Cult Cinema: I Stand Alone - Review

Andrew reviews the feature film debut of French provocateur Gaspar Noe!

Just one big happy family. 
In 1991, this little known Argentinian filmmaker named Gaspar Noe with his girlfriend and future wife Lucile Hadzihalilovic stormed the Cannes Film Festival with their 40 minute shocker Carne.  Opening with footage inside an actual slaughterhouse, the story tells of a horse butcher (Phillipe Nahon) living with his mute daughter while struggling to quell his burning incestuous desires for her.  On the day of his daughter's first menstrual cycle, the butcher mistakes her period for rape and brutally stabs her supposed attacker, landing him in prison and forced to sell off his shop. Seven years later, what would become the soon to be French-Argentinian enfant terrible of European cinema's first feature-length film, picks up where Carne left off with I Stand Alone, which showcases the butcher's release from prison and struggles to get his life back on track only to plunge even further into Hell than previously.  A transgressive, bitter and elegantly nasty work of art, Gaspar Noe quickly solidified his stature as one of the top directors to emerge from what became known as the New French Extreme.  Picture Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver with it's lone antihero doling out all of his hatred and misanthropy into voiceover narration peppered with real pornography, extremely graphic violence and a bleak, nihilistic edge so sharp most viewers will come away bleeding.  Make no mistake, this is as hard and heavy as the movies can get and undoubtedly the darkest and most awful of all of Noe's films, trumping Irreversible even in terms of making you the viewer feel like death.

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The first thing viewers will notice in both Carne and I Stand Alone is the distinctive visual style.  Shot in 16mm with the dormant CinemaScope format at an ultra wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1 before being blown up to 35mm, the resultant gold and yellowish images come across with heavy high-contrast grain levels that tend to shimmer and glisten in certain scenes.  Some of the most striking shots in the film involve the nameless protagonist walking across the barren cityscape of Paris from one end of the wide frame to the other.  Clearly a fan of Gerald Kargl's Angst, the film also features key use of the Snorricam or in other words physically attaching the camera to the actor's body via a special harness so the actor's face is frozen in the center of the image while the background moves freely behind him.  It's a technique used to bravura effect in Angst as well as Darren Aronofsky's π and Requiem for a Dream but this is the first time I've seen it used in widescreen.  Almost foreshadowing (as well as book ending) the impossible camerawork of Noe's rape revenge drama Irreversible is the film's editing compounded with an unnerving sound design.  As the protagonist's rage boils over into violence, the heart stopping blast of a shotgun explodes on the soundtrack as frame dropping seems to make the camera rush up to the actor's face at lightning speed.  One moment which stood out involves the butcher laying around in a flophouse bedroom with a gun pressed to his temple as a housefly buzzes about the room as the camera abruptly zig-zags towards him.  In a clever gimmick and nod to William Castle's Homicidal, a warning followed by a 20 second countdown informs the audience they have that much time left to leave the theater before the deeply shocking climax unfolds.

I hate the roids. 
Produced by Noe's own production company, Les Cinemas de la Zone, the film production was on and off over the course of two-and-a-half years as financing fell through on several occasions.  It wasn't until fashion designer Agnes B rescued the company from bankruptcy that the film was finished.  Fans of Irreversible will notice the first scene involves the character from I Stand Alone, almost picking up where the former left off and a technique Noe would continue with both Enter the Void and Love.  While not anywhere near as graphically violent as Irreversible, I Stand Alone is an infinitely bleaker and ultimately more devastating meal for watching an aged and monstrous bastard's step by step travelogue into oblivion.  It's also far more sexually disturbing than his subsequent works for it's inferences towards incest, rape, pedophilia and eventually murder, none of which you're entirely certain are happening or not.  The fact that Noe leaves the proceedings open to interpretation leaves the viewer with the heavy lifting attempting to piece it all together.  What it ultimately represents is Noe's first true character study, a nonjudgmental and uncompromising vision of cantankerous misanthropy and crotchety elderly crankiness ballooning into sociopathy and  self-destruction.  This is not a happy film experience and it only gets worse from here, but at the same time it's a brilliant piece of technical filmmaking which resurrected a dead format and made it's writer-director Gaspar Noe a singular and important name to follow however dark the roller coaster ride he'd take viewers on would get.  Not for the faint hearted but absolutely not to be missed!


- Andrew Kotwicki