So bleak is the world for I Stand Alone’s nameless butcher, and from the opening montage and voice-over that director Gaspar Noé provides for us, it isn’t difficult to see why. His childhood is marked by abandonment and abuse. His adulthood is marked by unwanted fatherhood, ruthless violence, and a decidedly pessimistic outlook on the world and his life, which has essentially been as worthwhile as a warm pile of shit. Thus sets up this film, essentially an outlook on the scummier parts of Paris (normally a romanticized locale) magnified through the lens of this nihilistic figure. Noé rightfully builds this individual from the outside in. With some exception, the butcher vocally interacts with no one; instead, his contemplations, remarks, and attitude is presented through full voice-over. As a result, nothing is held back, as we are shown his spiteful personality through a stream-of-consciousness portrayal. Moreover, the entirety of the film is in this manner, and we are obliged to temporarily reside inside the mind of this angry individual. The experience is disturbing, at times terrifying, and always emotionally resonate.
During my viewing of this film, I was frequently reminded of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle via the internal musings of our butcher protagonist. We know much more about the butcher than we initially do with Travis, but somehow they both are just as enigmatic and difficult to decode. Both are instinctively apathetic during viewings at the sex cinema. Moreover, the butcher’s heedless attempts at finding a job mirror Travis’s desperation with social interaction. Both find catharsis in violence; while the culmination of such violence is a major theme in Taxi Driver, the butcher’s acts of violence (both physical and verbal) are spontaneous and sporadic. Vengeance is his driving force, and thus he presents himself as the more explicit psychopath. His thoughts on women are plainly misogynous – and perhaps understandably so, since every woman he’s known has abandoned or betrayed him. Monologues reveal his utmost hatred toward the exploitative upper class, and his frustration builds up further to his decision toward the ultimate act of murder. One may reminisce Bickle’s musings: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
However, despite this uninterrupted road of stark pessimism and hatred, the film takes an unexpected turn in the final third, which remains among the most stunning moments of any film that I have seen. Here, the butcher opts to reunite with his estranged daughter, now eighteen years of age. Much like her father, this young woman is voiceless and emotionless; she is likewise marked by abandonment and solitude. In many ways, no one but her is capable of understanding and sympathizing in him. In many ways, she becomes his saving grace. I dare not give away the masterful resolution that Noé lands on, but the film inherently transforms into a sort of gripping poetic experience. The mood shifts in the most remarkable, breathtaking ways that is fully visceral and must be seen to be believed.
Most importantly, the butcher is given a sharp contrasting angle of character that was absent before. Any film that could make me care so deeply about a human being I’ve loathed for an hour and a half deserves my highest praise. Even more impressive is how the film is able to pull this off without coming off as highly imaginative and unrealistic. It comes to show the beauty and humane that lies beneath the silhouettes of even the most malicious individuals. Despite the butcher’s bleak outlook on it, human beings are not just piles of meat with temporary life that will soon escape into a vacuum of the “void”. It is the phenomenon of life itself that is miraculous and beautiful. I Stand Alone is as much of a portrait of insanity as it is of humanity; it is through the strange ways that these two spheres merge that portray such an image as something tragic, yet celebratory. And alas, words could never adequately express what is undoubtedly Gaspar Noé’s masterpiece. Such a gritty, intense, withstanding work of art has left me speechless.