The butcher is dangerous. He’s out of work, his wife has left him and his strangely withdrawn daughter has been institutionalized. He’s left Paris and moved to the northern town of Lille, which he sees as a bleak and featureless backwater. He’s taken up with a woman whom he’s come to loathe even though she’s pregnant with his child. When she refuses to loan him the money to start up a butcher shop he finally snaps, beats her brutally, kicking her several times in the stomach before saying triumphantly, "now your baby’s hamburger." He then hitches back to Paris with only a few hundred francs in his pocket and a gun.
This is just the beginning of writer-director Gaspar Noé’s feature debut, a relentless journey to the end of night seen from the point of view of a man whose brain is boiling with rage. The butcher, as played by Phillipe Nahon, is a stealth monster, an apparent nonentity who presents a placid, almost neutral face to the world while the sound track assaults us with the scalding vitriol of his interior monologue.
Much of his hatred is aimed at the usual targets: Women are "cunts"; Arabs are subhuman; gays are the objects of elaborately sadistic fantasies. But the butcher’s bigotry is only part of his all-embracing nihilism – it’s life itself that maddens him, its meaninglessness and inane social rituals, its intractable unfairness, the way some people are reduced to an endless and futile pursuit of enough money to live with a modicum of self-worth.
Noé is aware of the precedent of Taxi Driver – he even pays homage to the famous "You talking to me?" scene – but he’s also aware of that film’s antecedents in the works of Bresson, Céline and Dostoevsky. The butcher’s ravings have the flavor of an ontological discourse dripping with acid bitterness. One of the most horrible things about his screeds is that if you take away the misogyny, the racism and the homophobia, much of what he says makes perfect sense.
Noé’s favorite device is a quick cut, usually to a close-up, accompanied by a loud, metallic slamming sound – a nerve-jangling touch which makes the film seem more violent than it is. The only visual horrors are the beating of the pregnant girlfriend near the film’s beginning and a wrenching, bloody reunion between the butcher and his daughter at the end.
By that point, Noé has done a remarkable thing – he’s made us feel toward the butcher something very much like sympathy. Unless, of course, you’ve already turned away in total disgust.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].