“Life is a huge void.”
So says Le Boucher, the isolated, empty shell occupying Gaspar Noé’s intensely bleak I Stand Alone. We share this blank space with the unemployed horse butcher, getting a transmission directly from his battered psyche in an almost constant voiceover, obsessively spewing vitriolic rhetoric at his peers, whom he sees as opposition (the French title translates directly to “Alone Against All”) and the subjects of his inevitable vengeance.
The form mirrors the content of Le Boucher’s head, surging with roiling aggression and tension, shot in an oppressive 2:66:1 aspect ratio, trapping us in the degradative and nauseating nature of the visuals. Noé is an impudent provocateur, his words, sounds and images rolling atop each other in explosive bursts. Every aspect personifies the frenzy of violence, whether it be the acrobatic, lunging camera work, sanguinary visual effects or piercing gunshot echoes. His is the art of brutality, reflecting man’s worst characteristics through his protagonist: aggression, blind hate and emotional inarticulateness.
Each burst of blood-red gore and shot of penetrative sex illuminates the screen, challenging us to look, breaking the boundary between art and pornography. It’s a daring provocation, but a valuable one, separating entertainment from violence and sexuality and demanding that we take dehumanization at face value.
Acting as a sequel of sorts, I Stand Alone directly follows Carne, a work that famously (or infamously) began with a captive bolt pistol piercing the skull of a horse. Noé intends to strike us in a similar fashion, his filmic technique encapsulating the assaultive nature of the slaughter and his “hero” acting as an extension of the morbidity of factory farming. He also carries over the restrictive intertitles and typography from the previous film, cutting into the action with flat, one-word slogans (“MORALE”) in stark, block-lettering, always signaled by the bellow of taut, symphonic music.
A theme is presented in the opening seconds, entirely separate from the feature film, hinting at a political subtext beneath the forthcoming fury. A man waving a gun in a pub explains how laws and rules only tilt the scales in favor of the rich and how a counter-morality, a bullet from a gun, is the only way to impart balance. Money will prove to be the cruelest master in Le Boucher’s world and Noé implies here that the ethics of a wealth-based class system inspire cruelty and acts of desperation. In essence, the constructs of society make monsters of the lower-class.
From this introduction, action directly shifts into a recap of the previous film, telling “The story of a jobless butcher,” fleshed out before our eyes in sun-damaged photographs and roaring in our ears through dour narration. Abandoned by his mother and left orphaned after his father’s death, Le Boucher suffered a childhood of molestation, redeemed only by an early adulthood that brought him his own butcher shop and the sensation of breaking his lover’s hymen.
Sadly, happiness faded and history repeated itself, leaving Le Boucher and his mute daughter on their own, a situation that only intensified his feelings of lust toward the child. In a fit of blind rage and perhaps as a reaction toward his own incestuous desires, Le Boucher stabbed an immigrant worker in the face, assuming menstruation stains on his daughter’s skirt were the result of non-consensual sex. Ironically, his act of fatherly protection would permanently separate them, sending one to an orphanage and the other to prison.
Following the trip down memory lane, we arrive in the present, specifically Lille, France in 1980, time-stamped on the screen with the voyeuristic glee of true crime television. Le Boucher is now a free man, leaving his daughter behind and starting a new life in the suburbs with a pregnant barmaid, desperately hoping to escape “the dark tunnel of his existence.” His new bride even agrees to foot the bill for a butcher shop in his name, that is, as long as he finds temporary work at a deli counter to subsidize the cost.
Despite her best efforts to appease him, Le Boucher is insulted by her forward nature and feminine input, thoroughly emasculated as she negotiates business deals in his name. Each evening spent in her mother’s home and inquest into his unemployment is a blow to his fragile psyche and he relishes the opportunity to slander Sa Maitresse (his teacher) in his mind, spouting out “fatso” and “cunt” as his favorite descriptive slurs.
His constant critique of her pregnant form is exceptionally cruel and he completely foregoes sexual intercourse with her, opting instead for pornography as the less intimate alternative. The mechanics of porn perfectly reflect his personal ideology, an outlook that separates the unique aspects of a person from the functionality of their parts, much like the profession of butchery. In his eyes, if you’re a man, you only function as an erect penis, destined to penetrate in an intrusive manner. If you’re a woman, your only purpose is to be penetrated.
Noé depicts these interactions without simulation, showing the dehumanizing aspects of the commercialization of sexuality without eroticizing his human subjects. The only salacious moment is a dream sequence, depicting moistened fingers caressing folds of raw horse meat, illustrating the destructive passions of our corrupt lead and the vicious aspects of his occupation.
Arriving home late after an excursion to an adult movie theater, Le Boucher is greeted by accusations of infidelity and the taunts of an angry, pregnant wife. He barks back, ambivalently, until she draws metaphorical blood, questioning his libido and calling him “PEDE” (faggot). The slur resonates deeply, further contaminating his masculine identity and coercing him into asserting dominance. His reaction results in one of the most dreadful and disquieting sequences in the film, an unflinching depiction of feticide that the aggressor likens to grinding up “hamburger meat.” It’s a nihilistic response to a despicable moment, only appropriate for a man who likens humans to breathing sex organs, much like he correlates animals to their cuts of meat in his boucherie.
Noé employs the repulsiveness of this sequence to satirize the gore fetishism and apolitical nature of modern cinema. Striving for a more honest depiction of immorality, Noé saps his “kills” of entertainment value, leaving behind the harrowing and destructive nature of violence, a behavior influenced by fear, ignorance and poverty. Seeing these images outside of the guise of recreation, we’re left to question our implication in the proliferation of fictional violence and what it says about our own moral code.
I Stand Alone (Strand Releasing, 1998)
Written and Directed by Gaspar Noé
Photographed by Dominique Colin