WOMEN! Are you dull, plain, boring, approaching forty, with no talents or interests in particular and no idea whatsoever what to do next? Do you ‘inspire a slight revulsion in people’ to the point that everybody ignores you, probably because you’re so ‘ill at ease’ in yourself? You might do worse than get into the surveillance industry, Virginie Despentes suggests in Apocalypse Baby, spying on the unhappy teenage children of rich Parisians. The sector is booming and dullness and directionlessness are a plus.
Lucie has been working as a snooper for two years now: ‘A kid can’t smoke a joint in peace without me personally being right up behind him … The life of their children belongs to adults of my generation, who don’t want to let their youth get away from them twice.’ Her most recent assignment is Valentine Galtan, a girl of 15, ‘nymphomaniac’, ‘hyperactive’, ‘coked up to the eyeballs’ and eavesdropped on by Lucie every morning as she stuffs ‘her face with muffins and Coca-Cola’ in the café next door to her expensive school. Only two things mark out Valentine from the other rich, pretty, sad girls in the café by the crammer. She has no internet presence at all, no Facebook or Instagram, no nothing, and when Lucie plants a doctored phone on her she never switches it on. And then, in the Metro one morning, she just disappears.
The family, of course, is furious, and Lucie is given an ultimatum. Bring her back and she’ll get a €5000 bounty. Fail, and she’ll be sacked. Panicked, she offers the money to a contact known only as the Hyena, a staggeringly good-looking, charismatic and ultra-violent lesbian freelance who, the first time we meet her, is wearing Ray-Bans, a white leather jacket and white jeans. Rumour has it that she started as a debt collector and liked the buzz so much that she progressed to providing ‘drugs for government ministries … call girls for officials … information about ex-French Africa’, not to mention ‘spying on the Scientologists’, ‘radical Islamists’ and ‘Israel’, which makes you wonder why she’d let €5000 detain her, though there turns out to be a sort of reason later on. She hates airports, loves vintage cars and although she considers her to be a ‘dozy mollusc’ she drives Lucie to Barcelona when the trail leads in that direction. And that’s the set-up for what turns out to be a satirical-stroke-melodramatic road novel-stroke-detective thriller with lots of awful Parisian bourgeois in it, Mediterranean palm trees, a rather strenuously utopian S/M lesbian orgy and an enjoyably evil nun. It won the Prix Renaudot in 2010, the same year Houellebecq won the Goncourt, and was celebrated in France as another instance of an enfant terrible growing up.
Virginie Despentes was born in 1969 and grew up in Nancy, in north-east France. In King Kong Theory, a short half-memoir half-essay published in France in 2006, she writes that when she was 15 she was briefly sectioned in a psychiatric institution, and at 17 left Nancy for Lyon, never to return. As a teenager, her passion in life was following bands, and she’d hitch lifts to gigs and sleep in stations: ‘What I experienced during that time, at that age, was unique, so much more intense than shutting myself up at school learning to be docile, or sitting at home reading magazines. Those were the best years of my life, the richest, the noisiest, and I managed to find the strength to deal with the shit that came with them.’ She supported herself by moderating a Minitel server – je m’en souviens! – and developing photographs in a supermarket:
I hated working. I was depressed by all the time it took up, by the small amount of money I earned and the rapidity with which I spent it. I looked at older women, their whole lives spent working like this, only earning slightly more than the minimum wage and still, at fifty, getting bawled out by the floor manager for taking too many toilet breaks … And I couldn’t see a way out.
Then, browsing the Minitel, came the beginnings of a plan: ‘all modern communication methods’ were, she realised, ‘first and foremost used for selling sex’.
And so she started working ‘occasionally’ as a prostitute, then as a peep-show stripper and reviewer of pornographic films. The work was well paid, the clients – she ‘did’ about fifty, she reckons, over two years – for the most part ‘nice to me’, though often upsettingly ‘heavy with humanity, fragility, distress’. The experience was revelatory, and bought her the time she needed to write her first novel, the notorious Baise-Moi (1993), in which two young women cross France on an ultra-violent sex and murder spree. The rage that fuels both it and the film that followed has to do with economics and cultural capital as much as sex.
