I am the knife and the wound it deals.
GASPAR NOÉ'S PITILESS FIRST FEATURE, I STAND ALONE, COMES FROM THE take-no-prisoners school of filmmaking — it's nasty, brutish and mercifully short. A taut, tense 93 minutes, the film relates the journey of a nameless butcher turned ex-con (brilliantly played by Philippe Nahon, a paroxysm of rage with a slab of beef for a face) from the limits of misanthropy to something like a state of grace. Noé's excursion beyond good and evil begins with a brief prologue in which an anonymous prole, standing at a bar with two others, discourses on class while brandishing a gun. “That's Morality for you,” the worker announces, waving the piece much as Madame DeFarge brandished her knitting needles. Without warning, there's the sharp, loud crack of what sounds like a gunshot accompanied by a slamming edit, an in-your-face fusion of sight and sound that the writer-director will repeatedly deploy in a film that is as political, sporadically funny and hard to stomach as it is formally audacious.
The butcher enters the scene immediately after the prologue. Via a spectacular montage sequence, Noé gives us a fast backward glance at the man's origins, beginning with France itself (“shithole of cheese and Nazi lovers”), racing past his bad childhood and lousy adulthood, and ending, albeit temporarily, smack in the midst of the man's current, self-confessed horror: a second marriage to a woman he loathes. Despite the chintz and his repulsion, the man is toughing out the union because his wife, a monstrously pregnant bottle blond with a doddering mother, has promised to lease him a shop. When her pledge dissolves in an ugly marital power play (“It's my money, I'm pregnant and fuck you,” she tells him with a tiny, smug smile), it's not long before the butcher is out the door, on his way to Paris with too little cash, a gun of his own and the relentlessly malignant internal narration that is Noé's greatest triumph.
Getting inside the head of a madman is one thing; keeping an audience inside that consciousness for an entire feature-length film, without turning us off (or worse, turning us on), is another. I Stand Alone is a tailspin into the abyss, a vision of oblivion that concludes, inevitably, with a spasm of violence — though not for the usual reasons. The film is pointedly set in 1980, on the eve of the first political successes of France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and his fascist party, the National Front. Although he evidences no specific ideological leaning, the butcher, who has failed at everything in his life and who feels betrayed by a country he loves and hates with equal ferocity, is the embodiment of the hopeless rage that Le Pen tapped into, and years later still does. The butcher — an equal-opportunity hater of women, Arabs, homosexuals, humanity itself — is a fascist in the making, an ordinary man on the tramp between personal good and the good of civil society.
I Stand Alone is uglier and less sentimental than Taxi Driver, to which it owes a great deal (Noé's visual style, however, suggests some unholy union between Bresson and Fassbinder rather than Scorsese), but what makes the film more than just another sleek copycat is its politics, however hopeless. For though he fails to answer despair with idealism, never once does Noé let us forget that while the butcher is the knife, he is unequivocally also the wound. Nothing makes that more clear than a scene — more like a splinter of a scene, really — in which the butcher remembers, or fantasizes, fondling enormous cuts of raw meat. At this stage in the story, the butcher has been so radically dehumanized that he seems little more than flesh himself. He caresses the meat, inserting his fingers into its folds with repulsive suggestiveness. The gesture is onanistic, grotesque, pitiful, and if the film finally can't live up to the stunning simplicity of that one moment, the point is nonetheless made.
I STAND ALONE | Written and directed by GASPAR NOé | Produced by NOé and LUCILE HADZIHALILOVIC | Released by Strand
Releasing | At the Nuart