Transcending the Abject: A review of Seul contre tous

By Tony McKibbin

i-stand-alone-gaspar-noe-1.jpg Seul contre tous, 1998

“I wanted to make the most abject film ever made,” says Gaspar Noé, the director of Seul Contre Tous. But if Noé’s film is of huge import it’s less because it’s abject than because it transcends the term. This story of an unemployed horse butcher given to intense, if one-dimensional, examination of his life, keeps trying to find a purpose for its leading character’s existence. Would an abject film not simply accept the abjection, settle for chronicling the despair?

I’m thinking here of numerous films of the last decade: Kira Muratova’s The Asthenic Syndrome, Fred Kelemen’s Fate, Harmony Korine’s Gummo – films that seem to let the material flaccidly tell itself: image after image of misery delivered with an overwhelming sense of apathy. In Fate we witness one lengthy scene where a woman dances oblivious and half naked in a Berlin bar. In Gummo a couple of brothers slap and punch each other with Korine’s camera looking on. Muratova’s film concludes with scenes of the mentally infirm talking to themselves in a hospital and on a train. The films are full of such abjection, full of scenes which in Korine’s words, “could begin or end anywhere”. They may all have found an appropriate way of dealing with a particular issue – the fall of the Soviet Union in The Asthenic Syndrome; immigration and alienation in Fate; cultural dispossession in Gummo – but are the films part of the problem or part of the cure? Have the filmmakers, in escaping the easy moral certainties of Hollywood, avoided asking ethical questions at all? There’s a sense in many abject films of the nineties of what Foucault has called the “Ruse and new triumph of madness”: that abject cinema – a cinema of incoherence and despair – has located itself as Hollywood’s terrible twin: in its insistence on offering an antidote, it is filmmaking that leaves open all the questions mainstream cinema so determinedly closes.

i-stand-alone-gaspar-noe-2.jpgSeul contre tous, 1998 

Seul Contre Tous also leaves to the viewer many ethical questions unanswered, but it’s nevertheless an enquiry into moral issues. This is clear in the use of captions that insist man is moral. It’s also evident in an opening sequence informing us that if the law of the rich is legality, then the law of the poor is the gun.

But what really interests Noé is the subjectivity of moral purpose: the degree to which the personal descent – the butcher’s abuse of his fiancée; the failure to find work, the humiliation in a bar – all contribute to a pilgrim’s progress: all move the butcher towards moral self-definition. One thinks here of a Nietzsche aphorism: “An animal that could talk once said: humanity is prejudice, and at least we animals don’t suffer from it.” Mainstream cinema, of course, is all about assumed prejudice passing for a moral subtext. When the butcher is humiliated in the bar, it is an inversion of the Hollywood scene where a troublemaker gets his butt kicked. Noé wants to take us inside prejudice, and to open up its implications. Yes, the butcher is a trouble-maker, a racist, a homophobe. But these are not the a priori traits they are depicted as in Hollywood cinema – an intrinsic badness used to bring into focus the intrinsic goodness of the hero – they are intricately layered, often contradictory rationales for a miserable existence.

If one accepts Nietzsche’s comment, surely objectivity is a cultural impossibility. A filmmaker, believing he is making a film without moral prejudice, will perhaps do one of two things: subconsciously reiterate the conventional morality of the mainstream, or be drawn into what Linda Williams has called “the frenzy of the visible”. Or, into an even more vivid relationship with reality, and often the most abject or prurient aspects of it. How to escape the conventions?

If Noé’s film were simply abject, he could settle on showing us atrocity after atrocity. However, there is relatively little violence in his film. There is in the film’s first half the pummelling the butcher administers to his pregnant fiancée’s stomach. In the second half, there is the sequence where he imagines murdering his own daughter. In each instance, the horrific presentation is equalled by the weight of narrative consequence and moral significance. After the first action, he must leave both Lille and his job in a care home, and thus any hope of social integration. During the second, he comes to understand the difference between dead meat and living flesh – he finds his own soul.

Of course, in Hollywood films we frequently expect moral responsibility to be lifted off a leading character’s shoulders. Be that the alleviated guilty feelings of a Stallone film where a friend has died and Stallone must make amends, or in an action dénouement, where the hero allows the villain every opportunity for survival before shooting him dead.

i-stand-alone-gaspar-noe-3.jpgSeul contre tous, 1998

In much abject cinema of the nineties such obviousness is ignored, but what replaces it? If we see a father pushing his daughter around (as in The Asthenic Syndrome), or a Downs Syndrome girl shaving her eyebrows in a mirror (Gummo) where do we stand? This isn’t a demand for moral certainties, merely a request for moral questioning. If a film simply resembles a car crash, if it looks for the most gnarled and damaged of “found realities”, is the viewer no more than a drive-by voyeur? Better, certainly, the indeterminate amorality that Moratova, Korine and others force upon the viewer than the platitudinising of Hollywood, but, for the rendering of art, something must shape the material beyond the viewer’s own prejudices and prurience.

Noé’s film finds a way out of the “abject” cul-de-sac. It doesn’t ignore ethical issues, it just raises important moral questions without feeling obliged to arrive at moral certainties. It does so by shaping the film around its central character, by using a first person narrative approach that leaves the viewer locked inside the character’s head: inside the character’s own attempt at a value system. Rather than observing the lives of the dispossessed from the documentary-style distance that has been central to recent abject cinema, Noé insists we view things from inside out. This internalisation, this attempt to find a way out of the character’s despair and into his soul, suggests Noé’s film isn’t, finally, the “most abject film ever made.” It is, however, one of the most ruthlessly demanding. A film that is less drive-by than monomaniacally driven.

Born in London in 1968, Tony McKibbin has lived most of his life in Scotland. He is a regular contributor to The List (Edinburgh), Film West (Ireland) and Hard Times (Germany) and also writes fiction.