Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I Stand Alone (Seul Contre Tous, 1998)

Gaspar Noe's somewhat-prequel to his infamous reverse-narrative film Irreversible (2001) is a re-telling of Taxi Driver (1976), but delivered with a more sadistic approach. While Scorsese and Schrader 's film features a hateful protagonist with a heart, Noe's Butcher is very difficult to like. In the opening voice-over he admits to sexual feelings towards his own daughter. Even though his daughter doesn't appear until the last fifteen minutes or so, the cloud of this statement looms over the film all the way to the end.

After beating his pregnant wife / girlfriend senseless and forcing an abortion, the Butcher leaves Lille for Paris with the gun he stole from his mother-in-law and settles in the hotel room where his daughter was conceived. He has only 300 francs in his pocket, but his prospects of finding a job is slim. His old friends refuse him money, mostly because they are in worse states than him. The economy is in shambles and unemployment is on the rise. The film is set in 1980 and the streets of Paris are nothing like the romantic utopia of Amelie (2001) - they are desolate and cold. It feels like a post-apocalyptic city, where the majority of the population is annihilated and the rest spend time in dingy bars sipping stale red wine.

In the duration of the movie, the Butcher hardly ever converses with anybody. There is a continuous internal monologue that sometimes borders on stream-of-consciousness. Philippe Nahon gives a very good performance as the Butcher - his expresisonless face is a stark contrast to the storm brewing inside. And what a storm it is. After being refused a job once too many and thrown out of a bar, he plans his bloody revenge. His voice grows raspier, his respiration speeds up, yet his face holds its steady look. There aren't many more terrifying faces than this in cinema.

Like Irreversible, there are many unconventional narrative and filmic techniques that Noe uses. And those are the things that seem to be failing in the film. There are more than one flash-zooms accompanied by a shot-gun. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, but it also makes you wonder if it is at all necessary. There are title cards that "explain" the themes of the story, such as "Living is a selfish act. Survival is a genetic law." These act more like distractions than philosophy. Also, the ending feels like Noe being unsure on which note to leave the audience. There is another title card at the end that warns the audience to leave the theater. What comes next is quite graphic and strong, but Noe uses a very cliched device to ease our hearts. And just when it seems to be ending with a catharsis, he re-introduces "ultimate sin" once again. It sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise very good film.

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