I Stand Alone (1998)
Director: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Philippe Nahon
Runtime: 90 minutes
My Rating: ★★★★1/2
In Short: Sickening, bloodcurdling, and powerful; Noé’s most effective film
WARNING! You have 30 seconds to leave the screening of this film. By the time these words appear on the screen nearly seventy minutes into Gaspar Noé’s I Stand Alone, many viewers will be wishing they had already left the film. It is a brutal, violent look into the life of an ageing butcher who spits out his own horrifying, twisted, amoral worldview in the form of a nearly incessant narration, as he beats his pregnant wife, leaves for Paris, gets drunk, plans to shoot his future employer, goes to find his estranged teenage daughter, and “reunite” with her.
Though the film is a feature-length adaptation and “sequel” to the impressive early short Carne, I find there more in common with Noé’s more popular Irreversible than any of his other works. Certainly, the less impressive Enter the Void was a step in a different direction for Noé, but I Stand Alone and Irreversible remain firmly planted among Noé’s cinematic oeuvre as the two most exceptional works. Though Irreversible built on the notorious violence and themes of a decaying society that were prevalent throughout all his films, it is in I Stand Alone that Noé uses violence and psychosis in the strongest and most effective way.
The main character of the film is The Butcher, played by Philippe Nahon, who proves himself to be one of France’s most striking actors even in old age. Nahon has been starring in films since 1962, when he made a small appearance in the Jean-Pierre Melville French New Wave classic, Le Doulos. His most recent role was in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, as an auctioneer. Nahon has more than 160 acting credits to his name, but there is one role that we arguably remember better than any other. Nahon plays The Butcher with a terrifying ferocity, devouring his role and bringing exceptional brilliance to it. Played by any other actor, The Butcher could’ve been a completely different person, but Nahon’s cold and deadly face makes him creepy just to look at, and every word he speaks (particularly in his narration, which in the film’s final minutes is almost completely non-stop) is infused with a stunning and punctual seriousness. We hear the insanity before we see it.
But without Noé’s intense and brilliant direction, Nahon’s dialogue is just words. It is what Noé does with his camera (one will remember the vomit-inducing cinematography of Irreversible) that makes the real impression. Though the images aren’t as daring as later works, they’re still very uncomfortable and at times will make you squirm. He also makes usage of the Godardian tactic of title cards, dispersed randomly throughout the movie. Some read: DEATH OPENS NO DOOR, LIVING IS A SELFISH ACT, SURVIVING IS A GENETIC LAW. Some simply display the date and location of a scene. Some are random words. Either way, they leave a dark impression that supports The Butcher’s running narration suitably.
Though Irreversible is a far more violent film, I think I Stand Alone is the more disturbing of the two, and easily Noé’s most impressive film. It’s brutal cynicism and sickening satire last all the way up to its end, when Noé gives us two endings and asks us which one we prefer. They’re both incredibly dark and disgusting. It’s easy to think that Noé is the violence-craving pervert here, but he’s not. The fact that we think that is a testament to the film’s power. It is all shot from The Butcher’s perspective. It is his film, and not Noé’s. The dialogue belongs to him, the characterization belongs to him, and Noé only half owns the images, which are made more powerful due to The Butcher’s presence. If you watch Irreversible closely, you’ll notice in the opening minutes that The Butcher makes another appearance, in a sauna, telling a man: “Time destroys everything.” These three words that are the motto of Irreversible are obviously plucked straight out of the vocabulary of I Stand Alone, and are among the most powerful Noé has ever written. Because even if there is beauty in the world, Noé believes the sad truth of it is le temps detruit tout.