I Stand Alone

If there’s one theme the notorious French director Gaspar Noé loves to fixate on, it’s that a single brutish, unthinking act can change a life forever. Every movie he’s made could have been called Irréversible — the title of his battering-ram film from 2003, which opened with an irreversible action and then reversed itself — literally, with a backwards narrative. Irréversible was preceded by two other Noé excursions into darkness: 1991’s 40-minute Carne, and Noé’s 1999 feature-length debut Seul Contre Nous (or, in English-speaking countries, I Stand Alone). Both of those films are really interlocking: I Stand Alone is a sequel to Carne (and helpfully sums up the prior film at its beginning) and has the same characters played by the same actors, though I suppose Noé doesn’t care that the actors in I Stand Alone are — and look — eight years older.

Taken together or watched back to back, Carne and I Stand Alone form a two-hour-and-thirteen-minute slog through the mind of Philippe Chevalier (Phillippe Nahon), an embittered butcher with a mute daughter by way of a girlfriend who dumped him. In Carne, the butcher wrongly assumes his daughter has been raped, and compounds the error by sticking a knife in the face of a man he takes to be the rapist. One might excuse this violent rage if one didn’t suspect that it was there all along, just waiting to be let loose by some infuriating event that could justify it. At the end of Carne, the butcher has done his time in prison (his victim survived) and finds himself in a loveless, opportunistic match with a bar owner (Frankye Pain) he’s gotten pregnant. She offers to sell her bar and move with the butcher to a place where they can open their own butcher shop, and there Carne ends, with Noé already having established the butcher’s instability and his general sour outlook on life. (Also established are Noé’s love of shock — the first images are of a horse being slaughtered for horsemeat — and a motif equating menstrual blood, or lack thereof, with trouble.)

I Stand Alone supposedly takes place only a few months later, but, as noted above, the cast looks so much older now that it’s as if the ravages of suppressed bitterness and lowered expectations have aged them a few years. The extra lines and gray hairs work for Philippe Nahon, a burly man with startling ice-blue eyes sunk in a fleshy, impassive face, like marbles pushed into a blob of dough that’s been left to harden. Through most of the film, the butcher has one expression, or, rather, one non-expression. (The closest Noé comes to conventional comedy here is when the butcher applies for a job at a supermarket deli and his pimply-faced manager tells him to smile; the butcher just stares at him, face frozen in his usual scowl.)

Which is fine, because the butcher’s narration picks up the slack; he goes on and on about how much everything sucks, how it’s pointless to have kids, how we come into the world alone and go out of it the same way. There’s a scene frightening in its desolate bleakness when the butcher, who has found temporary work as a night watchman at a nursing home, stands with a nurse at the bedside of a dying old woman, who croaks out, “Daddy, don’t leave me alone….It’s black all over.” The butcher’s response to this? He walks the nurse home, hoping to get some pussy. When he doesn’t, he goes off to a porno film (which is shown explicitly). Then he returns to his screaming, still-pregnant girlfriend and her elderly mother; the girlfriend thinks he’s been sleeping around. Harsh words are exchanged, and the butcher falls victim to that rage again — he punches the girlfriend around, including several savage blows to her baby-fattened stomach. He grabs a gun, which has three bullets in it, and goes on the run.

How, at this point, can we identify with such a man? We don’t, but Noé forces us into it anyway, by putting us in the same boat with him. The butcher’s existence becomes solely about day-to-day survival and the goal of seeing his institutionalized daughter (Blandine Lenoir). The daughter softens him; it’s the only time his ranting inner monologue shuts up for a second. But we also begin to wonder what he has in mind for her. The butcher brings his daughter back to his squalid hotel room, and Noé puts up a huge red ATTENTION on the screen, followed by a clock counting off thirty seconds — the time Noé is allowing for those who want to leave the theater before the shocking finale. (Has anyone ever actually left? I tend to doubt it.) Time’s up, and Noé proceeds to give us two endings, one grotesque and disturbing, one peaceful and disturbing. Noé lays out the two options available to this particular man we’ve been suffering with for eighty minutes (or longer, if you count Carne). They’re both depressing, though one of them offers at least some faint hope.

Who wants to sit through this? Well, Noé makes it not only possible but oddly pleasurable; he keeps his films short, and he uses all manners of Kubrick-style tricks to lure us in. Carne and I Stand Alone are stylistically linked in two major ways: In both, Noé has a sort of editing tic wherein he does a quick black-out to the accompaniment of a single deep chord; after a while you begin predicting when one is coming, and it gets kind of funny. Then there’s the much-remarked-upon gimmick of puncturing the soundtrack (usually during a quiet scene, so that it’s all the more jarring) with a sudden gunshot, accompanied by a lurching zoom or pan. Noé uses this exactly once in Carne, but peppers it liberally throughout I Stand Alone. The effect keeps you rattled and attentive, and serves as a visceral reminder of just how close the butcher is to going off.

Gaspar Noé is a sort of ironic showman; he likes to fill the screen with big blocky letters that warn you about the scenes you’re about to see, or announce “You have been watching Carne.” What’s strange is that these gimmicks don’t take you out of the movie; they suck you in deeper. It’s as if Noé dispensed with anything that doesn’t move the film along, and if he has to layer a second narration on top of the first or pause to tell you exactly what time it is, he’ll do it. For all the static bleakness of his movies, Noé does have a sinful sense of play — most of it directed at his audience (some of whom had seizures during Irréversible, with its opening sonic assault — which employs a nausea-inducing frequency used by French police to disperse riots, for Christ’s sake — and its closing orgasm of flashing lights). Noé is both serious and not serious: Rimbaud writing for the Weekly World News, and having a grand time doing it.

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