Conversations about film
I Stand Alone
Directed by Gaspar Noe, 1998
Jim Wilson: Taylor, it’s good to have you back on Collokino. How have you been?
Taylor Baker: Thanks for having me back, Jim, and to talk about my only feature film blind spot from Gaspar, no less. I’ve been keeping well up here in Washington, trying to carve out some time for all these new award season releases. How about you?
Jim: Good, good. First day of snow here in the Boulder area today, though it’s barely more than groppel, or frozen rain. Before we dive in to the deep end here, I want to congratulate you on your recent induction to the Seattle Film Critics Society. That sounds pretty exciting.
Taylor: Thanks, Jim! It’s been a pretty neat development for both Michael and I to start from scratch and become formally recognized in our little corner of the world. And a hearty congratulations to you (if a little late) for passing the one-year mark back in July of leading and publishing these high-quality conversations on film.
Jim: Well, thanks. All this film talk really is a lot of fun, so let’s do some more of it!
I brought I Stand Alone to you to discuss, since I knew you’re a big Gaspar Noé fan, and it seemed to be the one feature you hadn’t seen yet. It’s a tough film, one I wouldn’t expect most film watchers to warm up to. I suspected, though, that since you’re a Noé fan, you’d at least give it a fair shake, and understand where he’s coming from with it. I’m dying to hear your thoughts on it, but do you want to say a little bit first about how you came to Gaspar Noé’s films, and what his work means to you?
Taylor: Absolutely. I first discovered Gaspar through Irreversible and became enamored, though it depicts actions that are abhorrent it is precisely how they contrast against the rest of the film that elevates the piece. His voice and style is the type of provocation I love in art. To my ear and eye, it is sincere and unjudgmental, focused on craft over message. You might say Gaspar dwells on and in the facets of humanity that others skirt away from. He often almost exclusively embraces the taboo pieces of life in each of his currently released pieces. A short list of those taboos would be rape, incest, murder, mass murder, psychedelia, torture, love and the loss of it, and loss of mental control/faculty. This coupled with his frequent Godardian direct conversation via text/title cards keeps me engaged in a more contemplative way than I would otherwise be. Putting some of the weight of the stakes of the film onto me directly. More specifically on what his work means to me though, I would say the corpus of his work and him as a man is a demonstration of courage to follow and lay bare the uncouth, illegal, and banal commonalities of human existence. And his formal talents make it all pretty damn cool to watch.
Fun, unfun fact: Gaspar and his family actually emigrated to France to flee the Dirty War in Argentina in 1976, just to tie this back together with our previous conversation regarding The Secret in Their Eyes.
You can rest assured I gave it a very fair shake. What about your personal history and/or affinity for Noé? Do you have a favorite or least favorite perhaps?
Jim: Right, I knew about his family’s flight from Argentina, but hadn’t considered the correlation with our last conversation. Cool coincidence.
I’ve seen all of his feature films, and a couple of his shorts. I agree that his embrace of taboo subjects is tantalizing, and what he distills from that in the way of deeply personal experiences makes it relevant beyond the simply shocking. It’s the interior terrain in Noé’s films that most interests me – the lay of the land inside his protagonists’ heads – which is sharpened by his obsessively charted fixation on the physical and bodily passage of his characters through the material world around them. It’s a pretty stunning balance he manages to maintain in all of his films, between the outside and the in, between the body and the mind. I have to second your enthusiasm for Irreversible, though Climax is as close to perfection as anything I’ve seen from him yet.
I Stand Alone is Noé’s first feature, from 1998. What happens to the central character of the Butcher, played by Philippe Nahon, actually begins in a short film Noé did seven years prior in 1991, called Carne. That introductory film details, in short bursts of imagery and narration, the life of the Butcher, from his birth in 1939 to his release from prison 40 years later. We learn that his mother abandoned him two years after his birth, that his father was a French Communist who died in a German camp during the war. When a boy, he was raped by a priest. The primary focus of the story is on his efforts to raise his daughter alone, after her mother departs (extending an important theme about absent mothers). His daughter Cynthia seems to suffer from some cognitive and/or physiological malady, perhaps autism; she never speaks. He dotes on her in a way that’s borderline creepy, while operating his horse meat shop, until his fears and insecurities confuse Cynthia’s first period with sexual assault, and he ends up maiming an innocent man. While he is sent to prison, Cynthia is committed to a care facility. After his release, the Butcher gets a new lease on life when he connects with a woman who operates a café. Leaving his daughter behind, the Butcher moves with his mistress from Paris to Lille. And that’s when I Stand Alone begins.
Of course, that’s just a simple plot summary, and the images and themes Noé uses to illustrate it add other dimensions. The key difference between Carne and I Stand Alone is one of perspective. Though they’re both parts of the same story about the same characters played by the same actors, Carne observes the Butcher primarily from the outside, while I Stand Alone observes him from within.
If you would, pick up the story moving forward into I Stand Alone. What were your first impressions? How do you distinguish between the biographical content and the social content presented, or do you?
