Actress Isild LeBesco's fourth directorial effort, Bas-Fonds ("The Lower Depths," or, better "The Dregs"), is a series of appallingly violent, apparently improvised scenes mostly set in a trashed suburban flat inhabited by three young women who are living a sub-human existence dominated by occasional lesbian sex, physical and verbal abuse, and alcohol. After a while a squat, heavy-looking black dog is brought in. Magalie (Valérie Nataf), Stéph-Marie (Noémie Le Carrer), and Barbara (Ginger Romàn) live a squalid and insensate, violent and inward-turning life on the barest fringes of human civilization. Trash litters the floors of their barren apartment. In their day-to-day life that consists of little more than eating, sleeping, drunkenness, violent squabbling and getting off, with a little watching of soaps and what sound like porno films on a big box TV, they are lost to all but each other.
Le Besco's "Dregs" is a film for devotees of X-rated raunch or cinephiles who scoff at entertainment-seeking and seek to be shaken and disturbed by what they watch. This is the film school of deliberate and none-too-subtle provocation, that, however it may annoy, has commitment behind it, if not great skill. Its cruelty and meanness make Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers , which after all has its humorous side, seem like Singing in the Rain by comparison; Philippe Nahon in I Stand Alone is a polished sophisticate compared to Magalie, and it's impossible to speak of von Trier's Antichrist in the same breath because that film's even more cinematically sophisticated than von Trier intended it to be, and if it goes too far, it also offers much visual beauty. Bas-Fonds isn't technically crude in the camera department, but its acting and directing are, and Leslie Ferperin of Variety has commented with reason that while the second half is "not without grace notes," the " first part is so tacky, histrionic and wannabe-outrageous it feels like an early John Waters movie in French, but without the laughs."
Magalie, the lumpish leader, rules with a mixture of male power and animal charisma. Stéph-Marie, her little sister, is a self-effacing simpleton. Barbara, bleach-blond, unaware that she's prettier than the other two, is employed as a night cleaner at an office building. She also acquires a "lover," whom she met at a cafe and has regular sex with. Already estranged from her biological family, she has unwittingly joined the pack out of an attraction to Magalie, met at a dance club, who has sex with her and beats her. One day at the instigation of Magalie and out of sheer boredom they hold up and trash a small bakery at closing time, killing the young baker (Benjamin Le Souef) with a shot from a rifle and terrorizing his wife (Ingrid Leduc). They return to their meaningless life but nothing is the same. Magalie beats Barbara so brutally that one day she goes to the police and this nightmare ends with imprisonment and a trial.
In between violent closeups of these poor creatures, who communicate only in shouted obscene taunts, there are passages of voice-over with poetic musings, finally, with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm. At the end Barbara has been released and has a job, but she seems disconnected from life, and longs for the bestial suburban cave she used to live in with the two sisters and muses that she would go back to it, sooner or later, if she could.
The periodical moments of soft, poetic voiceover (Le Besco's own quite beautiful voice) with dappled water and sky shots are meant to and to some extent do establish a humanistic context. These too, they are saying, are God's creatures, poor little lambs who have gone astray. But patched-in comments are too easy and gratuitous. What Bas-Fonds succeeds in doing is both in keeping us at one remove from its characters, and throwing their invective and lurid squalor so much in our faces we can't analyze and think. When we look closer we see that there's more gesture than context and more noise than narrative. We get stunning shtick: scantily clad (but occasionally laundered) young woman going wild on each other and dispensing with the amenities. But dialogue consists mainly of brief shouts, obscene epithets, accusations. "More hootch!" You forgot such and such! (Visits to the supermarché are included). "The bottom on the can is cold!" (Their meals consist of canned food heated in a pan of boiling water and eaten from the can.) A script consisting of barbaric yawp can't develop relationships or history or context. It's only by a flashback that the way Barbara and Magalie met is established. By suggesting that Magalie does a lot of sleeping LeBesco avoids having to give her much else to do. The Guignol of the bakery and its aftermath provide the film's narrative arc. Le Besco seems to do a lot of showing, but in fact her showing doesn't tell, and she has to spell things out with voice-overs to get any ideas across.
Le Besco aligns herself with a French cinema of desperation to which Bresson, Pialat, Godard, Noé and Dumont also belong. Her context seems more petulant and childish than those others but she may make up for that with a passionate intensity that makes her films, as one French commentator remarked, "more lived than seen."
Bas-fonds was released in France by Ciné Classic and opened in Paris December 29, 2010. It was seen (and painfully lived) and reviewed as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's series Film Comment Selects. The series, now in its eleventh year, includes 26 films this year and they are shown between Feb. 18 and March 4 at the Walter Reade Theater at 65th Street near Broadway.
©2011 Chris Knipp
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