Virginie Despentes

Biography

Virginie Despentes at the film preview of Bye Bye Blondie (March 2012). Photograph by Georges Biard (Wikimedia Commons)

Virginie Despentes was born on 3 June 1969 in Nancy. Despentes is not her real name, but a pseudonym she took when she turned 25, at the time of the publication of her novel Baise-moi, to protect her privacy. It refers to the neighbourhood ‘des pentes de la Croix-rousse’ in Lyon, where she used to live.

Her parents were both unionized civil servants and she grew up accustomed to taking part in strikes and protests. At 15, she was confined to a mental institution against her will for two months. After this, she left secondary school and lived on her own. She led a rather marginal life for years suffering from alcoholism, and working as a prostitute in Lyon and Paris. She also worked as a critic of pornographic films during those years. Her experience of underground circles, notably Punk and post-Punk, and of the world of prostitution feeds her creative process. In King Kong théorie, a feminist manifesto she wrote in 2006, she states her literary intention: ‘J’écris de chez les moches, pour les moches, les vieilles, les camonieuses, les frigides, les mal baisées, les imbaisables, les hystériques, les tarées, toutes les exclues du grand marché de la bonne meuf’. Marginalization, social exclusion and inequality related to gender and class are indeed central themes in her writing and filmmaking.

Despentes often problematizes gendered expectations in a transgressive way, borrowing from genres such as pornography, noir and, to some extent, horror. Violence in all its forms, and female violence and violence against women in particular, is a topic relentlessly addressed in Despentes’s work. Her first novel Baise-moi (1993) was rejected by nine publishers before one of Despentes’s friends sent it to Florent Massot, who agreed to publish it. The novel tells the story of Manu, an alcoholic and occasional porn actress, and Nadine, a prostitute, and their pathway to violence. It instantly became a huge success and propelled Despentes to literary stardom. In 2000, Despentes directed a film adaptation of Baise-moi in collaboration with porn actress Coralie Trin Thi. The rape and revenge narrative depicting extreme violence and explicit sex on-screen immediately sparked a reaction of catholic conservative circles, far-right protesters, feminists and the media alike. The intervention of the catholic conservative organization Promouvoir resulted in the film losing its screening licence  – the first such case in France in 28 years – and being awarded an 18 rating.

Despentes’s second novel, Les Chiennes savantes (1996), is a reappropriation of noir clichés in a female universe. The narrative takes place in and around the bleak atmosphere of a strip club where a series of murders occur. Similarly, the short story ‘A terme’ from her collection Mordre au travers (1999) is probably one of the most disturbing explorations of infanticide in contemporary French literature. In 2002, Despentes published a graphic novel in collaboration with Nora Hamdi, in which they portray sexual harassment against women and female violence, through characters reminding us of the heroines of Baise-moi. More recently, in Apocalypse Bébé (2010), Despentes explores the theme of religious and class exclusion as well as violence, manifested in the form of suicide attack and mass murder. The novel was awarded the Prix Trop Virilo and the Prix Renaudot.

The construction and the difficulties of socialization are also haunting themes in her work. In 1999, her novel Les Jolies Choses, which examines the construction and the performance of femininity, won the Prix de Flore and the Prix littéraire Saint-Valentin. By this time, Florent Massot had declared bankruptcy and major publisher Grasset approached Despentes. Her fourth novel Teen Spirit (2002) tells the story of a male protagonist’s path to fatherhood and, to a certain extent, adulthood. In Bye Bye Blondie, two years later, she explores anew the theme of social exclusion and paradoxically of the alienation one experiences to achieve social success. The novel also tells a love story between the protagonists Gloria and Eric, concluding with a rather traditional happy ending. On adapting the novel for film in 2011, Eric becomes Frances. Béatrice Dalle and Emmanuelle Béart were chosen to play the passionate couple, utilizing these familiar faces of French cinema to embody a not so familiar relationship on-screen.

Between 2006 and 2009, Despentes published and directed two major non-fictional works, King Kong théorie, an autobiographic essay, and a documentary, Mutantes, féminisme post-punk. Prostitution and pornography are central themes addressed in both works. King Kong théorie also tackles the question of rape. Despentes, herself a victim of rape, reflects on the trauma she experienced and also discusses the representational void surrounding the subject in literature and cinema.

