Meat and Greet

 I Stand Alone, a movie that did much to hone the edge of the last New York Film Festival, is lacerating in its precision. This hair-trigger first-feature by 35-year-old Gaspar Noé is constructed to spring shut like a steel trap— if not a guillotine.

Part circus stunt, part social tract, the movie opens by aggressively restating the "wisdom" of 1968— morality is made by and for the rich, power comes from the barrel of a gun— and then proceeds to prove the point. I Stand Alone, which is interspersed throughout with Godardian intertitles, calls itself "the tragedy of a jobless butcher struggling to survive in the bowels of his nation." A slide-show biography synopsizes Noé's 1992 short, Carne, in which a World War II orphan becomes a dealer in horse meat, then winds up in prison for stabbing some guy who he imagines has raped his autistic daughter; I Stand Alone picks up the story.

The nameless, now 50-year-old butcher is played by Philippe Nahon as a glowering, bilious block of rage— if this were a David Cronenberg film, his head would explode. A late-20th- century Underground Man, he's as philosophical as he is disgruntled. Perhaps 90 percent of the soundtrack is devoted to his endless misogynist, xenophobic, class-conscious complaints. (As this internal mutter rises in volume, the butcher suggests a crazed R. Crumb character trudging through a desolate urban landscape under the weight of an oppressive thought-balloon.) Almost the most remarkable thing about I Stand Alone is this furious, despairing diatribe, a nihilist stream of consciousness that flushes through the movie like raw sewage into the void.

Nahon in I Stand Alone, part circus stunt, part social tract
Film Forum
Nahon in I Stand Alone, part circus stunt, part social tract


I Stand Alone
Written and directed by Gaspar Noé
A Strand release
At Film Forum
Through March 30

Directed by Antonia Bird
Written by Ted Griffin
A 20th Century Fox release
Opens March 19

The butcher has most recently worked as a bartender and, having impregnated his sour, obese employer, has relocated with her to her mother's apartment in Lille— a cramped space in a housing tract named, rather too obviously, Pablo Picasso Towers, that only serves to further incubate his seething alienation. As his inability to smile insures that he won't get a job behind a supermarket deli counter, the butcher works briefly as the night watchman at an old-age home. In what amounts to an existential revelation, he helps a young nurse tend to an old woman who dies like a child, crying, "Daddy . . . don't leave me alone." The butcher then goes off to a porn flick (like many of the most confrontational European art films of the past few years, I Stand Alone has a hardcore insert), and when his mistress picks a fight, he punches her out— reducing the baby in her womb to "hamburger meat." The sequence is so brutal one barely wonders how exactly the butcher acquires the gun with which, having turned his back on domesticity, he then splits back to Paris.

I Stand Alone is strong stuff but it's not depressing— in part because Noé's filmmaking is so energetic in its calculations. The movie is a veritable sonata of social disgust in which the director underscores his explosive cuts and percussive camera moves with a noise that resounds in the brain like a cell door slamming. Shot largely in deliberately composed, widescreen close-ups, I Stand Alone is at once focused and abstract, unfolding in a bleak world of empty corridors and vacant, industrial streets— at once prison and abattoir. When the butcher hitchhikes back to Paris, a brief nocturne in which a trucker blasts his music against a windshield montage of onrushing highway provides the designated lyrical interlude.

Renting the flophouse room where his daughter was conceived 15 years before, the butcher looks for work but mainly finds humiliation. (Meanwhile, the gun he's carrying begins to burn a hole in his brain.) At one point, he's picked up by a half-mad junkie hooker. Naturally, she calls him "Daddy"; this is a world of fathers, real and imagined, for the filmmaker no less than his protagonist. (Among other things, I Stand Alone gives Taxi Driver— to which Noé pays homage— a stringent, sardonic Fassbinder makeover.) Inevitably, the butcher goes to the institution to retrieve his silent, dough-faced daughter and "show her the Eiffel Tower."

As noted here by Gavin Smith last June, Noé resurrects a gimmick from schlockmeister William Castle's 1961 Homicidal by giving the audience a 30-second warning to either leave the theater or avert their eyes. He's not altogether kidding. The climax is long and bloody, although the butcher's prolix torrent of insane thoughts are tempered by the cliché strains of Pachelbel's Canon. But if I Stand Alone tricks the viewer, it does so honestly— the entire movie is preparation for a choice between rival forms of what Marxist film theorists used to call unpleasure.

In interviews, the Argentinian-born Noé has expressed contempt for the gentility of current French cinema, locating his film in the tradition of Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados or such 1970s provocations as Salo, Straw Dogs, and Taxi Driver. Five years in the making, I Stand Alone was fueled by "the desire to finish a film that no one in French film circles wanted to see." Be that as it may, I Stand Alone has been praised by French critics across the political spectrum— many citing the corrosive, first-person novels of fascist modernist Louis-Ferdinand Céline as literary precedent for I Stand Alone's nonstop talk-radio rant.

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