16 August, 2010

Movie Review: I Stand Alone (1998)

Seul contre tous (I Stand Alone) is a little too big for its britches, a baroque, explosive film heavier on style than substance, though purporting to contain much substance. The style likewise never cast a spell on the viewers, due to the continual jarring of the audience by over-the-top film techniques. Gaspar Noé's first feature film prides itself on its truthfulness and extremity, but it fails to impress much of either on its helpless spectators, leaving instead a distasteful aroma of cynicism.

The film is told almost entirely through voice overs by Philippe Nahon, an unsmiling, hardened older man who plays the film's unnamed main character, the Butcher. His entire life history is rattled off in an opening monologue accompanied by vintage photographs, a life history replete with abandonment, concentration camps, orphanages, fondlings by priests, adulterous lover, retarded children, nagging incestuous thoughts, wrongful indictment, prison time, bankruptcy, manipulation, and unemployment. The Butcher has lived one hell of a horrible life, but on January 3, 1980, he resolves to begin anew. Having moved with his pregnant wife from Paris to northern France, he looks forward to opening his own butcher shop and starting from scratch.

Within moments, however, this dream dissolves. The Butcher's vindictive wife (Frankie Pain), who controls the family finances, lies about putting down the money to buy a shop for him. Unable to afford the shop himself and unable to find suitable employment within his field, he takes on mind-numbing employment as a nursing home's night watchman. The job teaches him the ugliness of old age, the pointlessness of working, and the utter meaninglessness of life and death. He hates his job, he hates his wife, he hates his child in her womb, he hates his mother-in-law whom he lives with (Martine Audrain)--soon his hatred encompasses everything, and we learn about all of it through the vitriol that his internal monologue spouts.

I Stand Alone is a film about bitterness and how it spreads through the body and mind like an all-consuming poison. Bitterness has a way of taking hold of the thoughts and preventing any positive change in direction. How can the Butcher's luck improve when he constantly thinks about the horrible things he has witnessed and the horrible things that he wants to do in response? Unjust things have certainly happened to the Butcher throughout his life--he was thrust into poverty, the Nazis killed his father, a priest molested him, his wife cheated on him--but his inability to forgive or to forget ensures that he will never overcome the bad luck that dogs him. Negativity breeds negativity.

Rather than trudge forward hopefully--a path that seems idiotic and blind at first but that would yield infinite results in the end--the Butcher seeks to blame others for the failures of his life. And since in many cases he cannot directly retaliate against the real perpetrators (the Nazis are gone after all, and his wife is dead, and who can really be blamed for societal poverty or for children being born handicapped?), he instead directs his rage against easier targets: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, people with jobs, Germans, his unborn child, himself. He attacks his wife, beating her pregnant belly. He lashes out at strangers, calling them fags. He concocts elaborate, violent revenge fantasies. With nothing to hold onto and the conviction that life is nothing more than a cruel, selfish joke that goes on too long, he decides to end his life in a blaze of destruction.

He does have one small source of love that he still clings to, however. His daughter, a frowning, mute teenager with a mental handicap, is the only goodness he can still see in the world, and not wanting to leave her to fend for herself amongst the wild animals in the ferocious jungle, he decides that he will kill her out of mercy before slaughtering a sacrificial victim to represent all of his frustrations and then taking his own life. His love for her is not without its impurities, though. Obsessed with corruption and sin, he cannot shake the idea that he wants to have sex with his daughter. Would that matter in a meaningless world? Would it even be worth it, or would it ultimately be as joyless as everything else? Why would he really want to destroy the one pure love he possesses on earth by corrupting it in such a way?

The Butcher imagines the horror of shooting his beloved daughter. He imagines the difficulty of embracing his own violent death. And then, after an hour and a half of hateful sneering, accusations, violence, and drinking, he dissolves into tears, embracing his daughter and confessing that he loves her while "Pachelbel's Canon" plays. This moment of loving selflessness and complete surrender within a film mired down by ugliness and cruelty is deeply affecting, but even this final moment is evanescent, as the Butcher's thoughts return once more to rape and revenge.

I Stand Alone is a disquieting film, not just because it depicts murder and the beating of a pregnant woman but more so because it exists entirely within the mind of a pathologically angry man. The Butcher's diatribes are constant, and for the most part they are not nearly as insightful or interesting as the Butcher thinks they are. I know that's probably intentional on Gaspar Noé's part, but that doesn't keep the excessive cynicism from being obnoxious. Even more jarring about the film are the constant directorial intrusions--abrupt, deafening gunshots that accompany almost every rapid camera movement, title cards that emphasize abstract concepts like "morality" and "justice," extreme close-ups, and even a countdown warning that the viewers should leave the theater prior to the violent climax. These "anything goes" stylistic flairs might be fun in a more entertaining, upbeat film, but the bleak nature of I Stand Alone demands more serious handling. I Stand Alone has its moments and is certainly not a stupid film, but it falls far short of its successor, Irreversible.

I Stand Alone (1998)
d/w: Gaspar Noé
(Philippe Nahon, Blandine Lenoir)

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