Seul contre tous

France 1998

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

1980. Embittered and misanthropic, horse-meat butcher Jean Chevalier (long abandoned by his wife and fresh out of jail for maiming an immigrant he wrongly suspected of seducing his autistic daughter Cynthia) settles in Lille with his pregnant mistress and her mother. The mistress postpones funding the butcher's shop as she has promised him, and so Chevalier begins working as a nightwatchman in a hospital for geriatrics. When his mistress falsely accuses him of infidelity, Chevalier beats her up (hoping to abort the baby), steals her gun and hitchhikes back to Paris.

All but penniless, he rents a sleazy hotel room in the northern suburbs - it is the room where his daughter was conceived - and tries to look for work. But the job centre has no jobs and old friends and acquaintances are broke and pessimistic. Two humiliating experiences (getting the brush-off at an interview for an abattoir job and being expelled from a bar after picking a fight) push him over the edge. He retrieves Cynthia from the institution where she has been in care and brings her back to the room. He imagines raping her or mercy-killing her before surrendering to a rapturous fantasy: their mutual love will transform them and empower them to make a stand against a hostile world.


Although its storyline picks up exactly where Gaspar Noé left off in his 1991 featurette Carne, this is less a sequel than an elaborated remake. Many elements are identical, including the cast, the theme, the locations, the flashy 'Scope cinematography and the bad-mantra voiceovers; even the most aggressive tic of style - the whip-pan or jump-zoom underlined by a loud gunshot on the soundtrack - made a brief guest appearance in the earlier film. In other words, Noé's fundamental project hasn't moved an inch in the last seven years. The director (who had a cosmopolitan, liberal, middle-class upbringing and describes himself in the press notes as, "a straight kind of guy and a bit of a wimp") tries to get inside the head of a dangerously disturbed man from a specifically French underclass. The aim is to gob on what Noé sees as the social and cultural complacency of mainstream French cinema and television. And, of course, to 'shock' the viewer with a not-very-metaphorical barrage of visual and verbal provocations.

A brief prologue in which a loudmouth in a bar defines 'morality' as a tool of the rich and 'justice' as the gun he carries establishes the film's confrontational style and reductivist context. Like the average radio phone-in caller, the horse-meat butcher Chevalier is barely capable of joined-up thinking. His almost continuous voiceover delivers a stream of evasions, denials and contradictions. The revered thought that the father he never knew was a communist martyr, slaughtered by the Nazis, blurs into the dismissal of France as a country of cheese and collaborators. Diatribes against 'faggots' crash into denunciations of the hypocrisy of family values. (One of the few details not reprised from Carne is that film's casual revelation that Chevalier had a seemingly tender gay relationship with his cell-mate in prison.) Misogyny shades into misanthropy, from which the only escape is a dream of incestuous bliss with his autistic daughter. Meanwhile a visit to a porno cinema yields the perception that life is never more than brute physical functions. Noé extrapolates from this torrent of verbiage some neo-Darwinian slogans which he splashes across the wide screen as captions: "Living is a Selfish Act", "Surviving is a Genetic Law".

This blitzkrieg of bar-room philosophy, rationalised by Chevalier's joblessness, poverty and hunger, is less a cry from the heart in the Céline tradition than a rhetorical performance: as loud, repetitive, obnoxious and calculated to offend a notional bourgeois audience as a very extended punk three-chord thrash. As such, it's mildly diverting, especially when Noé reaches for the pre-punk spirit of William Castle by bringing up a caption offering the viewer 30 seconds to leave the theatre before the climactic scenes between Chevalier and his daughter kick in. Any viewer in tune with the cruel humour of this gesture (what other kind is going to pay to see this film?) will probably find Seul contre tous as a whole engaging for two reasons. First, the performances are strong and fearless; Philippe Nahon embodies Chevalier with almost reckless credibility, and even those cast primarily for their grotesque appearance or manner are more believable than, say, anyone in the Jeunet/Caro films. Second, the deliberate mismatch between the grungy material and the amphetamine-charged editing syntax is just about surprising and/or irritating enough to sustain interest for 93 minutes.