Taylor: On Climax we agree. It is his best feature.
Oh boy, that is a picture-perfect elucidation of what occurred before we meet up with the Butcher at the outset of I Stand Alone. The first moments of I Stand Alone occur in a bar where nameless patrons are debating morality and justice, where the principal speaker claims that, “Morality is made for those who own it. The rich.” before he proceeds to pull out a pistol and declare that it is his justice. Setting the backdrop of philosophical understanding for us as viewers.
The Butcher is poor and jobless; and morality as presented within the film is something he is a victim of. It’s a clever trapping to start with to keep us engaged with a social dilemma undercurrent to a mentally unwell man’s descent into madness. The Butcher imagines himself as an everyman, a victim of the failings of his country to recognize and embrace his greatness during the oral introduction of the film recounting much of what you described above. We then spend time with the woman, who operated the cafe which Gaspar has credited as Mistress, and the Butcher in their marital bed, roaming around looking at meat market real estate, and eventually erupting into violence wherein the Butcher heavily beats the Mistresses pregnant belly and we, or at least I, assume the child was lost (though that may not be the case). This series of events causes him to leave Lille and head back to Paris with a stolen pistol (or as framed in the film, stolen justice), 300 francs in his pocket, and only the clothes on his back.
He checks into the same hotel he conceived Cynthia in all those years ago, and proceeds to squander his money on prostitutes and alcohol, all the while with a self-pitying narration, as he tries and fails to find work. After being denied a work opportunity by an old boss, he becomes murderously enraged, spouting anti-gay slurs while walking down the street fantasizing of murdering his old boss before he pops into a bar to blow his last 11 francs. Upon not being able to pay his 12 francs bill he lashes out, calling the owner’s son a similar slur to those he was uttering minutes earlier. He returns to his hotel room to gather his gun and go murder the barkeep and his son, but he arrives too late, they’ve closed.
The following day he collects his daughter Cynthia and takes her around the city before bringing her back to his hotel room and sleeping with her. The camera moves entirely out of the room of the hotel that the Butcher has had perhaps the most meaningful moments of his life in, and peels away, peering along the street below as some young children run along the street playing and the film ends looking at them running along the street with the Butcher telling his daughter, “I love you. That’s all there is to it.”. Though the story of our Butcher actually ends in the beginning/ending of Irreversible where we learn he went to prison for sleeping with his daughter. Which reinforces that the finale’s second sequence is what actually took place. Not the first in which he was shown to have murdered her. Additionally, this indicates that, A) he either didn’t beat the Mistress to the point of the child passing away or B) she didn’t press charges, which adds a wrinkle. There are a bunch of moments I didn’t include, but I thought these were some of the more intriguing moments within the film.
As for my first impression I was and am floored. I have a soft spot for Love which is perhaps his most deservedly criticized piece and I assumed this would be more in league with that. A bit floundering but sincerely intentioned, instead I was met with a brick and pavement walk and talk that feels substantially real and engrossing. I’m pretty confident that it is my second favorite from him now, behind Climax.
I do distinguish between the biographical and the societal, but only so far as to then marry them together more cohesively. I find it useful to observe the same events from multiple philosophical vantages. My read on it in this and other films from him broadly speaking is that Noé has an intrinsic understanding of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind hypothesis, also known as metaphorical language. He often presents two things to be true at once, before showing both as false by adjusting your viewing angle slightly. Is the Butcher a victim? Perhaps. Is he an abuser? Yes. Should society have an assistance for him and/or mental health facilities for him? I would assert a yes here as well. Is he this way because of society, though? I don’t think so. There’s so much wrapped up in here, that I think the discussion is really dependent on the boundary conditions of what exactly we’re talking about. What I will say is that I don’t think you can get to the heart or marrow of I Stand Alone by trying to separate biographical from social, but by grappling the two venues separately and together I think you can come close to grokking it.
Did I miss anything you’d like to call out? And what about you, do distinguish between the biographical content and the social content presented? Did the narration lend itself to your engrossment in the film as it did me?
Jim: I don’t position the social-biographical binary as anything other than an initial way to observe the Butcher, in the earliest stages of the film, within the world we see him. Personally, I dismiss it beyond that initial view. I don’t find the societal context useful to understanding the Butcher or his situation. It’s too interior of a story to carry a significant social dimension, though it can’t be entirely rejected. The opening scene in the bar, which you reference, involves characters who have nothing to do with the rest of the film, one of whom makes assertions about Morality and Justice. It’s clearly a prologue intended to establish a thematic foundation, and with a strong societal component, though I think all that becomes internalized within the Butcher’s tale, and the social element is diminished. I’m sure we’ll come back around to this when we cover the ending of the film.
I’m interested to hear you talk more about Julian Jaynes and the bicameral mind. What little I’ve gathered about it from a brief Google search intrigues me. Tell me more about how that theory can be applied to the Butcher, this film, or Noé’s films in general.
