I had missed Gaspar Noé. And I'm missing him again.
The French enfant terrible who helmed one of the greatest pictures of the 1990’s, I Stand Alone, and who, with Irreversible, placed Monica Bellucci in a situation that angered even those nonplussed by Susan George’s episode in Straw Dogs had been, pre-Enter the Void, absent from the screen far too long. Yes, he had made a short for the sexually explicit Destricted project, and there were the condom commercials from years back, but Mr. Noé needed another full length feature under his (whipping) belt. And then came, eight years later, that wonderment of crazy, vile, gorgeous genius, Enter the Void. It was well worth waiting for -- a hopped up, dream-weaving nightmare of horror and beauty -- a hallucinatory work of virtuosity (Noé's camera movements have the ability to seize me emotionally and physically -- to create out-of-body experiences, no drugs required) that's also a touching/tragic story about a brother and a sister. It was one of the greatest movies of 2009. His aesthetic and innovation is uniquely his own (with a POV hat tip, or shared line, to Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake -- wonder what Montgomery would have thought...), and he remains, one of the greatest French directors living. One of the greatest living directors, period, in fact.
The director, influenced by 70s cinema, William Castle shock-a-tude, pornography, Godard, Céline, Nietzsche and (as I have argued, whether he knows this or not), even Thomas Hardy, and then an animal all his own, was and is the great Gallic hope for a new generation of savage filmmaking. Unlike some current filmmakers who traffic in mere shock, or art house directors striking a transgressive pose, Noé is a genuine artist, but unpretentious -- a man who loves nothing more than upsetting his audience (or, in the case of Irreversible, making some faint), while injecting his screaming compositions with substantive thought, intelligence and philosophy.
So as I am in Paris, and with French filmmaking on my mind (not to mention a spirited discussion with a French director about Noé -- who also thinks him a genius) I was in the mood to re-visit his debut blast of brilliance, over ten years later, 1998’s I Stand Alone. This is the movie that caused a daily critic to walk out during the screening I attended, this is the movie that bonded me with my sister (long story), and this is the film that I told a colleague to see on a date. That advice didn’t work out so well.
When first reviewing the blisteringly brilliant picture, I quoted an anecdote by director Paul Schrader. Schrader said:
“I had an interesting lunch recently with a French director named Gaspar Noé who wanted to do a film with me, something with violence and pornography and all that. And I said to him, 'I don't think anyone's shockable anymore.'"
Now I admire, sometimes revere Paul Schrader, and I would probably agree with him at that moment, but with I Stand Alone (and the latter Irreversible) he was positively wrong. For Noé had not only made one of the most shocking pictures in decades, but also one of the most stylistically impressive, emotionally challenging, thematically intimidating, astoundingly touching and, in its own warped way, weirdly funny. I Stand Alone, or Seul Contre Tous (Alone Against All) is a hair grabber that drags you around the muck and pushes your face into its world so far that -- and this is rare with such hard cinema -- you’ll experience moments of such bizarre, hideous beauty that you’re left significantly moved. It attacks one's senses with such transgressive power that by its end, one feels flustered, simultaneously full and empty. I Stand Alone rattles in your brain long after the movie's disquieting end.
As I mentioned before, with nods to Céline, Dostoevsky, Schrader, Godard and even William Castle, I Stand Alone chronicles, as the film's titles claim, the "tragedy of a jobless butcher struggling to survive in the bowels of his nation." As the picture opens, the nameless butcher's entire life is inventively, humorously revealed via a slideshow. It describes how a French World War II orphan became a butcher, and is sent to prison after stabbing a guy he thought raped his daughter. The movie jettisons us to 1980 and into the head of said butcher (embodied magnificently by Philippe Nahon), who, now released from prison, is living an emasculated life with his pregnant girlfriend and her obtrusive mother in a depressing housing tract in France.