Sadly, though, there's a typically punk hollowness at the core of Noé's rhetoric. Despite opening and closing with an outline map of France, the entire film rests upon an evasion: the only obvious reason for setting the story in 1980 is that it lets Noé off the hook of dealing with the appeal of Le Pen to mentalities such as Chevalier's - and thus of confronting the social-racial-economic realities of France now in the way that such contemporaries as Kassovitz and Dumont have tried to do. But even as a black, socially disengaged existential fable, Seul contre tous betrays its own hard-man stance in its final scenes. The mercy-killing of Cynthia is shown in graphic, lingering detail (the first bullet leaves her choking on her own blood; the second splatters her brains on the floor), but then bracketed off as Chevalier's paranoid fantasy. The real ending which follows is supposed to be even more shocking in its 'unexpectedly' elegiac way: Chevalier cosies up to Cynthia on the bed, imagines thrusting his hand between her milky thighs, and drifts off into a reverie about their mutual love being all either of them needs.

Earlier, in two of the film's few actual jokes, Noé has mocked the very idea of high culture: the terminal station for geriatrics where Chevalier works as a nightwatchman is named Residence Debussy and the high-rise slum where he batters his loathsome mistress is called Pablo Picasso Tower. But the elegiac ending has, of all things, Pachelbel's 'Canon' swelling portentously on the soundtrack while the camera, in a probably unconscious echo of Mizoguchi's Sansho Dayu, turns its attention to the street outside where Life Goes On. The old maxim is as true as ever: scratch a punk and you'll find an art-college wannabe inside.


Gaspar Noé
Gaspar Noé
Director of Photography
Dominique Colin
Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Gaspar Noé
© Gaspar Noé/Les Cinémas de la Zone
Production Companies
Produced by Les Cinémas de la Zone
With the participation of Love Streams Production/Canal +/Le Centre National de la Cinématographie
And the financial support of La Procirep
Unit Production Managers
Alain Lefebvre
2nd Unit:
Pascale Servoz-Gavin
Cécile Fournier
Jeremie Nicoli
Dominique Delany
Francis Doré
Nicolas Worms
Henri Moisan
Patrick Bideault
Philippe Bonometti
Gilles Sebbah
Laurent Tuel
Assistant Director
Stéphane Derderian
Script Collaborator
Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Camera Operator
Gaspar Noé
Special Effects
Jean-Christophe Spadaccini
Julien Poncet De La Grave
Denis Esnault
Ernest Evrard
Titles Design
Olivier Brunet
Tanguy Lefevre
"Honour", "Flag Ship", "Schuss" by Thierry Durbet; "Justine 70", "Close Up" by Bruno Alexiu; "Chase" by Phil Davies; "Mazouk siderale" by P. Paulo; "Klavier" by Jean-Marc Willa-Roza; "Paulo" by Zao; "Beat in Concert" by L. Afzelious; "Marimba do" by Guy Fanfant; "Canon in D Major" by Johann Pachelbel, performed by l'Orchestre de Chambre Jean-François Paillard
Sound Recording
Olivier Le Vacon
2nd Unit:
Jean-Luc Audy
Frédéric Pfohl
Olivier Do Huu
Sound Editor
Valérie Deloof
Sound Effects
Nicolas Becker
Jean-Noël Yven
Philippe Nahon
Jean Chevalier,
the butcher
Blandine Lenoir
Cynthia, his daughter
Frankye Pain
his mistress
Martine Audrain
moralistic man
Jean-François Rauger
estate agent
Guillaume Nicloux
supermarket manager
Olivier Doran
voice of presenter
Aïssa Djabri
Doctor Choukroun
Serge Faurie
nursing home manager
Frédéric Pfohl
male hospice nurse
Stéphanie Sec
female hospice nurse
Arlette Balkis
dying woman
Gil Bertharion jr
truck driver
hotel caretaker
Nicolas Jouhet
café owner
Ahmed Bounacir
café customer
Roland Gueridon
old friend
Hervé Gueridon
2nd friend
Sophie Nicolle
interim's daughter
Paule Abecassis
drug addict
Marie-Madeleine Denecheau
Roland's wife
Robert Roy
4th friend
Joel Lecullée
1st butcher
Denis Falgoux
2nd butcher
Marc Faure
abattoir director
Gérard Ortega
bar owner
Stéphane Derderian
bar owner's son
Alain Pierre
bar owner's friend
Sylvie Raymond
Monsieur Billot
3rd butcher
Robert Schlockoff
Thierry Tronchet
André Brochenin
Elisabeth Weissman
Paulette Charpentier
Laurent Aknin
Roger Daviot
Tateos Derderian
Jean-Max Causse
Alliance Releasing (UK)
tbc feet
tbc minutes
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011