Monday, 26 May 2014

Review of I Stand Alone (1998)

Where does one begin with a film such as Gaspar Noé’s “I Stand Alone”? A slim, 90 minute descent into hell, it conveys such images and thoughts of horror that were it played straight, it would be unwatchable. Yet Noé is always there, winking at the viewer, and this just about makes the film bearable. But does this justify the film? I do not know. What I do know is that I have a perverse admiration for this brave and genuinely shocking piece of work, which manages that rare trick of self-awareness that isn’t annoying.

Ostensibly a character study, regarding an unemployed, middle-aged, overweight, sulking and very violent man known only as “The Butcher”, on account of his former profession and also his derogatory attitude towards foreigners, women, gays. Played by Phillipe Nahon, his performance is an act of bravery. Few people would ever want themselves to be associated with this character, and even fewer could muster up the loneliness that The Butcher frequently does. He is a man who blames everyone around him for his woes, and frequently labels himself to be a hypocrite. Take the moment where he muses that sex isn’t for him, yet shortly after decides that anyone who can’t have sex is “past it”. The hell this man is living in is self-created.

There are also moments in the film where Noé simply lets the camera run as The Butcher is walking along the street, and his thoughts fill the screen. The Butcher does not think happy thoughts. “You can live with a guy, or a girl, or have kids, but you’re still alone. You live alone, you’re born alone, you die alone. Even when you fuck, you’re alone.” See also; “Love, friendship, it’s all bullshit.” Noé is careful to frame The Butcher nearly always in complete isolation, and this contributes to a near-palpable sense of fear.

The constant talk of being alone lends itself to a claustrophobic atmosphere which Noé conjures up effortlessly, spurning a traditional approach to the material and flirting with faux-documentary, Kubrickian shot composition, Godardian invention and witty intertitles. It’s a film that’s giddy with the ways in which films can be made, and this probably saves it from being unwatchable. It’s also, crucially, blackly funny in places, although that may be because if I wasn’t laughing, I’d be crying.

It’s an unflinching experience. One early scene, for example, sees The Butcher beating his pregnant lover in the stomach, over and over. It’s right there, in front of us, and I had to look away. What is the purpose of this scene? Noé is portraying such overt misanthropy that one could be tempted to say that the film is misanthropic. Not quite, in my opinion. Noé is careful to make The Butcher the very worst thing in his film, and portray his reactions to the things around him as entirely disproportionate to the things which have spurred on his anger. He keeps getting turned down on jobs, for example, and with each reaction his anger grows. Yet the people he gets rejected by are polite, sympathetic. As I have said, a lot of this anguish is internal. The Butcher is his own worst enemy. The film understands this, and him.

The Butcher also has a daughter, played by a predominantly mute Blandine Lenoir, who is the only thing that The Butcher feels any semblance of a feeling towards that isn’t hate. The final scene is a reconciliation of sorts between the two, as The Butcher weighs up the possibilities of rape and murder, but instead bawls his eyes out and yells “don’t leave me alone”. With Pachelbel’s Canon playing in the background, I found myself moved against myself. Why should I feel sympathy for such a pitiful, evil man? And yet I did, to an extent, because who doesn’t want to be alone? The film represents a depiction of the extremes of our innate fear of loneliness, an even more hellish “Taxi Driver”, if you will.

This is a difficult, problematic film that is ultimately successful because, I think, Noé understands exactly what he is doing and the results he is striving for. Some people may not be able to handle it (although it’s notably less harrowing than the director’s later, more renowned “Irreversible”), but a ready and open mind will pay you back in dividends. 

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