The urban setting is also central to Despentes’s imagination. Her last novel is a tripartite narrative telling the story of Vernon Subutex, a former record dealer, who ends up living on the streets. Moving from one character to another thanks to dialogues and interior monologues, the narrative also explores Paris and its different arrondissements, revealing social segregation. The first volume was awarded the Prix Anaïs Nin, the Prix Landerneau, the Prix Roman-News and the Prix La Coupole. Currently, Despentes lives and writes in Paris. If her work was once associated with scandal and received a mixed reception, she is today considered one of the most important voices of the contemporary literary scene. In June 2015, Despentes became a member of the Prix Femina jury. She left the Prix Femina in January 2016 to join the Académie Goncourt. 

Compiled by Dominique Carlini-Versini (Kent/Paris)

Bibliography

Baise-moi (Paris: Florent Massot, 1993/Paris: Grasset, 1999) 

Les Chiennes savantes (Paris: Florent Massot, 1996/Paris: Grasset: 2001)

‘C'est dehors, c'est la nuit’ published in the short story collection Dix (Paris: Grasset/Les Inrockuptibles, 1997)

Les Jolies Choses (Paris: Grasset, 1998)

Mordre au travers (Paris: Librio, 1999)

Teen Spirit (Paris: Grasset, 2002)

[with Nora Hamdi] Trois étoiles  (Paris: Au Diable Vauvert, 2002)

Bye Bye Blondie (Paris: Grasset, 2004)

‘Putain, je déteste le foot...’ (Rock & Folk, 444, 2004)

‘Porn star, the FUCKING DUEL’ (published in the literary magazine Bordel, 2, Paris: Flammarion, 2004)

‘Le foulard’ published in the short story collection Des Nouvelles du prix de Flore (Paris: Flammarion, 2004)

King Kong théorie (Paris: Grasset, 2006)

Barcelone (Paris: Scali, 2007)

‘I put a spell on you’ (Psychologies [special issue ‘Les Secrets de l'érotisme féminin’], 2009)

Apocalypse bébé (Paris: Grasset, 2010)

‘Djian le puriste' (Le Monde des livres, 30 June 2011)

‘Nous avons été cette gamine’ [about Marie Darrieussecq’s Clèves] (Le Monde des Livres, 20 October 2011)

‘Cher Guillaume’ [posthumous letter to Guillaume Dustan] (Le Monde des livres, 31 May 2011)

‘Première classe’ published in the short story collection La Malle (Paris: Gallimard, 2013)

Vernon Subutex 1 (Paris: Grasset, 2015)

Vernon Subutex 2 (Paris: Grasset, 2015)

Vernon Subutex 3 (Paris: Grasset, to be published in 2016)

[with Paul B. Preciado] French Lovers (Paris: Au Diable Vauvert, to be published in 2016)


Filmography

[with Coralie Trinh Thi] Baise-moi [adaptation of her novel] (2000)

Mauvaise étoile [music video for Patrick Eudeline] (2006)

Mutantes, féminisme post-punk [documentary] (Blaq out, 2009)

Bye Bye Blondie [adaptation of her novel] (2011)

Translations by Despentes

Plastic Jesus [Translation of Plastic Jesus by Poppy Z. Brite] (Paris: Au Diable Vauvert, 2002)

Mort aux Ramones [Translation of Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones by Dee Dee Ramone] (Paris: Au Diable Vauvert, 2002)

[with Wendy Delorme] Déséquilibres synthétiques [Translation of Will Work for Drugs by Lydia Lunch] (Paris: Au Diable Vauvert, 2010)

English translations of Despentes’s Work

Rape Me [Translation of Baise-moi by Bruce Benderson] (New York: Grove Press, 2002)

King Kong Theory [Translation of King Kong théorie by Stéphanie Benson] (New York: Feminist Press, 2010)

Apocalypse Baby [Translation of Apocalypse bébé by Sian Reynolds] (New York: Feminist Press, 2015)

