Seul Contre Tous

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SEUL CONTRE TOUS

7/10

aka I Stand Alone : France 1998 : Gaspar Noe : 89mins

Gratingly unsympathetic misanthrope commits shocking violent act in northern industrial city, flees south to the capital where he rants against the ills of society and plots revenge. Seul Contre Tous share its basic structure with Mike Leigh’s Naked, and it’s not hard to imagine David Thewlis’s snarling Johnny developing into a 50-year-old as murderously pissed-off as Philippe Nahon’s borderline-psychotic former horse-meat butcher Chevalier. But Noe brings us even closer to our anti-hero, as his is mainly a relentless, somewhat monotonous interior monologue. Though Chevalier is outwardly taciturn, his mental processes are, as we hear, not so much stream-of-consciousness as torrent-of-bile.

It’s hard to imagine a more unpleasant character with which to spend an hour and a half than this racist, sexist, homophobic self-hater – which is precisely Noe’s intention. His later Irreversible is even more of an ordeal, targetting the ears and eyes as well as the brain, but Seul Contre Tous is no mere dry run in terms of putting us through the wringer: an early horrific eruption of violence, in which Chevalier viciously kicks and punches his pregnant partner (aptly-named Frankye Pain) in the stomach, will be too much for some viewers.

The aggressive style of Seul Contre Tous is as extreme as its protagonist – showing classic signs of “debut-director-itis” Noe sets out to impress with every widescreen shot (many are artily cropped), assailing the viewer with some very in-your-face sub-Godardian intertitles that underline his various points in no uncertain terms. Even the editing is violently alarming, with frequent bullet-quick zooms and cuts signalled by loud gunshots and ominous drum-cracks as Chevalier stalks the mean streets of Lille and Paris with a sour swagger that combines the least sympathetic aspects of Frenzy‘s Bob Rusk and Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.

But perhaps the closest parallel is with Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman from ‘American Psycho’ – like Ellis, Noe looks backward to the previous decade, (rather unconvincingly) setting his action on specific days in 1980. Bateman and Chevalier’s social milieus could hardly be more different (the jobless ex-butcher haunts a succession of unemployment-haunted dives), but in both cases late developments suggest there may be a significant gulf between self-narrated ‘autobiography’ and the ‘facts’: Seul Contre Tous‘s finale makes clear that we shouldn’t necessarily believe everything we’re shown or told.

Noe warns those still in their seats that they have 30 seconds to leave the cinema, then counts down to a flashing DANGER caption before the climax, in which Chevalier takes his mute, institutionalised teenage daughter to a hotel room. And at this stage the film does take a decisive, taboo-shattering leap into the abyss – or does it? It isn’t clear whether what we’re watching is (in narrative terms) real, a fantasy, a memory, or some combitation of all three. But, as with Takeshi Miike’s similarly transgressive Audition, such confusions can only dilute the impact of what’s intended to be a shocking crescendo. It’s just about the only time, in fact, when Noe doesn’t adhere to Chevalier’s guiding philosophy: “That’s what counts: going all the way.”

5th November, 2002
(seen on video, 4th November)

by Neil Young