In Baise-Moi one reason the heroines go berserk is that the tougher of them, Manu, has recently been gang-raped (though both book and movie make it clear that this is only one reason out of many, and that Manu has impressive psychic defences: ‘When you park your car in the estates you empty it out first in case somebody breaks into it. I leave nothing precious in my cunt for those wankers,’ she says, explaining how she managed to keep up a front so impassive her main attacker loses his erection and gives up). In real life, Despentes writes in King Kong Theory, she and a friend were gang-raped in 1986, by a carload of three men, while hitching a lift across Paris:
While it’s going on, they pretend not to know exactly what’s happening. Because we’re wearing miniskirts, and one of us has green hair and the other orange, we must ‘fuck like rabbits’, and so the rape they are carrying out is not actually a rape. As with most rapes, I imagine. I don’t imagine that any of those three guys now considers himself a rapist. Because what they did was something else. Three of them with a gun, against two girls they’d beaten to the point of drawing blood: not rape.
When Baise-Moi made her famous, Despentes was ‘shocked’ at the number of women who wanted to talk to her about having been raped, ‘so many it was disturbing, and for a while I even wondered if they weren’t making it up.’ But in the end she accepted ‘that it does happen, all the time. It’s a widespread act, among all classes, all ages, all levels of beauty and even all kinds of personality. So how shall we explain the fact that you hardly ever hear the other side of the story? … Because men condemn rape and despise rapists. What they do is always something else.’
As the rape was actually happening, Despentes writes that the experience so victimised her that she didn’t think about pulling out the knife she carried in her pocket: ‘Defending my own body did not allow me to injure a man.’ But then she attended rape crisis training, and started reading and reflecting. Rape, she started to understand, is not ‘extraordinary and isolated, outside of sexuality’, but a ‘central sacrificial ritual’, and has been so from Ovid on. She also sees it as ‘a well-defined political strategy: the bare bones of capitalism, the crude and blunt representation of the exercise of power. It designates a ruler and organises the rules of the game to allow him to wield his power without restraint.’ Unlike the Dworkinists, however, Despentes does not see the raped woman as victimised in perpetuity. She has language, she has humour, she has imagination, and she can use them to get stronger. ‘I am not furious with myself for not having dared to kill one of them,’ she writes. ‘I am furious with a society that has educated me without ever teaching me to injure a man if he pulls my thighs apart against my will, when that same society has taught me that this is a crime from which I will never recover.’
And so, working as a prostitute became ‘a crucial step in rebuilding myself’. It was curious, Despentes writes, to discover that if you want lots and lots of male attention all you have to do is don ‘a few fetish items … suspenders, stilettos, uplift bras or lipstick’ et voilà: ‘It’s as if no one has told them that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.’ And also, using her sexuality to make money – and this is different from what people often say – allowed her, like Manu, to separate her integrity from her injuries, physical and emotional: ‘My sex belonged to me only, it didn’t lose value through being used.’
But she also learned to stop hoping that one day she’d be able to leave the rape behind her, because she can’t, and never will:
I constantly come back to it. For twenty years now, every time I think I’m done with it, I come back to it again. With different, contradictory things to say about it. Novels, stories, songs, films. I always imagine that one day I will be done with it … Impossible. It is a founding event. Of who I am as a writer, and as a woman who is no longer quite a woman. It is both that which disfigures me and that which makes me.
After Baise-Moi, the novel, Despentes wrote two more novels and a book of short stories. And then, in 2000, Baise-Moi, the movie, shot her to international celebrity, and she had a go at turning straight. ‘It wasn’t a conscious decision. More a strategy of social survival. Restraining my gestures physically, opting for gentler movement … Going blonde. Getting my teeth done. Coupling up, with an older, richer, better-known man. Wanting a child. Behaving as they did.’ The man ‘dumped’ her before she managed to acquire ‘a kid’, but she ‘rebuilt [her] mental health’ anyway, with three more novels. Les Jolies Choses (2008) was made into a film with Marion Cotillard in it. Bye Bye Blondie (2004) was made into a film in 2012 with Béatrice Dalle and Emmanuelle Béart, and directed by Despentes herself.
