a regimen only the S.S. could admire, instilling the lesson of obedience into the bull-terrier.
Meanwhile, Baxter impregnates an effete show dog owned by the young girl’s father. The dog feels ambivalent about its desires, at one point feeling disgusted for not being able to control himself. At the same time, the young girl offers herself to Charles, who feels repulsed by the thought of giving into carnality. Suppressing his sexual urges, Charles takes out his frustrations on Baxter.
Then one evening, Charles lures a friend into a pit beside the bunker and orders Baxter to attack him. Baxter refuses. When Baxter desires to attack Charles, his desire is suppressed by another urge, to submit and obey. When Baxter gives in, Charles beats the dog to death, later telling his parents that he had to protect himself.
In an epilogue, Charles breaks into Madame Deville’s abandoned house and sits where Baxter used to, at the bay window, staring toward the property across the street, where Baxter’s second owners still live. Alienated from his parents, Charles yearns to belong to a new family.
The ambit from dog to human and human to dog has neared completion. A mobius strip of human life takes shape, whence our nature appears one-sided and indistinct from that of animals. Instead of saying we have no soul and we are only animals, imagine, as is done in Baxter, the inarticulate soul of an animal, a dog, coagulates into one appearing human.
(Note: I have uploaded the entire film above.)
Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.