But this wasn't a hand out either. It takes talent to catch the attention of artists such as those. Talent, Noé has, and has shown in his short films. That talent continues in I Stand Alone, a tale of the despondency of an amoral ex-convict called "The Butcher" (Philippe Nahon). While I Stand Alone is most certainly the product of a smart and challenging director, it seems clear from the get-go that Noé is calculating his film to be deeply disturbing.
It is that.
However, it's hard to watch this film without feeling like the subject of an experiment relating to how disturbing a film maker can be. From that viewpoint, I got the same feeling as I do when I'm being preached to, or when I'm watching an obvious tear-jerker, or a horror film that tries desperately to startle. In short... it felt a little obvious. Therefore... I don't think that Noé's film is quite as deeply disturbing as he'd like to think it is.
The back-story of "The Butcher" is told up front in a slideshow detailing his history in a cold, matter-of-fact way. It's enough to create an entirely separate film from, and, in fact, Noé did with 1991's 40 minute Carne, featuring the same characters and, in fact, the same actors as I Stand Alone. The Butcher was a child of World War II. His father was expelled from France by the Nazis, his mother was cold and distant. The closest thing he's had to love deserted him when their daughter was born and once he was sent to jail (for, he thought, defending his daughter's honor) his child was institutionalized.
Now he's out, shacked up with a new woman (Frankye Pain) and her mother (Martine Audrain) and has a new baby on the way. His Mistress holds the only money in the "family" and forces him to take odd jobs instead of opening the new Meat Market as they had planned.
It's humiliating. But that's not to say that we feel sorry for this man. No. Gaspar Noé does something brilliant here and brings us deep inside the mind of The Butcher, showing us exactly who and what he really is. The philosophies of The Butcher are already shaped by his past. He is misogynistic and violent. He considers Death to be "no big deal". He's a paranoid and impotent little man who hates himself and his very existence almost as much as he hates everyone around him.
Soon our Butcher goes on a psychological rampage. The true terror in this film isn't what you see (but brother, that's there too) but what you hear from his mind (or read from his subtitles as the case may be). As the film progresses we see his hatred of women, of homosexuals, of Arabs (or any foreigner for that matter), of the rich and, ironically, of Nazis (though he considers all German people Nazi relatives).
As we follow this main character through his quickly drifting life, we see him lower his expectations bit by bit as he attempts to find work, while looking over his shoulder for the police. However, what we really see is his anger roiling, and ever perceived injustice or moral lapse causes him to plan to murder the people he sees as being responsible for what ever that might be. Strangely, as his psychosis deepens, his loathing stretches outward rather than inward. Before the bitter end, our depressed "protagonist" has elevated himself to an almost heroic status. While we're never allowed to forget that the Butcher is a bad guy, he can't seem to remember that, regardless of how far he goes.
Brother, it's pretty far. Even when only suggested, there is literally explicit sex, horrifying violence and language that would more than throw the words "Politically Incorrect" out the screen door. That... just about scratches the surface.
Noé has an interesting and well-planned film making style. His calculation to disturb is included in the edits and sound effects he chooses. A great many of the scene changes and even camera angle changes are punctuated by the sound of a gunshot (that isn't there) or other startling noises. The affect is one of constant audience unease to the point of dread. Considering this tool, it's not surprising that the audience feels very disturbed.
That said, the images shown and ideas expressed are masterfully sickening. Acts of violence are viciously depicted in an unrelentingly stark style, all the while The Butcher consistently bemoans how unfair life is and how alone he feels in everything. Yeah, I'm leavin' my violin in its case, man... sorry.
There is no question that I Stand Alone is skillfully envisioned and directed. Noé succeeds in disturbing us just where it counts and when. However, I got the impression that Noé thought his film was, or would be, more disturbing than it actually was. Toward the last act, Noé interrupts the meeting of The Butcher with his daughter Cynthia (Blandine Lenoir) by replacing the picture with a warning that reads "You have 30 seconds to leave this film". This dissolves into a flashing sign that reads "DANGER". What follows is most certainly disturbing, especially from a social mores standpoint, however, it's nothing that warrants quite the ACHTUNG that ol' Noé thrusts upon us. That's not to say it's a walk in the proverbial park, and it's not to say that it doesn't share the artistry that the rest of the film enjoyed. But if you've seen any number of Martin Scorsese flicks, this isn't the cliff-jumper Noé would like to think it is.
Gaspar Noé plays with our morality and offers up a product that is offensive to the psyche and directly contrary to social acceptability. It all pours out of a self-loathing and despondent main character who somehow finds a confused and sanctimonious self-aggrandizement. Along the way, Noé packs in commentary on France (both today and in the world of 1980 when it was set), prejudice and insanity. However, moral or not (and he is), it's hard not to think that Noé is putting on his teacher's hat a few too many times. Three and one half stars out of Five for Seul Contre Tous. Fans should check out Carne as well as the next chapter (sort of) 2002's Irréversible. Those with weak stomachs or who feel that even this film went too far, make damned sure you know what you're getting into. It's said that Irréversible makes I Stand Alone look like The Banana Splits Show. Watching it unprepared could be irreversible. See you in the next reel... alone.
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