Since 2006 or so Despentes – as she wrote last year in a furious attack on Lionel Jospin and his ‘réserves’ about le mariage gay – has been in a settled relationship with the Spanish philosopher Beatriz Preciado, who in the course of researching her book Testo-Junkie (2013) grew an elegant Clark Gable moustache. In 2009 they travelled the US to make a documentary film called Mutantes: Porn, Punk, Feminism, interviewing stars of the queer and pro-sex feminist movements such as Candida Royalle, Annie Sprinkle and Lydia Lunch. Bye Bye Blondie, the novel, was about the meeting, as middle-aged adults, of a man and a woman who had been lovers when they met as teenagers in a psychiatric institution. For the movie, it became a story of two girls.
When Baise-Moi, the movie, came out in France in 2000 it was initially certified 16. Then right-wing campaigners agitated against it and it was recertified X, limiting its release to particular cinemas – in effect, a partial ban. Then left-wing campaigners agitated, and the government legislated a new certificate, 18, to allow the film to be widely shown. In Britain it was slightly cut – the rape scene – and released as an 18, then cut again (the gun up the anus) for the 2002 DVD. That edition comes with an excellent making-of documentary among its extras, and it’s worth watching it and the film back to back.
In mainstream cinema, performers mainly ‘go about feigning genuine humanity’, as David Foster Wallace wrote in his marvellous essay on pornography, ‘Big Red Son’. In porn, however, defences sometimes slip, and what Wallace has a porn fan characterise as the ‘what-do-you-call … human-ness’ of a person is allowed to shine through. Baise-Moi is not a porn film, but the conditions of its production were similar, and both its stars were porn actresses and one of its co-directors too. Whether for this reason or for others, there’s a frankness to the way things are said in the documentary that is beautiful, and extremely rare.
In the documentary, Despentes – talking unbelievably fast – explains how, when the producer who had bought the rights to her book failed to get a deal together, she decided to come up with a proposal herself. She approached Coralie Trinh Thi, a Vietnamese-French porn actress, to help her, and the two came up with a plan for a cheap, fast, exhilarating shockfest, shot on digital video without lighting, and with leading performances from two other young porn actresses, Raffaëla Anderson (Manu) and Karen Bach (Nadine). The sex is unsimulated, announced with a ripping sound beforehand from the crotch of Manu’s fishnets. The penises are fat and pink and slimy. There are no Minitels, sadly, but there is one old-tech moment as good if not better, when Bach struts and poses around her room with a revolver, a Discman tucked into the side of her porny tangas, wires hanging, earphones in.
The emotions dealt with are explosive, to do with sex and violence and shame and anger, and the form within which they are developed is clearly a squishy, speedy pulp. The violence is horrible but ritual, and countered by scenes of joy and warmth and friendship: the girls twerking in their underwear, the girls hitting the beach at Biarritz, the bit in which Manu gleefully lets her vagina drip menses into a hotel room bidet, grinning lewdly and saying it makes her ‘wanna fuck’. And the film is also full of the ordinary pleasures of French cinema: nice, non-glossed faces and hairdos driving around and sitting in bars and tiny apartments. It belongs as much in that tradition as in that of the exploitation movie, and has antecedents even more respectable than Thelma and Louise: Bonnie and Clyde, for example, and Pierrot le fou, Vivre sa vie and Godard in general. ‘Histoire(s) du cinéma’, as the great man intoned, many times, in the massive film of that title. ‘A GIRL and a GUN.’