Taylor: We undoubtedly will come back to it as I think how the individuals of Noé’s films are exhibited, brought to life, and expressed nearly always have an undercurrent of societal conversation that Noé as the provocateur is attempting to bring to life.
Regarding the Bicameral Mind I can’t give it full justice but I can give a brief breakdown of the premise and how I see it within the work. Essentially the Bicameral Mind theory was postulated by Jaynes in a book entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in 1976. The theory is predicated on the idea of two separate chambers operating within the brains of pre-modern humans, one that speaks and another that listens and obeys. The breakdown of this separation of chambers is postulated by Jaynes to have resulted in introspection and thus consciousness. Consciousness he asserts is a learned behavior based on growing in culture and amongst language rather than an innate direct biological evolution or a spiritual/metaphysical event. This amalgamation of culture and language is expressed by him as metaphorical understanding. This, like all of the “hard problem of consciousness” theories, is pushed back on heavily and not proven at this time. I personally don’t find myself convinced that his body of claims is accurate, but I do find the spirit of it useful and thought provoking.
In so far as I see it, there is an innate utility to this idea that our minds have leveled up or evolved from separate chambers to a cohesive metaphorical intellect collaborating toward understanding. We can make points about justice through nihilism or heroism. Examine romanticism through amorous physical encounters or lovelorn letters of a couple straddling two continents. Celebrate dance through an exalting group death. Understand love through the loss of it. These juxtaposed points and metaphorical pieces of symbolism, if you’d accept them as such, seem much more true to me than something restricted to non-comparative expression.
Gaspar, in my reading, has a knack for analogy and comparative metaphors as a storyteller. Inviting us to examine these deep ideas that we as a species always seem to be seeking an answer to, but allowing us a higher resolution of comprehension than many others within and outside the film medium have. He doesn’t proffer any answers but rather focuses on laying bare in an enthralling or affecting way, often both.
Jim: Alright then, let’s apply some of that to a specific instance in the film. While the Butcher is still in Lille, with the Mistress, who is pregnant with his child, they initially pursue the idea of buying a shop, with her money, so that he can revive his profession as a butcher (which I read as intimately connected to his dignity and virility), but she ultimately decides it’s a bad deal. She then pressures him to work in a deli, which doesn’t work out. Eventually, an associate of hers finds a job for him as a nightwatchman at a senior care facility. After assisting a nurse with a resident, who ultimately dies, he comforts the distraught nurse and walks her home. As he’s doing so, he’s spotted by a friend of the Mistress. This friend reports back to the Mistress what she mistakenly believed was the Butcher escorting a secret lover, or prostitute. When the Mistress confronts the Butcher about this, it results in one of the film’s most brutal scenes, which you described somewhat above, where he kicks the Mistress repeatedly in the abdomen, presumably killing her, and his, unborn child.
It’s pretty clearly a series of circumstances that erode, if not directly assault, the Butcher’s dignity and, from his perspective, his masculinity. One end result of this episode is the theft of a pistol, or, as you pointed out earlier, stealing justice itself. I’d like to hear you talk more about that. I’m personally interested in how that sequence of events, that assault on the Butcher’s masculinity, concludes with an assault on maternity. Motherhood is a recurring theme in Carne and I Stand Alone, particularly its absence, and destruction, and how that shapes the character of the Butcher. It might be useful to add that the Butcher and the Mistress live in her mother’s home in Lille, thus contributing another layer of maternity the Butcher can abuse, and be abused by. How do these metaphors, involving justice and the dueling annihilation of masculinity and maternity, allow us “a higher resolution of comprehension”, as you put it, regarding the Butcher and his struggles?
Taylor: That’s wonderfully put. I think firstly I would say that I don’t genuinely believe that the Mistress was going to buy the shop. Rather she was telling the Butcher what he needed to hear for her to build out the life that she wanted for herself. This perspective if you think is apt then indicates perhaps that his virility and dignity may indeed have been lost in the very act of impregnating this woman. Secondly, I don’t know that we can actually get a higher resolution of comprehension on the Butcher, as I think he demonstrates enough behaviors that I would deem him mentally ill. Instead, I think there is a subsurface or archetypal playground to observe, a metaphorical field of play in which we can grasp something that he is but a player in.
I don’t consider it quite as clean cut as the assault on his masculinity that led to the action, but rather the repetition that preceded that scene of him feeling short changed and lied to, gaslit if you will, that led to his fit of outrage. You’re dead on pointing out the duel of masculinity and maternity. It’s a duel between what one might call the worst traits of masculinity and the worst traits of maternity. She seems conniving, manipulative, and insincere, and he is a walking talking textbook example of toxic masculinity. On its face the metaphors seem pretty simple, do not act like these shitty people lest you end up like these shitty people. But I think there are accurate depictions of psychological behavior and its effects to observe. The gluttony and selfishness of both the Butcher and Mistress leading to unhappiness. The Mistress being better off in life because she had a mother in her life, and a family while growing up in general, and the Butcher’s raw disdain of that. Due to the narration being delivered by the Butcher we can get into his headspace more and comprehend not just the descent into madness that he experiences but the negative self-talk and constant self-measuring and self-aggrandizing that ultimately leads to the corruption of his “self”.
