I STAND ALONE

Directed and written by Gaspar Noe

With Philippe Nahan

Distributed by Strand Releasing

***

If there any American spectators left who think the ultra-bourgeois dramas of a Claude Sautet represent the whole of French cinema, I STAND ALONE will quickly rid them of their illusions. Its poster features the warning/come-on "viewers should be aware this film contains scenes of graphic violence and sexuality", but there's nothing titillating or cathartic about its brutalist vision of subproletarian life. (Its world couldn't be further away from the stereotypical French film about bourgeois Parisian falling in love and chatting in cafés, but it's equally distant from Robert Guédiguian's romanticized communities of working-class leftists.) Upon its release in France, Noe expected protests from gay, antiracist and women's organizations. Instead, he was somewhat disappointed that critics across the political spectrum greeted it with enthusiasm. It's difficult to know whether this response will be duplicated in the U.S. - Kenneth Turan is unlikely to look on it with much kindness - but there's no question that I STAND ALONE is quite a calling card.

The difficult life of a nameless butcher (Philippe Nahan) formed the subject of Noe's medium-length debut, CARNE, whose plot is briefly summarized in a slide show. When I STAND ALONE begins, the 50-year-old man lives in a housing project in Lille with his pregnant partner, the owner of a bar where he used to work, and her elderly mother. (His mute daughter is institutionalized in Paris.) He embarks on an unsuccessful search for work as a butcher, settling for a job as a night watchman in a nursing home, which he compares to a jail sentence. After the couple get into an argument, he gets so angry that he decides to kill their baby by punching her in the stomach several times. After cutting his ties in Lille so violently, he sets off for Paris with a gun and a tiny amount of money in hand.

Were Noe a Brit, I STAND ALONE would probably resemble Gary Oldman's NIL BY MOUTH: a film shot in a vérité style with a handheld camera, full of people speaking slang in an incomprehensible accent. Instead, Noe's style is relatively classical. His 'Scope compositions are poised and static, with the camera rarely leaving its tripod. (In fact, I don't remember any camera movement in the first half hour.) This framing is used to express the powerlessness of his characters, who usually make their way slowly to the center of a shot from its back or sides. There are also relatively few close-ups, and the camera almost never faces the characters directly. It can't quite look them in the eye.

Hate speech and violence are I STAND ALONE's most obvious shock tactics, but monotony also plays a role. Despite its subject matter and tendency to punctuate cuts with orchestral crescendos or the sound of gunshots, I STAND ALONE initially seems rather slow and quiet. (I'm reminded of Jonathan Romney's comment that BAD LIEUTENANT dares "what only hard-case films do: it dares to be boring.)" As the butcher 's despair escalates, his rants grow more impassioned and repetitive, veering back and forth endlessly over the same theme: "France sucks and everyone who crosses me is a faggot who deserves to die." His violent fantasies become ever more elaborate and obsessive. The inevitably nihilistic conclusion is prefaced by an intertitle warning timid spectators that they have 30 seconds to leave the theater, even though nothing awful happens for about the first minute after this warning. The following scene is difficult to watch not only because of its graphic violence (and Noe's lingering close-ups of bleeding wounds) but because the butcher takes his time - and then some - deciding how to employ his gun.

It's a little difficult to judge the quality of Nahan's performance because his voice-over lends an additional dimension to his inexpressive face, which ranges from disgust to loathing to bitterness to self-loathing. (It's the return of the Kuleshov effect!) With one exception (a drug-addled woman whom the butcher picks up in a bar), all of Noe's characters have the gift of gab. In a social realist film, this gift might seem a little implausible, but I STAND ALONE is hardly a piece of naturalism. Nevertheless, it does have a political dimension. For one thing, the butcher was born in 1939 to a Communist father executed soon after by the Nazis, and he suggests several times that the French decline has its roots in the collaborationist era.

Ironically, I STAND ALONE is being distributed in the U.S. by New Queer Cinema specialists Strand Releasing, a company owned by an Asian-American man, and it's most likely to reach the kind of middle-class audience that the butcher rails against at such great length. His politics clearly aren't shared by Noe, himself an Argentine immigrant, but it's easy to imagine this film's eloquent articulation of "angry white male" resentment catching on with a mass French audience for all the wrong reasons, much as TAXI DRIVER did in the U.S. (Like TAXI DRIVER, it includes a scene in a porno theater - which gives Noe a chance to interpolate a lengthy fly's-eye view of actual sex - and Paul Schrader could easily have written the basic story.) I STAND ALONE may be grounded in the ugly realities of a politically and economically depressed France, but it's also grounded in an infatuation with director/provocateurs like Fassbinder, as well as writers like Dostoevsky and - most of all - Céline. (Next to the butcher's verbosity, Rohmer's characters look autistic.) In the end, it feels like a bottle of vinegar-and-oil salad dressing that hasn't quite congealed: three-quarters of a convincing vision of abjection to one quarter of literary conceit. It may not quite shake the aura of a "cheap holiday in other people's misery", to use the Sex Pistols' words, but it's still a hell of a first feature.