His current domestic predicament only escalates his alienation and rage, feelings made clear in angry interior monologues that grow more bile-ridden as the film continues (the man, like the film, isn't subtle). When his refusal (or inability) to smile causes him to lose a job at a supermarket deli (have we felt this? I sure have), the butcher becomes a night watchman at a home for the elderly, where in one stirring moment, he assists a woman's euthanization. Afterwards, he visits a porn theater and, during a hardcore penetration close-up, he muses inwardly, "If you're a cock, you gotta stay hard to be respected; [otherwise] your only role and purpose is to be reamed." (Simple, to the point, and it always gets to me. This is not something only men can relate to. Women feel this way also -- a lot.)
Soon after, he argues bitterly with his mistress and, in one of the film's most brutal moments, beats her, kicking her pregnant stomach (this is when the aforementioned female critic left the theater). This sick underbelly we have witnessed with amusement and detachment has, now, in fact been literally reamed. And it is at this point, that the film's existential loathing gives us our first challenge: The man we felt immediate sympathy for, the cantankerous oldster who has made us laugh with his stark philosophical observations, has finally committed a sickening act of violence. And he doesn't regret it. Confronting his modern audience, hardened from years of on-screen violence, Noé essentially asks: How do you like your underground hero now? Are you still cheering him on?
Somehow, in many ways, we are -- which points to the film's mind spinning, confusing power. With dwindling money, no job prospects and a gun, the butcher grows increasingly disgruntled over everything -- class, race, love, sexuality -- and his thoughts become both clear-headed and garbled. In the hands of a more simplistic filmmaker, this could be tedious or predictable. Noé , however, is not here just to shock. Like Taxi Driver, I Stand Alone represents a national reflection, here it’s France entering the 1980’s, personifying such unease with an unrelenting, furious protagonist.
And Noé crafts a film that is so aesthetically violent -- sharp gunshot sounds are used as jarring, disarming tangents, illustrating a shift in scenery or thought -- that it’s surprising to realize just how little blood is actually shed onscreen. The movie deals almost entirely in thoughts of violence, rather than acts. The butcher rattles on about this or that problem, but mostly remains stuck in states of fantasy or inertia. But he is so potently angry and the filmmaking so unyieldingly ferocious, it simply feels violent.
And Noé never slips once in this assault, even testing the viewer’s typical film sensibilities. In the picture's most infamous moment, a title card flashes on screen and cautions: “You Have 30 Seconds to Leave the Cinema.” It's a bold move, one filled with humor and horror (one part Godard, one part Castle), and despite the shocking images and words that come before it, Noé manages to back up that warning with a sequence that sent my emotions into a tailspin of sadness, distress and an unsettling amount of confusing compassion (you just have to see the ending). But many don't stay until the ending and that's intriguing in itself.
As my friend, writer Kent Adamson said, "The audience is as significant as Noé... The walkouts are part of the drama, and the lesson in humanity." Indeed. It's always more interesting to watch Noé on the big screen, with an audience. I've seen all of his pictures in the theater and find the reactions fascinating; multi-layered. I wonder about the walk-outs because they can't all be for the same reason. As in, people can't all simply be offended. Something else is going on. When I first saw Irreversible I was frightened I wouldn't be able to handle the swirling camera and low level police siren spiked soundtrack. Would it induce a panic attack? It was more upsetting to me than the famous moment with Ms. Bellucci and I was clinging to a xanax. And then, I just lost myself in it. And then I wondered if that was healthy. And then I wondered about wondering -- what does "healthy" even mean? And on it went. That experience, as with all of his films, was disturbing, enlightening and mysterious. Just more of the many reasons I love Noé... Anxiety can be good. You feel those nerve endings, your blood pumping. You feel alive.
And I Stand Alone is truly alive -- savage, poetic, edgy, pervy, romantic, bloody cinema -- a grim, exciting, nerve-wracking work of art that doesn’t just stick in your brain, but finds a way to stuff its fingers up there as well. All five of them. Seul Contre Tous? Sous le soleil exactement, Mr. Noé.