As for the pistol, in conjunction with the statement I mentioned earlier, “Morality is made for those who own it. The rich.” The Butcher in reality and in his pseudo-reality seems entirely aware that he cannot change his fortune as who he is. Life and the world will not bend or bow to him, and he refuses to bend or bow to it. The world will not fold open the way that it will for his Mistress and her pocketbook. Instead, he can only hurt people. When he acquires the pistol it seems like Chekhov’s gun, set up as the crucial last plot mechanic and perhaps his last act of defiance. Notably, justice isn’t something he could afford. He had to steal it from a woman pregnant with his child whom he’d beaten. Ostensibly indicating to us the audience that any justice he delivers will be corrupt.
What’s interesting is trying to make sense of how that through-line develops into the finale, and the implications of that statement in Irreversible regarding him going to prison for sleeping with his daughter. One wonders how he was caught, since his daughter as you mentioned is mute. Did she become pregnant? And if so, that adds a whole layer of complexity to this maternity and masculinity competition. The idea of him corrupting himself, with himself and so on.
Jim: I like the observation that the Butcher is aware of his own futility, or the constant stalemate he finds himself in. Though I emphasize the subjective within this film, I don’t think enough about self-awareness.
It’s clear to me now that you and I come at the film from two very different perspectives. That’s intriguing, and makes for a lively discussion. For instance, I don’t perceive the Butcher as mentally ill, but even if I do, I don’t know why it matters, since there are no metrics, or relative observations about other characters, to define what is mentally healthy and what’s not. Since everything we see, everything we hear, feel and smell, is entirely within the Butcher’s point-of-view, there is only one judge. It is an exclusively subjective perspective, shaped by nothing other than his own mental, emotional, and sensory observations. For that reason, whether or not he’s mentally ill is immaterial, since there’s nothing to compare it to that the Butcher hasn’t already colored, or discolored, with his own gaze, which fills up every frame of this film.
My emphasis on the masculinity-maternity duel, or duality, comes from what I think is a default mode of experience and expression for the Butcher, which is fixated on what he sees as the male-female conflict. He’s absolutely obsessed with describing the world in conflicting sexual, or gendered, terms, and is always reinforcing it, with his language and his exchanges with everyone. This is what is important to him, how he orders things. As someone deeply traumatized by the mothers in his life, whether his own, the mother of his daughter, the mother of his unborn child, or the unbearable evaluation of the mother of the mother of his unborn child, he wears those wounds with a big grudge. All these mothers effectively constitute, in his mind, everything he suffers from. “It’s all those fucking mothers,” I can easily imagine him saying.
And it’s not that he ultimately weaponizes masculinity against maternity, but that it’s all the same thing, of the same origins, and weighs evenly within the scrambled domain of his bottomless self-loathing. They’re two immovable forces he can’t escape or defeat, though he certainly tries. Maternity and masculinity are two giant rocks he keeps smashing into one another.
Maternity and masculinity traumatize and destroy him, and that enrages him. Both are failing to improve his circumstances. He may subconsciously understand that, but it’s negligible, and his only possible response is rage. This is a good example of why I emphasize the primacy of interiority and the subjective point-of-view in I Stand Alone. From an outside perspective, one can chin-stroke and psychoanalyze the interplay of maternal and masculine forces, or any other dynamics, in the Butcher’s life, and be entirely accurate in doing so, but to the Butcher it’s all a giant fuckfest he constantly fantasizes about destroying, and that, within the strict context of the film itself, is all that matters. It’s all well and good to analyze him from the outside, but that has nothing to do with what is ultimately revealed in this film, which is entirely concerned with the Butcher’s singular, and very subjective concept of “morality” and its relationship to power.
But before going there, let’s return to your outlook concerning what you call the “archetypal playground,” or the “metaphorical field of play” the Butcher operates in. I’m interested to hear exactly how you would describe that place.
Taylor: Sure, admittedly we do have to engage with some chin-stroking to get more into the “theory”. I’ve been touching on part of that archetypal playground when I’ve asked about what you make of that Irreversible information. As the message of maternity crippling him if he did indeed impregnate his daughter would seemingly be cemented. Before I can illustrate what the Butcher is operating in or around, I’d like to reiterate the taboo subjects that Noé has a predilection for, murder, revenge, incest, rape, drug use, dominance, control, psychedelic/hallucinogenic experience, death, and physical abuse. Through these taboo subjects, he explores subjects, ideas, and beliefs in his films that especially in American Cinema we do not see engaged with. In I Stand Alone he is predominantly focused on the carnalities of man, whereas in a film like Love he seems to be more interested in exploring the complexity of amorous feelings between multiple individuals.
