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.
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.
Noé’s antihero may call France
a “shithole of cheese and Nazi lovers,” but like Céline’s Journey to the End of
the Night, I Stand Alone can be seen
as bizarrely patriotic. However beleaguered his national culture, the miserable, martyred, misanthropic butcher of Paris will not go quietly into oblivion.
I think therefore I am, the movie’s
antihero bellows, knowing that his
ferocious diatribe has the power to amaze tout le monde— the whole world will hear this French dog bark.
There’s also a marked ’70s quality to the even gorier black comedy Ravenous. Surprisingly, this Hollywood-
financed, antimilitarist, gross-out
Western by British director Antonia Bird is the first theatrical feature to draw on one of the grisliest episodes in
American history— namely the 1847
California-bound Donner Party who, trapped by an early winter in the Sierra Nevadas, resorted to cannibalism.
That Ravenous will oscillate in tone between the spooky and the jocular is immediately signaled when a Nietzschean epigram is capped by the anonymous injunction “EAT ME.” In a movie filled with anachronistic wise-guy performances, Guy Pearce’s Captain John Boyd— a soldier who managed to survive a Mexican War battle by cravenly playing possum in a mass grave— is unusually sober. As his reward, he’s sent to a remote fort high in the Sierra Nevadas— there to be the straight man to a crew of rowdy, sloppy misfits. Things grow even more lysergic when a mysterious stranger (Robert Carlyle) stumbles out of the wilderness one night, recounting the tale of a stranded wagon train whose starving members were compelled to butcher one another for food.
The fort dispatches a rescue mission and Bird gets her best scenes, midmovie, with Boyd and a handful of
other soldiers heading heedless into horror, their guide ever freakier as they approach his haunt of fear. A succession of dripping corpses, not to mention Carlyle’s hooting, Manson-esque character, suggest the missing link between the Old West and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre— although Ted Griffin’s screenplay, which derives an additional spin by appropriating an Indian vampire myth, is ultimately too crude to sustain the mood. As Bird, too, overplays her hand, the movie dissolves
into a bloody mess.
For all its high-flown suggestions that cannibalism might be a metaphor for Manifest Destiny, gold-hungry Americans, or an innate will to consume, Ravenous loses resonance as it proceeds. To stay to find out how this campfire story ends is to sit still for a
debate on morality that the butcher of I Stand Alone would find laughable, amid one-liners that would make even him wince. “It’s lonely being a cannibal,” a character complains. “It’s tough making friends.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 16, 1999