Compiled by Dominique Carlini-Versini (Kent/Paris)

 

Criticism

Barfoot, Nicola: Frauenkrimi/Polar Féminin : Generic Expectations and the Reception of Recent French and German Crime Novels by Women (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 2007)

Bayon, Estelle: Le Cinéma obscène (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007)

Best, Victoria and Crowley, Martin: The New Pornographies: Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007)

Bourcier, Marie-Hélène: ‘Pipe d'auteur: La “nouvelle vague pornographique française” et ses intellectuels (avec Jean-Pierre Léaud et Ovidie, Catherine Millet et son mari et toute la presse)’ (L'Esprit Créateur 44.3, 2004, pp.13-27)

Chevillot, Frédérique: ‘Les Délires solidaires de Despentes, de Baise-moi à King Kong théorie’ in Solitaires, Solidaires: Conflict and Confluence in Women’s Writing in France ed. by Elise Hugueny-Léger and Caroline Verdier (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, pp. 229-245)

Détrez, Christine and Simon, Anne:‘”Plus tu baises dur, moins tu cogites”: Littérature féminine contemporaine et sexualité – la fin des tabous?’ (L’Esprit Créateur 44.3, 2004, pp. 57-69)

Downing, Lisa: ‘French Cinema's New “Sexual Revolution”: Postmodern Porn And Troubled Genre’ (French Cultural Studies 15.3, 2004, pp. 265-280)

Edwards, Natalie: ‘Feminist Manifesto or Hardcore Porn? Virginie Despentes’s Transgression’ (Irish Journal of French Studies 12, 2012, pp. 9-26)

—: ‘Virginie Despentes and the Risk of a Twentieth-Century Autobiographical Manifesto’ in Women Taking Risks in Contemporary Autobiographical Narratives ed. by Anna Rocca and Kenneth Reeds (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, pp. 87-103)

Fayard, Nicole :’Sadeian Sisters: Sexuality as Terrorism in the Work of Virginie Despentes’ in Love and Sexuality: New Approaches in French Studies ed. by Sarah F. Donachie and Kim Harrison (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005, pp. 101-120)

—: ‘The Rebellious Body as Parody : Baise-Moi by Virginie Despentes’ (French Studies 60.1, 2006, pp. 63-77)

Franco, Judith: ‘Gender, Genre and Female Pleasure in the Contemporary Revenge Narrative: Baise-Moi and What It Feels Like for a Girl’ (Quarterly Review of Film & Video 21.1, 2004, pp. 1-10)

Heathcote, Owen: ‘Beyond Antoinette Fouque (Il y a deux sexes) and beyond Virginie Despentes (King Kong théorie)? Anne Garréta’s Sphinxes’ in Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France: Life as Literature ed. by Amaleena Damlé and Gill Rye (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013, pp. 225-237)

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra: Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2011)

Hoberman, James: ‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ (The Village Voice 46.27, 3 July 2001), available online at http://www.villagevoice.com/film/conspirators-of-pleasure-6415279

Jordan, Shirley Ann: ‘"Dans le mauvais goût pour le mauvais goût"? Pornographie, violence et sexualité féminine dans la fiction de Virginie Despentes’ in Nouvelles écrivaines: nouvelles voix? ed. by Nathalie Morello and Catherine Rodgers (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002, pp. 121-141)

—: ‘Revolting Women? Excess and détournement de genres in the Work of Virginie Despentes’ in Contemporary French Women's Writing: Women’s Visions, Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2004, pp. 113-151)

—: ‘Close-Up and Impersonal: Sexual/Textual Bodies in Contemporary Women’s Writing’ in Focalizing the Body in Contemporary Women’s Writing and Filmmaking in France ed. by Gill Rye and Carrie Tarr (Nottingham French Studies 45.3, Autumn 2006, [special issue, pp. 8-23])

Jourde, Pierre: La Littérature sans estomac (Paris: Esprit des péninsules, 2001)

Kampmark, Binoy: ‘A Wowseristic Affair: History And Politics Behind the Banning of Ken Park, Baise-Moi and Other Like Depravities’ (Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20.3, 2006, pp. 345-361)