I think we disagree regarding the subjectivity you outline in, “It is an exclusively subjective perspective, shaped by nothing other than his own mental, emotional, and sensory observations.” There are multiple visual moments where I felt I saw how pitiably he is viewed by others, when his back is turned or when he’s looking down. And sure these could be stylisms built around how he thinks they’re behaving but I read it more as a naturalistic depiction of the world around him.
I also want to highlight how apt I find your point, “And it’s not that he ultimately weaponizes masculinity against maternity, but that it’s all the same thing, of the same origins, and weighs evenly within the scrambled domain of his bottomless self-loathing. They’re two immovable forces he can’t escape or defeat, though he certainly tries. Maternity and masculinity are two giant rocks he keeps smashing into one another.” This is seemingly the crux of everything I’ve mentioned and likely will mention. I see it more as him smashing himself against the rocks or in between them, but either way the point is apt.
I don’t know that I’m able to describe the field of play so much as what it’s populated with. Through the Butcher, Noé seems to be investigating questions, themes, and ideas like, “impurities of love”, “how regular meat working may numb a man toward his species”, “social debts and responsibilities”, “ownership by the state”, “the frivolity and undeniable power of nostalgia”, “observation of reality, meaning something like: if you’re always looking in and never looking out you’ll lose yourself”, “which is more powerful justice or morality?”, and “are singular experiences more important and memorable than a content life?”seems to be investigating questions, themes, and ideas like, “impurities of love”, “how regular meat working may numb a man toward his species”, “social debts and responsibilities”, “ownership by the state”, “the frivolity and undeniable power of nostalgia”, “observation of reality, meaning something like: if you’re always looking in and never looking out you’ll lose yourself”, “which is more powerful justice or morality?”, and “are singular experiences more important and memorable than a content life?”seems to be investigating questions, themes, and ideas like, “impurities of love”, “how regular meat working may numb a man toward his species”, “social debts and responsibilities”, “ownership by the state”, “the frivolity and undeniable power of nostalgia”, “observation of reality, meaning something like: if you’re always looking in and never looking out you’ll lose yourself”, “which is more powerful justice or morality?”, and “are singular experiences more important and memorable than a content life?”
The merit of what I’ve detailed above is of course variable and contextual. I think that in order to clearly observe or process my own reaction to these and other ideas I’m quite dependent on engaging with whether or not the main character is insane/becoming mad. But it is entirely possible that this is just my framework of observing desirable vs undesirable behavior and mapping it and nothing more.
I think it’s worth noting that the dichotomy in play is masculine vs. feminine and when femininity becomes pregnant and therefore maternal his suffering seems to be directly associated. As you mentioned, “It’s all those fucking mothers,” which I too can imagine him saying. Something I find interesting from this is that his sexual engagement unassociated with pregnancy seems to have no effect. Which I haven’t unlocked entirely, it’s just something I’ve noticed and don’t want to overlook.
Do you see it differently? And perhaps more importantly does what I said make any sense?
Jim: Sure, it makes perfect sense. I think I know entirely where you’re coming from. I just see it differently.
I’ve avoided mentioning the Butcher’s role in Irreversible for two reasons. One, it’s been so long since I saw that, I don’t remember the Butcher in it, so can’t honestly say anything about it, but mostly, two, it’s a film that was released four years after I Stand Alone, so is outside the past and present of this film’s events. I mean, if we were to conduct a conversation entitled something like “The History and Psychology of the Butcher in the Films of Gaspar Noé” it would fit very nicely. The treatment of the Butcher here, for the sake of this conversation, shouldn’t go beyond the scope of the film we’re discussing. Carne is included because it’s part of the development of the character up to this point. I apologize for not being more explicit about this earlier.
It may well be Noé’s intention that the film has a strong socio-economic foundation to it. I just don’t see it. When I first watched it, I kept trying to force that interpretative template over it, without satisfaction, and it wasn’t until the second, and particularly third, watches that I saw it as a severely personal film that only makes sense, and can only be truly felt, or experienced, from within the strict confines of the Butcher’s tortured inner self. Now, that isn’t to say the society the Butcher lives in doesn’t have any bearing on him or doesn’t provide meaningful context for understanding him. Of course it does. But it’s just that, a tool, and not the thing itself.
I am curious why Noé set the film in 1980, with Carne starting in 1965, when the Butcher’s daughter is born. Was it a rough patch in France economically? Were the social safety nets in France at the time weak and/or ineffective? Because I can understand one reading of the film that posits the Butcher as someone who’s fallen through the cracks of an indifferent society, whose malice and disdain is a direct reflection of the cruelty of the social structures he operates in. But then there’s the ending, or the final sequence in the hotel room with his daughter, that renders all that immaterial, and is why I ultimately dismiss the psycho-socio-economic reading, in favor of the purely first-person-singular experiential one.
