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Alone is a short feature film adaptation of the nineteenth century French novel, À rebours (commonly translated Against the Grain) by Joris-Karl Huysmans. When it came out in 1884, this book caused a considerable stir among the French youth, and is famously referenced in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey as the book that corrupts the titular character and draws him into a life of hedonism. Although its fame has diminished considerably over the past century, the book retains its relevance as a meditation on anxiety, denial, and frustrated desire. Alone takes several episodes from the original text, transposes them into the modern day, and ties them together into a largely faithful, though truncated, adaptation.
We join Jean des Esseintes, a wealthy misanthrope and aesthete, for a single day in his country home. He doesn’t have friends, nor does he seem to want any. Even the arrival of a deliveryman at the front door is a rare and incomprehensible event; Jean peers suspiciously out the window before unlocking the door, as if he suspects some sort of trap. His only company is a servant, Francis, who meekly follows Jean’s orders. There is no small talk between them. If Jean has any interest in Francis as a human being, he hides it well.
Jean only really cares for the company of the arts. He submerges himself in the paintings, music, books, and sculptures that surround him. His imaginative powers are literally hallucinatory. Jean does not simply read books or look at paintings; he is transported into them, and the audience is transported with him. How his “transportation” is invoked on the screen varies, and some instances are more obvious than others. Nevertheless, the uncommon intensity of his involvement in art is undeniable. Whether—and to what degree—these hallucinations should be taken as symptoms of mental illness remain open questions.
One thing is clear: Jean is not well. He hardly eats; his nights are disturbed by unsettling nightmares; he is subject to head-splitting attacks of tinnitus. Awakening from a nightmare, he examines his reflection in the bathroom mirror, expecting to see something unnamed—something dreadful—but finds nothing. In short, Jean is haunted, and his imaginative journeys can only distract him temporarily from the creeping certainty that something is wrong.
As an adaptation, Alone frequently draws upon its source material, but is not a slave to it. The original À rebours may have been subtitled “The novel with no plot,” but Alone is a bit of a different creature. Gradually—almost imperceptibly—Jean sinks into the darkness, and when he reemerges at the end, he is not quite the same person as before. Alone often extrapolates from the original text, expanding on scenes that were only implied in the book. A particularly fascinating scene, where Jean leaves the house to get a tooth pulled, has been expanded greatly from the book. A delirious foray into the world of A Tale of Two Cities is based on only a few sentences in the novel. Perhaps the most significant single change is the character of Francis, who is an original creation and bears little resemblance to the unnamed servant of the text, who was more plot device than character. Beneath Francis’s mask of professionalism is a real human being, glimpsed only occasionally by the audience.
Ultimately, Alone is a film about the psychological strain of isolation, and how people try to escape it. In some ways, the story is even more relevant in the internet age than in the era it was written. Huysmans obviously could not have imagined the effect that Youtube, Facebook and other social media would have. We now live in a wonderland where distraction is only a click of the mouse away, and a person can keep themselves entertained for long stretches without leaving their home. But are we simply looking for innocent diversions, or—like Jean des Esseintes—are we fleeing from anxieties that secretly gnaw at our peace of mind?
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Goldie, Samuel M, "Alone" (2014). Senior Projects Spring 2014. 76.
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