I Stand Alone [Seul contre Tous] is where it all started for director Gaspar Noé. After directing four short films over a period of roughly ten years, he finally got the opportunity to helm his first feature film. While not as grand or ambitious as Irréversible or Enter the Void, Noé was determined to leave his mark right from the start. This weekend I rewatched Noé's first and while it can't really stand up to his later work, I Stand Alone is still one hell of a ride.
If you're a fan of subtlety then don't even bother with this film. I Stand Alone is vile, angry and pompous, in a way only a film by a young and driven director can manage to be. Clearly this won't be to everyone's liking and some will quickly shelve Noé's film as a poor, attention-seeking effort. To me though, there's a welcome purity in these films that's pretty much impossible to find elsewhere. I Stand Alone is like a battering ram, not the most subtle of tools to use when trying to open a door, but definitely one of the more amusing options out there.
The film opens with a series of photographs depicting the depressing journey of a nameless butcher. Not much went right in a life that left him stranded without a job, without any money and without proper friends. He hits rock bottom when his daughter is moved off to a shelter, while he sits out his sentence for attacking his daughter's alleged rapist. When the butcher finally gets out of jail he hooks up with a lady, hoping she might provide him with some kind of way forward.
Before long the butcher finds himself stuck inside a life he doesn't really care to live. Rather than succumb, he salvages all that's left of his pride and heads back to Paris, hoping to give his former life one last shot. Nobody there is really waiting for the butcher's return though and when people turn him down one after another he slips into a violent, self-obsessed stream of negativity.
On the visual side of things I Stand Alone is still a little bare bones. There is no Benoît Debie to work his magic for Noé, but that doesn't mean it turned out to be a dire-looking film. The grainy look, combined with fat, bold intertitles and a hefty dash of 80s lower class ugliness makes for a very fitting atmosphere. There's also some nifty editing trickery that spruces things up a little, keeping the audience's attention from wandering off. So while not as in your face compared to his later work and despite they film's limited budget, there's definitely some visual polish here.
To make the impact of the little editing trick considerably bigger, Noé coupled these moments to loud, gunshot-like bangs. It's showy and not exactly refined, but within the context of the film and the anger that comes off from the lead character it makes plenty of sense. There isn't much in the way of an actual soundtrack, apart from a classical piece near the end of the film, but the near-constant voice-over spewing increasingly depressing monologues makes for an interesting sonic experience nonetheless, taking away the need for actual music.
Noé also found himself the perfect actor in Philippe Nahon, who takes on the role of the nameless butcher (a part he actually carried over from Carne, one of Noé's earlier shorts). Nahon is at his best when portraying grim and sleazy characters and it's hard to think of anyone else doing a better job here. The rest of the cast is adequate too, but in the end it's really just a one-man show and Nahon will be the one you'll be thinking of when remembering this films years down the line.
I Stand Alone isn't so much about plot or characters (despite its strong focus on the butcher), instead it's a film about emotion. The gritty look, the pounding voice-overs, the occasional editing trick accompanied by loud bangs, it all gives body to the anger that lives and grows inside the butcher. It makes the film more of an emotional experience rather than a cerebral one. Rather than trying to explain and analyze the anger residing in the butcher, you're meant to live it for 90 minutes. And that, at least in my eyes, is a much stronger experience.
So yeah, Noé could've opted to make a more pensive, explanatory version of the story, but that's not really his style. Instead he went for a more tangible experience, shamelessly and openly toying with the emotional state of his audience. Whether you appreciate that is up to you of course, fact remains that Noé doesn't pull any punches and the impact of the film hasn't diminished much, if anything over the years. I Stand Alone is still a hellish trip, spiralling down the destructive path of a man with nothing much to live for.