I think we risk losing sight of the details of the film by circling around these analytics too much, which is entirely my fault, since I have a penchant for that approach, and end up overlooking the film’s more concrete elements. So lets zoom in and look at what’s actually happening. There are, as you spelled out somewhat above, the exchanges the Butcher has with prospective employers, and people he encounters in bars, and the rage-fueled interior monologue that narrates it all, and we can talk about all that, though I think it would serve of us best, at this point, to focus on the final act. There we can touch on some things you just mentioned, around the sexual act and “the impurities of love”, which I think are crucial to fully embracing the film. Would you like to set it up a little?
Taylor: My understanding from the little I know of French politics is that since 1981 the political left and right of France have alternated power in most elections. 1981 saw the election of Mitterrand, a socialist candidate who from what I gather is hand wrung about fairly frequently. Shortly after he assumed office the French economy suffered great losses and central banks were required to stabilize markets. As this is a year preceding these events it may be a demonstration of the day-to-day lives that voters lead. I don’t know much about Gaspar’s politics nor how he feels about Mitterrand. I suspect that the social safety nets were much leaner at the time, though I’m entirely unaware of their policy and am scarcely brushed up on the policy of our own continental cohabitors (Mexico and Canada) so I’m ill-suited to make further remarks there.
I think neither perspectives are exclusive, both the first-person-singular and socio-economic seem apt to me and inseparably intertwined. Regarding the first-person perspective, I think of those sound effect transitions especially early on in Lille, and the feeling it gives me as an audience member that I along with the Butcher am excrement being pushed through as Gaspar put it “the bowels” of France. But just as present to me is the socio-economic condition making that intestinal squeeze occur on our Butcher.
Regarding analytics, I would love to pivot entirely to a discussion of Gaspar’s obsession and motif of tunnels and hallways in coordination with madness, ecstasy, and death. But alas let us return to the concrete rectum that surrounds our Butcher.
I’d be happy to set it up. “DANGER” strobes on screen, we arrive back at the hotel, the Butcher is alongside his daughter. He begins as our narrator to reminisce on his father before beginning to have sexual inquisitions about his daughter and what if anything they may have done to her at the institution. These questions bleed into observations of her beauty alongside his pride toward her, we’re continuing the thread started in Carne that he has sexual thoughts toward his daughter but we don’t yet know the depth of them. He then gathers his gun (which only has three bullets, one for him, one for her, and one for his old boss) claiming that life is a machine and that they both must leave it with some dignity, there’s some room here for armchair chin-stroking about justice but I don’t think it’s a particularly deep well in this instance.
He then proceeds to sleep with his daughter and he shoots her in the neck as she looks out at the factory her mother was employed at while she was with the Butcher. Only the neck wound doesn’t bleed her out quickly and now he must choose between saving the remaining two bullets one for himself and one for the bastard he used to work for. He ultimately pulls the trigger on his daughter again after watching her slowly bleed, and subsequently places the barrel against his chin and pulls the trigger.
Only it was all a vision in his head, none of it had occurred. He’s standing with his back to Cynthia holding the gun still deciding what to do, and he puts it away. He then proceeds to sleep with Cynthia after holding her close and having what might be best described as a breakdown. They then both stand in the window and embrace one another as the camera pans down to the boys playing in the street.
Jim: Whoa! Eleventh-hour landmine! Tunnels, hallways, rectums, and excrement. I can’t pass this over. Please, Taylor, do tell. But let’s just keep it to the film at hand.
Taylor: Well, admittedly, it’s quite difficult to broach the subject as it’s a motif in his body of work. But the beginnings of the theme of tunnels and hallways as transitional representations are certainly present. Focusing back on how they directly tie to excrement and rectums in this film though, we see the Butcher passing through hallways, along unremarkable street sides, train tracks, and tunnels. The destinations stay but he passes through them and they seem to take something from him along every inch of his grind. Like nutrients being absorbed through an intestine. The fact that he’s a shitty person makes it an overly easy and perhaps simplistic metaphor but I think there is something notable to the presentation and grating drag of the Butcher against the surfaces of the city as he walks on toward his fate.
And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the undercurrent of homosexuality to the film and the Butcher’s insecurity with it. In Carne and Irreversible it seems he may be having intercourse with his cellmates. Notably, he becomes violent with his wife directly after she calls him a slur for being gay, and his violent narration within the film always seems to become heightened whenever he is uttering words about anything vaguely or overtly homosexual. There is some sort of repression and or long-lasting trauma from his rape as a child at the crux of his character which is interesting to observe, though I don’t have much more I can say about it other than that it is present.
Jim: As I said before, the Butcher is full to the brim with self-loathing, and his raging homophobia is certainly a part of that. It’s something about which he’s more the rule than the exception, I think, regarding lots of men, and certainly men of his generation and older. Like so much about the Butcher, his insecure masculinity, misogyny and homophobia make him an entirely unexceptional bore of a man.