Ladenson, Elisabeth: ‘French Literature after Censorship’ (L'Esprit Créateur 44.3, 2004, pp. 82-93)

Landry, Vincent: ‘Virginie Despentes et l’autofiction théorique: étude de King Kong théorie’ (Revue Politiqueer, 2014), available online at http://politiqueer.info/numeros/rpqfrancofolles/landry-virginiedespentesautofictiontheorique/

Lasserre, Audrey: ‘Mauvais genre(s): une nouvelle tendance littéraire pour une nouvelle génération de romancières (1985-2000)’ in Premiers romans: 1945-2003 ed. by Marie-Odile André and Johan Faerber (Paris: Presses Sorbonne nouvelle, 2005, pp. 59-79)

Lemperlé, Shandy April: Comment prendre une autre forme: une étude sur la traduction anglaise et la version cinématographique du roman 'Baise-moi' de Virginie Despentes ([Archive] thesis, University of Montana/American University of Paris, 2006)

Louar, Nadia: ‘Version femmes plurielles: relire Baise-moi de Virginie Despentes’ (Palimpseste, Revue de traduction 22, 2009, pp.83-98)

MacKenzie, Scott: ‘Baise-moi, Feminist Cinemas and the Censorship Controversy’ (Screen 43.3, 2002, pp. 315-324)

Martinek, Claudia: ‘ “Inventer jusqu’au délire la dance des anges”? La sexualité dans Baise-moi de Virginie Despentes et Femme nue, femme noire de Calixthe Beyala’ (L’Esprit Créateur 45.1, 2005, pp. 48-58)

Mossuz-Lavau, Janine: ‘De Simone de Beauvoir à Virginie Despentes: les intellectuelles et la question du genre’ (Modern & Contemporary France 17.2, 2009, pp. 177-188)

Mühleisen, Wencke: ‘Realism of Convention and Realism of Queering: Sexual Violence in Two European Art Films’ (NORA - Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 13.2, 2005, pp.115-125)

Reyns-Chikuma, Chris: ‘Traversées des genres avec frictions et fusions dans Apocalypse Bébé de Virginie Despentes’ (Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 17.5, 2013, pp. 550-559)

Saint-Amand, Denis: ‘Quelque part entre Charleville et l’Arcadie: Esquisse d’une lecture croisée des postures de Virginie Despentes et de Patti Smith’ (COnTEXTES 8, 2011), available online at http://contextes.revues.org/4693

Saint-Martin, Lori: ‘Rediscovering the Absent Father, a Question of Recognition: Despentes, Tardieu’ in Women's Writing in Twenty-First-Century France: Life as Literature ed. by Amaleena Damlé and Gill Rye (Cardiff: University of Wales, 2013, pp. 87-97)

Sauzon, Virginie: ‘Virginie Despentes et les récits de la violence sexuelle: une déconstruction littéraire et féministes des rhétoriques de la racialisation’ (Genre, Sexualité & Société, Spring 2012), available online at http://gss.revues.org/2328

Schaal, Michèle A.: ‘Virginie Despentes or a French Third Wave of Feminism?’ in Cherchez la femme ed. by Erika Fülop and Adrienne Angelo (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, pp. 39-55)

—: ‘Gendered Performances: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Virginie Despentes’s Teen Spirit’ in Masculinities in Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century French and Francophone Literature ed. by Edith B. Vandervoort (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, pp. 41-63)

—: ‘Un conte de fées punk-rock féministe: Bye Bye Blondie de Virginie Despentes’ (Dalhousie French Studies 99, Summer 2012, pp. 49-61)

—: ‘Une nécessaire rébellion féministe: La violence féminine chez Virginie Despentes’ in Rebelles et criminelles chez les écrivaines d’expression française ed. by Colette Trout and Frédérique Chevillot (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013, pp. 267-282)

Sicard-Cowen, Hélène: ‘Le féminisme de Virginie Despentes à l’étude dans le roman Baise-moi” (Women in French Studies 16, 2008, pp. 64-72)

Spoiden, Stéphane: ‘Clivage’ (L'Esprit Créateur 44.3, 2004, pp. 70-81)

