Seul contre tous – I Stand Alone

France, 1998

Directed by Gaspar Noé

With Philippe Nahon (the butcher), Blandine Lenoir (his daughter), Frankie Pain (his wife)

A more literal translation of the original French title signals even more bluntly what is the situation of the lead character, a former butcher: Alone against All. The film tracks the mind of a loser as he vows to shake up and better his life but actually rages against the people around him in the first place and then those he crosses paths with in his increasingly dark and depressing journey, views more and more clearly, to his eyes, that he is a victim of the whole society and chooses to do justice to himself by himself.

He does stand alone: if he is first pictured with a wife and a mother-in-law, struggling to find a job in the northern town of Lille, he readily looks like out of place, failing to put up with his wife’s assertive, selfish and jealous ways but more widely to connect with others – he would be so unable to smile behind a counter that a supermarket director would fire him even as the trial period for his job has barely begun. He leaves Lille alone later and most of his wandering to his native Paris take place in empty streets where he is the sole pedestrian; he never welcome anyone in his hotel room and interactions with others are brief, short scenes, sometimes just a shot, with usually few words exchanged. His efforts to make a fresh start in Paris and to get a job and a decent life prove to be a tough, fruitless experience cutting him farther from the rest of the mankind; going it alone in life ends up being abandoned on a corner, stoking anger and resentment.

Alone in the world and angry against it: Philippe Nahon

This is exclusively and intensely a first-person narrative. The butcher’s voice commandeers the audience’s attention as soon as the film starts and his voice-over would just never stop till the last shots, when a modicum of quiet is at long last provided as the camera pans on a not empty street, as live prevails, with kids playing and cars riding. This garrulous narration translates the state of mind, thoughts and moods of the butcher as his story unfolds; the film is the faithful record of an evolving viewpoint on oneself and the world. It is couched on a definitely blunt, familiar and vulgar language – the kind of straightforward and spontaneous words naturally chosen when no one else is hearing and no rule needs to be respected.

The speech is precisely and carefully worded and developed in the most organic manner: it effectively, convincingly, reacts to what occurs, the flow of thoughts and knee-jerk reactions responding to the growing feeling of getting fed up with the life in Lille and then to the growing disillusion of the struggles in Paris. The audience can fully hear, appreciate and perhaps understand how a dejected and disappointed middle-aged man, after a hardscrabble life rife with troubles can harbor a negative view of life, bordering on cynicism before jumping into nihilism, embracing then violence, more and more unforgiving and determined to blame others for his fall into nothingness. However, this is not an absolutely obvious and clear-cut move: the butcher sometimes corrects himself, does entertain hope – this is why he rushes to go to the French capital – and feels outbursts of confidence and optimism (within the limits of his deep-seated and unrepentant cynicism) before in the most heart-rending, maddening, shocking sequence losing his bearings, consumed with delirious images and shaken by tidal waves of emotions, morality, desires, turning then the film into a nightmarish, horror trip which most unexpectedly, surprisingly leads to peaceful, melodrama-like finale, though the principles the butcher is clinging on remain remarkably contentious.

What has been in life in time past is summed up by a brief of still pictures, old photographs breezily coming one after another as he reels off the facts of the ordinary life of an average guy, and even less than that, in fact. To the curious moviegoer, it is not entirely new: this butcher was the lead character of director Gaspar Noé’s 1991 short “Carne”; the feature extends the narrative and style of what he made nine years earlier. For others, it is indeed the sad tale of a man who was early on an orphan, found it hard to get a livelihood and harder to find happiness, and was compelled to look after a daughter he was not ready to have; he experienced the temptation of incest and went to jail after he slashed beyond recognition a guy he thought had raped his daughter; when he was released he met a new wife. But she brings him misery, and he stirs even more troubles and is dealt with even more misery as he still tries to get the best of life before dying.

The action takes place in 1980 and the first thing that is surprising and riveting is how the production design and the cinematography beautifully manage to convey the light, color, fell, texture, reality of that year. Details ring true, from a slogan written on the wall to a music played in a bar to that flared trousers and garish woman’s suits, and the slightly grainy, faded quality of the images fits with the atmosphere of the time and its visual memories. Realism goes farther: in a world of dull, shabby, even filthy places doomed to be associated with struggling poor and workers, the short talks the butcher has with his old Parisian acquaintances feel like true records worthy of a reportage, with an authenticity in the voices and behaviors and faces of the characters, who look like nonprofessional guys, that deepens the poignancy of the broadly depressing story of a man failing society and failed by society – hard to forget that old client of the butcher living in a drab hotel room, moaning the fact he has only social benefits to live on, which keeps him from helping his pal, repeating that life is just a struggle.

The year does matter: France was reeling then from the new oil prices crisis but was actually, like growing parts of the Western world, unbeknownst to most, entering the deindustrialization process accompanying the shift towards the high technology-based, service-driven modern economy; the following year a socialist candidate would win the presidential election, ending a long period of right-leaning leadership; four years later, in the wake of the difficulties of this left-leaning government, the French far-right would get its first big electoral success, at the European Parliament election. The thoughts and wandering of the butcher are a most radical expression of the misfortune and hardship of a whole section of the population; the film clearly wishes to let such voices be front and center, imposing their narratives and views.

The price the director has wanted to pay for this effort at social and human truth is heavy: this is so dark a mindset and a narrative arc, handled in such a shocking and dreadful language, that his film inevitably elicit unease, and his zeal to underline what goes wrong, with his impulse to jerk the camera, zoom it rashly, and play booming noise, are so superlative as to annoy deeply. But his sincerity and talent cannot be doubted, and his film does compel the audience to face a voice from the bottom that could be conveniently ignored, or sugar-coated. And what could happen to the butcher remains an open question: after all he is not sure of what he is really up to, the temptation of incest still beckoning to him. That could be the more tragic part of “Seul contre tous – I Stand Alone”: to cling to sentiments of humanity and happiness that he finds are still alive and kicking (preventing him from killing people and himself), he decides to love his child, breaking a long-held taboo in many religions and cultures, once again standing against everything and everybody, once again unable to fit in, an outburst of rage and passion under the guise of a flawed hope – where could it lead?

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