I guess we’ll leave the excrement tunnel talk for another time. It’s a curious thesis, not one I’ve encountered about Noé’s range of metaphors, though I can’t say it’s out of character for him. By the “sound-effect transitions” you note in the early part of the film, I assume you mean the “bang” cuts. They are both unique and distressing, though I can’t assign them any particular meaning. They feel like the camera zooming, or tracking forward, to a close-up, but the motion is intensely accelerated, so that the transition from middle-distance to close-up occurs in an instant, accompanied by the gunshot-like bang sound. The overall impression is more of a cut than a zoom, though it contains a sickening sense of motion. You’re right, it does have a swift tunneling effect, like a bullet through a twisted gun barrel. I don’t think I would ever equate it with excretion, but what do I know? There is a very dirty, shitty feeling to the whole film, to be sure.
To the ending. You bring up the WARNING title card, with the numerical countdown and the message “You have thirty seconds to leave the screening of this film”. It’s somewhat Godardian, and wholly Noé. By doing so, he’s placing a marker, but to what end? Since what follows is graphic and disturbing – and it really is, horribly – I suppose it’s easy enough to interpret it as a simple warning to viewers than they may want to brace themselves for what’s coming, or walk away, but is he signaling something else?
In the first version of what follows, in “The Hotel of the Future” (it’s another thing we could go on about – the names of places – but alas), the Butcher fucks his daughter, shoots her, then kills himself. In the second version, they share an extended embrace, after which he feels her up, though there isn’t an explicit sign that he fucks her. Forgive me the rough language, but that’s what it is – it fits. What lies at the heart of the film, for me, is the differences between the two versions of what happens after the countdown, in the danger zone. It’s hardly the only thing that matters, but it is the single crux of the entire film.
Taylor: Yes, precisely, those “bang” cuts. I feel confident that Gaspar would be pleased with that formal title for them. As to whether he’s signaling something in the danger zone, which I love as a title for that portion, I actually do think the text here is both fourth-wall breaking and relevant to the film’s presentation. The sequence occurs directly before he takes his daughter to a hotel room. Sure, we can analyze the weight of the name of the hotel and the history of the very room they’re sharing as well. But I think the very act of this character, our Butcher bringing his daughter into a hotel, and then his hotel room is the last step toward his looming immoral action. Like a door slamming closed behind him. Whether depicted in this film or not it seems absolutely true to me that in the course of his life this character after arriving at the hotel with Cynthia did have an incestual relationship with his daughter.
It’s interesting that you think he didn’t sleep with her, I suppose that argument can be made especially with the English subtitles at the end when he says “Maybe I’ll never shoot myself. Maybe I’ll make love to you. And tomorrow I’ll be locked up.” as if he hasn’t already. However, the explicitness of his hand creeping up between her closed legs and into her skirt after watching how the sexual encounter had just previously occurred with nearly identical physical symbolism in the false ending conveyed it to me differently. And there’s also the way they proceed to lean into each other like lovers in the window as he continues to fondle her breasts and body.
I think you’re correct to pinpoint the two events and their contrasting elements as the crux of the film, as it seems to also be the crux of our Butcher. Can he be happy while behaving immorally, as suggested at the very end of the film? Would jealousy and shame cause this man to murder his own daughter at the cost of further retribution/justice, as he does in the false sequence? The film has set up a man that I believe could end up doing either of these two things. His own gluttony as an answer to the first, and second. It’s almost a matter of which side of the bed this character woke up on. And I can’t believe I’m just now noticing this, but it is curious that he says he’s the happiest he’s ever been with a woman who doesn’t speak. Forgetting how fucked up the rest of the situation with that “relationship” is, and just looking at that as a representation of the character is pretty damn fascinating.
Jim: Since Noé never explicitly shows the Butcher fornicating with Cynthia, it’s all up for interpretation, leaving it up to you to determine what little detail you assume signals they’ve had sex. But I also don’t think it matters much, since it’s all variations of the same basic act, whether he implicitly fucks her, or explicitly feels her up. It just doesn’t matter, and I think Noé’s visual ambiguity says everything about his views on the subject.
There are two quotes from the Butcher that speak directly to how I read the final scene in the hotel room. Earlier, as part of his ceaseless interior monologuing, he thinks “To each his own life, to each his own morality.” At another time, considering his daughter, he thinks “Few can claim to know what love is.” I’ll argue that in the final scene of the film, the Butcher forms his own morality. As the opening scene of the film declares, and as we see is true with the Butcher, morality is an external set of proscriptions and virtues enforced by those with wealth and power onto those without. In other words, what’s moral is what the powers-that-be say it is, whether that’s from societal, political or religious elites. Morality is entirely man-made, for the protection and benefit of established orders. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s arbitrary, since it does have to advance existing interests, though morality is entirely subjective, or can be.
In the first version of what happens in the hotel room, the Butcher rapes his daughter, murders her, then commits suicide. It is a grisly and horrific scene that emerges naturally from everything we’ve seen up to that point. Shocking as it is, it follows directly from the motives, thinking and emotions we’ve just witnessed the Butcher stewing in for ninety minutes. The film could end right there, and although it would be a miserable and deeply disturbing thing to end on, it would, nevertheless, be a complete and credible arc. It would make complete sense. But it doesn’t end that way. The Butcher changes the course of his life, which we see in the second version of events, ending with the camera, or perhaps the Butcher’s morally renewed self, returning to the street, hence the world, below.