Tarr, Carrie: ‘Mutilating and Mutilated Bodies’ in Visions of Struggle in Women’s Filmmaking in the Mediterranean (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 63-77)

Tarr, Carrie and Rollet, Brigitte: Cinema and the Second Sex (New York: Continuum, 2001)

Compiled by Dominique Carlini-Versini (Kent/Paris)

 

Interviews

Adler, Laure: ‘Entretien’ (‘Hors Champs’, France Culture, April 2012)

Artus, Hubert: ‘Virginie Despentes, l’interview intégrale’ (L’Obs/Rue89, 19 September 2010), available online at http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/blog/cabinet-de-lecture/2010/09/19/virginie-despentes-linterview-integrale-167318

Barthès, Yann: ‘Une interview de Virginie Despentes’ (Canal + ‘Le Petit Journal’, June 2015), available online at http://www.canalplus.fr/c-emissions/c-le-petit-journal/pid6515-le-petit-journal.html?vid=1275003

Bourmeau, Sylvain: ‘Virginie Despentes : “Je sens bien que je viens d’ailleurs”’  (Grazia, June 2015)

Cheravola, Olivier: ‘Casey et Virginie Despentes, la rencontre’ (SURL, July 2015), Part 1 available online at http://www.surlmag.fr/casey-et-virginie-despentes-interview-part-1-2015/  and Part 2 at http://www.surlmag.fr/casey-et-virginie-despentes-interview-part-2-2015/

Costa, Marianne: ‘Despentes: anarcho-féministe’ (Le Magazine.info, June 2007), available online at http://www.lemagazine.info/?Despentes-anarcho-feministe

Crom, Nathalie: ‘Virginie Despentes: “La société est devenue plus prude, l’atmosphère plus réactionnaire”’ (Télérama, January 2015)

Einhorn, Juliette: ‘Virginie Despentes: “Je ne m’attendais pas à ce que ce soit aussi bien, ma vie”’ (Le Magazine Littéraire 551, January 2015, p. 26)

Kaprièlian, Nelly: ‘Dans Vernon Subutex, Virginie Despentes cartographie la société’ (Les Inrocks, February 2015)

Laurin, Danielle: ‘Virginie Despentes, punk un jour, punk toujours’ (Elle Québec, January 2011)

Marchenoir, Caïn: ‘Entretien avec Virginie Despentes: Houellebecq, sa trilogie… et Lyon’ (Lyon Capitale, May 2015)

Morice, Jacques: ‘Virginie Despentes: “J’avais envie de faire une comédie amoureuse gouine”’ (Télérama, March 2012)

Reitzer, Juliette: ‘Virginie Despentes réagit à la “polémique Tomboy”’ (Trois Couleurs, 24 February 2014), available online at http://www.troiscouleurs.fr/2014/02/virginie-despentes-tombo/

Sabatier, Benoît: ‘Virginie Despentes: “Les crasseux, c’est ma génération”’ (Technikart, September 2010)

Savigneau, Josyane: ‘Virginie Despentes: “Je ne suis pas encore très disciplinée, mais j’essaie”’ (Le Monde des Livres, August 2010)

Sprenger, Anne-Sylvie: ‘Virginie Despentes: “Je ne peux pas être tout le temps dans la colère” (Le Matin, October 2010)

Tallon, Jean-Louis: ‘Entretien avec Virginie Despentes’ (HorsPress, May 2002), available online at http://erato.pagesperso-orange.fr/horspress/despente.htm

Vandel, Philippe: ‘Virginie Despentes: “Je trouve que je ressemble à Gérard Depardieu”’ (France Info, 5 June 2015), available online at http://www.franceinfo.fr/emission/tout-et-son-contraire/2014-2015/virginie-despentes-je-trouve-que-je-ressemble-gerard-depardieu-09-06-2015-04-25

Wullschleger, Frédéric: ‘Interview de Virginie Despentes pour le film Bye Bye Blondie’ (Abus de Ciné, 2011), available online at http://www.abusdecine.com/interview/bye-bye-blondie

Compiled by Dominique Carlini-Versini (Kent/Paris)