I know awards season is off to a hot start with La La Land sweeping the Globes and Ryan Reynolds and Andrew Garfield kissing their way into our hearts (still doesn’t effect my feelings on Silence). With all the noteworthy movies of 2016 I have left to see (c’mon 20th Century Women, get on that wide release) I’m also embarking on an exploration of French cinema thanks to the birthday gift from my boyfriend Steven of Alex West’s academic genre book “Films of the New French Extremity”. West (co-host of one of my favorite podcasts The Faculty of Horror) covers a lot of ground starting with a brief history of France then honing in on the early 90’s cinema that pushed the limits of sex and violence on screen, how that blossomed into a booming horror subculture in the early/mid 2000’s and how it changed cinema both in France and abroad. The first movies the book tackles are the early works of divisive director Gaspar Noé. While most are familiar with his shocking piece Irréversible, West breaks down his previous works, a 40 minute short Carne and its full-length sequel I Stand Alone. Before reading this chapter I watched these two films, ready to take a dive into a filmography I never thought I’d traverse.
Gaspar Noé is a director known for pushing the boundaries of what one is comfortable watching. This short of extreme cinema juxtaposes the forbidden delicacy of horse meat (known as Carne) with the taboo subject of incest. The story follows a butcher specializing in said meat who is left to raise his only daughter, when she hits puberty his lust rises to the surface. Since it’s from the perspective of the butcher the content is treated so nonchalantly that it makes the French seem like real perverts. I appreciate the style of the yellow saturation, hard edits and nontraditional angles. It often comes off as pretentious but you have to admit, it grabs your attention. Not for the faint of heart, the intense visuals included horse slaughter and vaginal birth. Carne doesn’t sway me toward admiration for Noe, I respect his unique cinematic language. He always presents something interesting whether or not I can stomach it.
I Stand Alone (1998)
After praising Carne for its art house creativity and reminding me what I appreciate about Gaspar Noé, its full length follow up I Stand Alone is more of what I hate about him. In this sequel, Noé duplicates the same camera movements, color pallet, etc as he continues the story of the destitute butcher. Carne had a third person perspective as it documented the aging horse meat butcher who after assaulting a man he thought molested his daughter, loses his shop, all his money, and right to see his daughter and once released shacks up with a barmaid. The 40 minute short ends with him and his now pregnant lover relocating in the hopes of starting a new life. I Stand Alone picks up immediately but now with a first person perspective as the entire film is spent listening to the stream of consciousness thought of this butcher. It turns out his prospects were not a rosy and unable to find work in his field he feels suffocated by his new wife and her mother and seething with hate he decides to return to his hometown to reclaim what was once his.
If these particular themes were dormant in Carne, particular French concerns grow as the scope of the narrative enlarges. Carne while very French is a more intimate and niche as a depiction of perverse, forbidden fruits whether is be horse meat or incest. Here, the Butcher serves as a greater representation as France itself which especially in 2016 America can also ring true. The Butcher is a fifty-year-old straight white man who is accustomed to everything going his way because just like America, the country was built to serve that demographic. With a criminal record and no job, his privilege has been stripped along with his independence and respect. He becomes a ball of hate as he blames everyone around him for his misfortunes. He hates his wife for being the breadwinner so he beats her, he hates the Arabic man who has taken over his shop (though most of the town seems open to being racist) and he hates the manager of the slaughterhouse who won’t give him a job and decides he should kill him because he’s “a gay.” The Butcher feels he’s done everything right and that he deserves his place in society to be restored, unable to accept the changing of the times.
As much as I appreciate Noé’s sharp social commentary, I can’t say I enjoy spending 90 minutes in the head of a misogynistic, homophobic bigot. It was bad enough before I had to hear him wanting to sleep with his daughter. I emphasize the stream of consciousness aspect because for the entire run time there is this unbreaking voice over of this man pontificating about all the injustices and what he plans to do about it which he babbles on and on about. It’s so repetitive and if you took out the VO, it’s mostly scenes of a guy walking down the street and sitting in his room. There’s little of anything interesting happening and you’re stuck listening to the racist Trump supporter type talk himself in circles. Noe “spices” up the third act when the butcher has reached a boiling point in his hopelessness and decides a proper last hurrah before he murders the man who won’t give him a job would be spending the day with his daughter. Then commences a horrific dream sequence as he imagines a brutal resolution where he consummates with his daughter and attempts a murder/suicide which even as a fantasy fails terribly. Sure this drama is more exciting than “old man sits alone ranting” but it’s neither feel good cinema nor the fun fucked up Tarantino stuff we’re used to in the states.
I Stand Alone is the sequel you never ask for and dearly wish it didn’t exist. I have no doubt Noe made this piece as a deromanticizing of French culture. He shows the hideous beast filled with mistrust, xenophobia and raw hate lying under the surface of a country known for love and beauty. The Butcher constantly proclaims his adoration for Paris believing he is a true Frenchman but the city we see is dreary and bankrupt. Noé achieves what he set out to depict but that doesn’t mean it’s something I want to watch. It’s the duality of the objective to subjective opinions I struggle with as I’m writing, the same dualities in which one can view the beauty and strife of France but much like the Butcher sees what he wants, I shall interpret this movie as the queasy and toxic narrative that is. I hope to not encounter it again anytime soon.