If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent a great deal of time wondering what the world was like through the eyes of a cold and unfeeling pet dog. Okay, so hopefully most of you aren’t anything like me, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the 1989 French black humor film Baxter (pronounced bax-TEARRRRR).
Baxter is a bull terrier who longs to be liberated from the shackles of his pound dwelling and experience life among les humains. We fascinate him; he is intrigued by our smells, our habits, and our desires. Most unfortunate for his various owners throughout the film, he also holds these traits in utter contempt, finally to the end of at least one character.
His first owner is an elderly woman, Madame Deville, who is gifted Baxter by her daughter. Both owner and pet take an immediate disliking to one another. Despite the woman’s gradual fondness of the dog, the feeling is never mutual, as Baxter spends his days gazing through a window, wishing instead to live with his owner’s amorous newlywed neighbors. He loves their active nature, and finds the various noises they make in the dark arousing “certain desires”. This longing eventually urges him to take action, though Baxter is benevolent in his hatred, first issuing a warning in the form of a shove down the staircase. Madame Deville, however, does not take heed, and for this, to no regret on the part of our hero, pays the ultimate price. Baxter’s wish has come true, ushering in les jours heureux (“the happy days”).
But the happiness does not last long. Baxter notices a change in his new, young female owner. Suddenly, she seems to smell like two people. His worst fears are realized when the couple returns home after an absence of several days with what he refers to as “the Creature”. “I’ve never seen anything so weak and mindless,” he thinks upon first sight. “It was damp, toothless, almost hairless. I thought they were ashamed of it, that they were apologizing. But when I looked at them, they seemed happy.” Jealous that he is no longer the center of attention, he devises a nefarious plot to drown the Creature in a back yard fountain, failing in his all-too-early warning bark. Despondent in the near loss of their child, the couple find themselves unable to care for their pet, and Baxter falls under the ownership of a boy whom he considers un humain qui me ressemble (“a human like me”).
This is where the film goes from odd to perverse. The young boy appears to have an obsession with the final days of Hitler, which turns out in reality to be a school-aged crush on Eva Braun. He recounts the final hours in History’s Most Famous Bunker to a female classmate, dead puppies and all, noting “If it weren’t for Hitler, it would be a great love story”. Despite Baxter’s appreciation for the boy’s detached worldview and his boot camp-style drill training, his relationship with his owner again turns sour, and our protagonist eventually ends up where his journey began – at the pound.
Baxter is indeed life through the eyes of a disturbed dog, though manages to address a number complexities, from adultery, parenthood, loneliness, old age, and young love. All of les humains are in one way or another connected, with the events of their lives intertwined by one another’s actions. The humor is dark, the context is wicked, but the truth of the human condition all too real. Needless to say, which is why I’m saying it, this film is not for the easily offended.