In the Baise-Moi documentary, Despentes explains why she and Trinh Thi decided to drop the scene from the novel in which the girls kill a small child. ‘Thematically, it needed to be there, because no victim ever deserves to die … But we’d’ve had to find a child to do it, and if I had a three-year-old I wouldn’t let him be in Baise-Moi.’ Bach explains she’d already decided not to do porn any more, and that she’d found the sex scenes extremely difficult. ‘But I’d always dreamed of playing a strong character, so for me this was a great gift.’ ‘So I’m going to have to be a whore again?’ Anderson says she said to Despentes – like Bach, she’d decided she wanted out of porn for good. ‘And she said, if you’d rather work in a call centre for next to nothing, off you go!’ ‘Take the murders away and Manu is me,’ Anderson said. ‘Manu will follow me for the rest of my life.’ Since Baise-Moi, Anderson has acted in a non-porn film called Amour des femmes (2001) and written two volumes of memoir, Hard (2001) and Tendre Violence (2006). Trinh Thi’s book Osez la sodomie was translated into English in 2011 as Dare to Have Anal Sex: Saucy Sex Advice from France. Bach went back to porn acting, often under the groansome pseudonym of Lancaume. She killed herself in 2005, at the age of 32.
To begin with, Apocalypse Baby is an entertaining but uneasy mix of nihilistic dash (‘Couldn’t smell fear on him,’ the Hyena complains about an early victim. ‘Smells like fucking ammonia, it’s so gross if you smell it on someone, makes you want to hit them at once’) and posh-Paris satire, some of it piercing but none of it particularly new. The missing girl’s papa, for example, is a Gallimard author – ‘Catholic, right-wing, but in a traditional way, not aggressive or racist or anti-semitic. So nobody much is interested in him’ – who, when his wifi is hacked, is found to have posted ‘shame-making contributions’ under false names on other people’s blogs and to check his Amazon ratings thirty times a day. Maman – who ran off when the girl was a baby – is a gold-digging beauty of North African banlieusard origin, now settled with her fab new husband in Barcelona. A cousin from the maternal branch of the family is – comme la mode – handsome, proud, disdainful. ‘Education, he gets it his own way. He doesn’t listen, but he hears all right, through the pathetic racket in the classroom … He hears the whore up at the blackboard, who’s stammering something about violence coming “from fear of the other”. Bullshit.’
The information coming from these and other sources is disturbing. ‘Children are a rope round your neck,’ Dad thinks. ‘When Valentine was little, it was quite sweet, the Aristocats slippers, showing her Buster Keaton films, getting her a Cosette costume for the school fête … But the high maintenance he’s had to do alone really pisses him off. It gets in the way of writing, going out, listening to a record in peace.’ The ‘poor girl’, moreover, has inherited his looks, not her mother’s: ‘OK in a man. But for a woman … When she wears little short dresses like other girls her age, she looks like a rugby player.’ ‘I asked her why she didn’t watch her weight a bit better,’ Mum recalls of her first meeting with her daughter in 14 years. She can’t take the girl home because her husband doesn’t know of her existence, so she dumps her in a hotel for a few days, paying for it in cash.
‘A real drag’ who ‘binge drinks’ and will ‘do anything with anyone’: that’s the consensus of the teens in the café by the crammer. A ‘groupie’ and follower of a dire-sounding metal band called Panic Up Yours (the French doesn’t sound any better: Panique Dans Ton Cul). One of the PUY boys remembers a night they all had sex with her, then pissed on her, after which for some reason ‘she got kind of grotty’. As for Yacine, the dishy North African cousin: ‘He wasn’t going to shed tears over her lot, but he finally worked out why she was sad. Valentine just didn’t have anything much … All over the place and damaged. And that darkness inside her was waiting to burst out.’ In Valentine’s own words, in her Moleskine notebook: ‘I’m plague, I’m cholera/Bird flu, the neutron bomb,/I’m a radioactive bitch/I’m a vicious little witch.’
