This review of Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
Rage is a palpable force in I Stand Alone, the first feature film from Gaspar Noe. It is a rage against French society. Philippe Nahon’s The Butcher displaces this rage, his inner monologue tearing apart anyone in his path. What results is a protagonist that comes off as sexist, racist, homophobic, and overall nihilistic.
But The Butcher is also a sad man. All he wants is to get a job as a butcher. He cannot do it on his own, but he will not let anyone else help him until he has resulted to a place of groveling. This is after he has attacked his pregnant girlfriend and her mother.
Hard to say that The Butcher is a sympathetic figure. And yet, it also feels as if he is not the greatest evil at work in I Stand Alone. In fact, he works hard to convince himself that he is a Good man and that the real Evil exists in the world around him.
It is a lofty task for Noe to convince an audience to see through the perspective of The Butcher. Moreover, Noe makes it harder as the film progresses, giving Nahon’s grisly, seething character more appalling actions as his anger rises.
It is hard to say that Noe succeeds in a sympathetic viewing, but he does get across a brutal point about underbelly society in turn-of-the-century France. The film’s final act—Noe warns the audience of its brutality beforehand—shows The Butcher breaking down, his inner monologue becoming more frantic and scattered as he contemplates killing his daughter just to rid her of the awfulness of the world.
The Butcher’s broken psyche is reminiscent of Scorsese’s Travis Bickle. Indeed, Nahon even recreates the famous Taxi Driver mirror scene as he scapegoats those who he believes has wronged him. It is also indicative of a society in which it is easy to blame the other when the institution is really at fault.
Noe attempts to show this broken psyche aesthetically, for a result that feels dated more than anything else. The film uses many frantic whip zooms accompanied by loud sound cues to fracture otherwise normal shots. Most of the time, it feels as though these are thrown in arbitrarily, rarely being used with any narrative motivation.
Otherwise, I Stand Alone is a restrained film compared to the rest of Noe’s work. It is much more contemplative, in spite of its flashes of taboo violence. It is cruel and cynical, bordering on pure nihilism, but there is something worthwhile to be parsed from this bitter pill to swallow.
And then there is Nahon’s performance, which is hard to look away from. The Butcher’s role shifts from what is essentially an emotionally repressed mute to a person whose ire is an internal fury waiting to explode, and it is Nahon who articulates this change with resounding precision.
What results is a final act that would not mean anything in a lesser actor’s hands. Nahon spiraling around a cramped hotel room, the only dialogue occurring in a rapid voiceover, is a sight that is gripping and memorable, even if it is impossible to bring yourself to his character’s moral side.
In this way, I Stand Alone is perversely enthralling. Its morals may be jumbled inside the broken mind of its bigot of a main character, but there is something that Noe is saying about French society that is somewhat fascinating. It is a message that is bogged down in Noe’s nihilism, but the film remains intriguing (although not particularly entertaining) all the same.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)