Friday, August 19, 2005

I Stand Alone (Noe, 1998)

What to make of Gaspar Noe? At the very least, I admire his audacity -- not necessarily for the graphic content that is his bread and butter, but for the way he presents his films as a challenge to the viewer. With Irreversible, he employed temporal confusion, disorienting cinematography and irritating sound effects to effectively smack the viewer in the face and dare us to follow him into his ultra-dark vision of urban hell. Apart from some camera jumps, the periodic use of jarring gunshot sounds and a tongue-in-cheek moment of provocateur grandstanding that I will not spoil here, I Stand Alone is far less gimmicky than Irreversible, but it is also far less clear in its dramatic purpose. For me, the latter film was horribly difficult to swallow, but I had to concede that Noe's demonstration of how happy lives can be blown apart and shattered permanently lingered in my mind and haunted me. In the end, I felt that the destination and the revelation was worth experiencing the staged brutality. With I Stand Alone, I am far less confident in the filmmaker's sincerity.

We spend most of the film inside the head of an unemployed butcher and, in voiceover, listen to his nihilistic world view and eavesdrop on his violent revenge fantasties. He is a racist, a homophobe and a misogynist and, as the title suggests, denies any level of social responsibility towards a world and society that, in his view, has forced him into poverty. Such despciable characters can indeed make for captivating protagonists as we struggle to understand the factors that might lead someone to commit the horrific crimes that we read about in the newspaper. The Butcher is a part of a long dramatic tradition including Buchner's Woyzeck, Brecht's Baal, Mamet's Edmond and Scorsese's Bickle. The difference is that while previous authors have held us in suspense, watching a powder keg about ready to explode, Noe blows his load early with an act so vile and irredeemable that there is little left to do for the rest of the picture besides wallow in the sewer of the Butcher’s mind. Some might defend this film as a grim psychological study, and perhaps it is, but what is Noe trying to offer the viewer besides some kind of unpleasant freak show? Come see the mentally ill father! Marvel at his depravity! And while the film ends up in a place more gentle and calm than we might expect, the effect is similar to smearing grapefruit in the face of someone you’ve just knocked over the head with a lead pipe. There is a kind of crude poetry in the way the ending both affirms and rejects the film’s title; but, I can’t help but feel that after all he’s asked us to sit through, Noe owes us a little bit more.

In two films, Noe has presented viewers with four of the most sickeningly violent scenes committed to film (outside of the horror genre). I don’t believe in using the content of an artist’s work to make judgments about the human being; but when the victims in your films are a gay man, a provocatively dressed Monica Belluci, a pregnant woman and a mentally handicapped girl, then I think it is fair for audiences to demand a clear picture of your artistic intentions. I think Noe’s later film, Irreversible pulls off this difficult high-wire act, while his earlier effort, I Stand Alone falls just short.

(Note: I highly recommend reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s enthusiastic rave of the film, which is especially entertaining because he awards it the rating of ‘masterpiece’, then goes on to claim that Noe has proved in interviews that he doesn’t understand his own film.)



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