In stories like this, we usually get a third-act twist of some sort, and for a long time I thought the twist in this one would be that there was no twist, but some sad, small anticlimax, more or less well done: Valentine dead and now they’re sorry, Valentine alive and foetally curled up, Valentine in a prefab with a husband, like Lolita. But there is a twist, and it is massive and wrenching and explosive. I can’t say anything about it, but what I can say is that the Hyena turns out to be more interesting than expected, with a social sensitivity so acute it’s almost a superpower: ‘She could spot those who were concealing something. She could recognise a lie. It even happened sometimes, with painful flashes of knowledge, that she simply guessed lies that had been covered up.’ I can also say, I think, that Valentine is discovered to have hidden qualities too, and that it is the Hyena’s sense of these – that Valentine is ‘a bombshell of emotion, stunning and irrational … A tailspin, out of control’ – that first attracted her to taking on the case.
On the downside, though, the enormity of the twist is unsupported and unprepared for. Gillian Flynn, the author of last year’s Gone Girl – a story with much less interesting ideas in it, but in its execution a purring masterpiece of narrative engineering – says thriller-writers must be ‘fair’ to their readers, passing on enough information to allow them to solve the puzzle (while also making damn sure that they’re thrown completely off course). Well, there’s no way that Apocalypse Baby is ‘fair’ in this way, though frustratingly it seemed to me that only a little bit of editing would have buttressed it hugely. A mention of Oxford up front would have helped, and a mention of Grandad. That might well have been enough. Also, it never quite works, reading this sort of pulpy, streety book in translation: Facepuke (Face de plouc); naff in the sense of vulgar (beauf) v. naff in the sense of lame (naze); randy (avoir le feu au cul); ‘That’s what I’m paid to do, kiddo’ (‘Ça serait quoi, mon boulot, sinon?’); les nerds, les gouines, les salopes, les paumés, les clits énormes.
‘I am writing,’ Despentes announces at the beginning of King Kong Theory,
as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls who don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chicks … I am writing as a woman who is always too much of everything – too aggressive, too noisy, too fat, too rough, too hairy, always too masculine, I am told.
For readers inclined to literalism, look up Despentes on the internet. She’s actually cool and elegant, with wonderful Sarah Lund eye-bags and the sort of flicky, shruggy hair that would easily pass for that of the Isabel Marant-clad ‘pétasses du Marais’ she scorns in this book.
The King Kong Theory itself has nothing much to do with looks, or ‘the iconography of gender’ or even gender at all: it is just energy, libido, excess, ‘ultra-powerful, polymorphous sexuality’ of the sort found particularly offensive in women who refuse to stay where they are put. And it’s a development of this theory that turns out to be the point of Apocalypse Baby too: Valentine, the unhappy adolescent, whose excess of flesh and brains and love and longing can only make her explode with fury; the Hyena, the grown-up ‘warrior’, who has learned to survive the system by living beyond its respectable edge. ‘I am not sweet I am not loveable I am not a middle-class girl,’ Despentes writes at the end of King Kong Theory (towards the end she starts to rant a bit). ‘If I didn’t come from the world of punk rock I would be ashamed of what I am. But I do come from the world of punk rock and I am proud of not fitting in,’ which is another way of saying the same thing.
I love this idea, this image, the older woman and her relationship with the damaged, damaging youngster – it’s the meaning and future of feminism, apart from anything else. But I’m not sure Despentes manages to propel it out of the comic book fantasy universe, as her remarks about ‘the world of punk rock’ suggest. The making-of documentary on the Baise-Moi DVD features a cameo from Johnny Rotten, saying he hasn’t seen the film himself but everybody loves a bit of outrage, we need it to get out of bed in the morning. One day you’re a shamanic portent, the next an affable butter-munching clown.
Despentes’s novel, however, also contains a third way, through the character of the boring Lucie, who starts out terrified of hitting forty, but by the end seems happier than she believed possible, living as a fugitive in Spain with her girlfriend, ‘the best lover, friend, sister and accomplice anyone could wish for’, with whom she watches ‘the daily changes in the trees’. And with whom she discusses, of course, the whereabouts of the Hyena: ‘In Chiapas, or in Gaza, she’s in prison in Ukraine, she’s died in Chicago, she’s working in St Jean de Luz.’ In that outcast-warrior pulp universe, everywhere and nowhere. And coming perhaps to an art-house crossover movie or subtitled box-set television series near you.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.