And he does so through love, or with love, which brings me to the second quote above. It’s not your idea of love, nor mine, but it is his answer to the “unknowability” of love. Of course, most any viewer will squirm at that expression of love, and refuse it for themselves, but for the Butcher it is transformative, if not redemptive, and helps to define a moral landscape that he can live in. It’s a remarkable moment, a narrative turn as courageous as any I’ve seen in cinema.
But then there’s the question of justice. Since the film begins with the twin concerns of morality and justice, with morality enforced from above, and justice enforced from the nether regions, where, and how, is justice served, and for whom? Or is it?
Taylor: I don’t think I can quite follow you down the rabbit hole of him developing a morality. Perhaps adopting a version of it for the time being, but the state of mind he’s presented as being in and his addictive repressed personality give me pause from thinking of him as a rational actor. Rather I see any “decision” he makes as reactionary to bodily input of pleasure or the lack of it – pain. It either satiates him or doesn’t. It either hurts him or it doesn’t. A more localized bread and circus philosophy. However, I do think that may be something Noe is getting at. Not just morality’s breadth of meaning but the problem of moral convenience that comes from greed and gluttony. Once again this is building out from the perspective of his ultimate eventual carnal relations with his daughter occurring.
It is an interesting turn, I don’t know that I actually believe it’s love and not sex, or even sex and nostalgia. But I’ll go with you down the road and play at it being love. Do you think this love has brought about a change to his identity to keep him from killing or perhaps like me do you find it a temporary distraction that has moved his attention away from revenge?
Justice. That’s a great smorgasbord of questions. I ultimately think that the lady justice’s scales in this film are empty, even broken. As an external observer, I wish for justice for the Mistress and get none. I wish for justice at very conflicting points for the Butcher and by the end get none. Then there are instances where my morality seems to be more overtly coloring what I am mentally as a viewer wishing to call for justice. Smaller things like, wishing to see the hotel clerk collect what he is owed from the Butcher. Justice as you mention though does seem in this world of the street to be a bottom-up preposition. But just as present is ill-conceived justice or perhaps a more apt term would be self-righteousness. The aloofness of the Butcher toward the young grocer when he asks him to smile at the deli job, the idea that his old colleagues, friends, and customers owe him anything, there is a falsity at every layer to the justice he seeks. And then there is Cynthia who seems to be embracing him back at the end, something I have no idea what to do with. My inner morality finds it deplorable and yet it’s presented as if she’s never been happier within the film. Is her happiness something like justice? I don’t know. I know I desire for Cynthia to be happy, but not like this. In trying to characterize and express my views on justice as it is in the film I feel I’ve become nearly as soiled as our Butcher. What do you make of it all by the end? Was there justice or just the whimsy of men?
Jim: If reason were ever a prerequisite for morality, I daresay we’d all inhabit a moral desert. Do I think love has changed him? No, because I don’t see that the love he has for his daughter is something he hasn’t possessed all along. I’m less inclined than you to psychoanalyze the Butcher. I’m more interested in merely observing what he shows me, and if he’s changed at all, it’s only towards some greater clarity. As for justice, it seems like an inert property, something never delivered. Justice, within the feverish confines of this film, is an illusion, a fantasy as specious as the male bravado that craves it.
You insert your own wishes into your reading of the film, which leads me to wonder just what that reading is. If you wish for justice for the Mistress, and happiness for the daughter, neither of which is served, then what do you want, or not want, to believe is true about the Butcher? Put a neat bow on our discussion of I Stand Alone, Taylor, and tell me what this film means to you.
Taylor: I certainly don’t wish to believe or not believe anything that isn’t useful or true about the Butcher. What I wish was true is a different matter.
I Stand Alone is special. It’s the first salvo of one of contemporary cinema’s enigmatic provocateurs and a film I couldn’t look away from. It’s bestial, boisterous, and brash. Built on a fully formed character, rattling off exposition rivetingly, he (the Butcher) and it is equally as engrossing as it is engaging. One of the finest character pieces of the myopically and murderously obsessive. Despite longing for a change for the happiness of characters, there’s not actually anything I would change about the film itself. Which is always a sign of my pleasure with a piece. It notably gave Lucile Hadžihalilović her first (and last) work on a feature film as editor before she would go on to direct her own feature-length stories. I can’t help but imagine some of the deftness of editing that her hand brought, which also builds up the real-world meaning of the film for me. I Stand Alone is a nearly perfect marriage of form and narrative.
It’s Art, and it’s vulgar. I love it.
Jim: Taylor, thanks for talking through this great film with me. It’s always good to get an alternative perspective.
Taylor: Thanks for having me Jim, it’s nice to have such a fun excuse to complete Gaspar’s filmography. Looking forward to your thoughts on Vortex.