Saturday, October 6, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.2: Roman Polanski's Repulsion

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 97 (A)

Knife in the Water was released to acclaim, but the Polish government viewed Roman Polanski’s rebellious nature as a threat, and Polanski himself chafed under restrictions. The director immigrated to Paris, then to London, where he spent years trying to get another project off the ground. It wasn’t until 1965 that Polanski released another film, Repulsion, which he viewed as a transitional film and a stepping stone to the more personal If Katelbach Comes (released a year later under the name Cul-de-sac). Yet Repulsion captured the minds of horror and thriller directors around the world (one couldn’t see David Lynch or John Carpenter making Eraserhead or Halloween without it), and it remains one of Polanski’s greatest achievements.

Carole Ledoux (Catharine Deneuve) is a Belgian woman working as a manicurist in London. Carole lives with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), whose boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) stays overnight at their apartment. This disturbs Carole, who is kept awake at night by their loud sex; Carole herself is pursued by Colin (John Fraser), but there’s something beyond shyness and insecurity hiding within her. When Helen and Michael go on vacation to Italy, Carole is left on her own, her mental health slowly deteriorating until she’s driven to madness and murder.

Polanski shows off a number of diverse influences blended together in this odd psychological horror film: there’s still a certain playfulness of Chaplin (whose The Gold Rush is referenced in the film), but more notably he takes off Chaplin’s theme of victimized young women. There’s still an absurdist theatre influence of an untrustworthy world, but he also takes pages from Carol Reed and Laurence Olivier (particularly from Olivier’s Hamlet) as the outside world takes on the form of the protagonists’ tortured psyche. Polanski references both Hitchcock’s Psycho and Henr-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique, both films about women driven to extreme circumstances and eventually victimized by the world. Most notably, he combines the thriller elements of Hitchcock with Luis Bunuel’s surrealist bent- the opening on Deneuve’s eyes references Un Chien Andalou, and the rest of the film shares Bunuel’s vision of man as beast.

Technically, Polanski makes heavy use of deep focus (Welles is another major influence), first in order to contrast Carole with everything around her. The film takes place in swinging London, where hip music is often playing and young people openly discuss sexuality. Carole seems out of place, which is the point. When the camera photographs her with Colin, the framing is so tight that we share her discomfort. She can’t escape, and that claustrophobic feeling is overwhelming. As the film goes on and Carole loses her grip on reality, the soundtrack becomes increasingly assaultive, and Polanski makes greater use of wide-angle lens to capture the increasingly unstable environment Carole is in.

Where Polanski begins the film by insinuating towards Carole’s madness (the sound of her sister’s orgasm keeps her up at night), he soon makes every ringing bell and ticking clock an unnerving soundtrack of Carole’s mind. When much of the film is quiet or even silent, every little sound has a nerve-jangling effect (example: Carole silently tends to a woman at a beauty parlor only for the woman’s screams to overwhelm the soundtrack after Carole cuts her). Her environment takes on her madness- the walls crack, then, in a pair of disturbing scenes, come alive and grab for her. Polanski showcases her isolation, only to reveal her visions and dreams of men breaking into her apartment and raping her. The cracked walls are a fantastic symbol for Carole’s self-destructing psyche, but even more indicative is a skinned rabbit dinner left out to rot- it’s not just a grisly, viscerally disgusting detail (although it certainly works as that). It’s a symbol of Carole, a young woman turned into victim, and her deteriorating mental stability.

The claustrophobia of Carole’s isolation, however, is disturbing in its own right. Carole cuts herself off from the outside world, first by blocking the door, then by boarding it up and cutting the phone line. Every little hint of the outside world is a threat, and since Polanski puts us in Carole’s mindset, we’re just as frightened by it as she is. That’s another key to the film’s success: since virtually all of the film is in Carole’s experience, we’re given a limited view of the events of the film and can’t trust a single thing that we see.

Much of the film’s success can be attributed to Catharine Deneuve’s haunted performance. Deneuve is a gorgeous woman, but there’s nothing sexy about Carole. That’s not to say that Polanski has had her slathered in make-up: it’s very much the gorgeous Catharine Deneuve, but we see a woman who’s deeply uncomfortable in her own skill, introverted and shy in the most childlike way, and repelled by any hint of sexuality. There’s something wrong behind her dead, distant eyes, even if no one else in the movie can see past her beauty.

Polanski’s films often deal with innocents driven mad by powerful members of society, but the seeds of Carole’s madness are there from the beginning. There’s a creeping dread in Carole’s isolation and discomfort around people. Not much happens in the first third of the film, but Polanski still drags out tension as signs of masculinity (Michael’s straight-razor, which he leaves in the bathroom near Carole’s things) are seen as a threat and an invasion. There’s a number of Bunuel-like visual cues that Carole is losing her mind- the rotting rabbit, the cracked walls, an overflowing tub- that give the film a certain elegance and poetry in its depravity. Still, the more surreal elements are almost comforting compared to the realistic elements- Carole’s cold stare, her vivid dreams of sexual violation, and the frankness of the murder scenes, which often take the point of view of the victims as Carole smashes their heads or slices at them with a straight-razor.

That’s not to say that Carole isn’t sympathetic. If anything, her instability makes her a more tragic figure. She’s a child in a woman’s body, dependent on her more worldly and sexually free sister; as soon as she leaves, she doesn’t have a chance. If her sister is a stabilizing power, then masculinity is a destabilizing power. The men in her life take a possessive view of her- her suitor is angry that Carole isn’t more receptive to him (maybe if he looked past her beauty he’d see how crazy she is), and when he smashes his way into her apartment it’s hard to feel anymore sympathy for him. Still, he’s a prince compared to Carole and Helen’s landlord, whose lecherous desire for Carole is clear even before he lunges for her. These are powerful figures playing with an innocent, a recurring Polanski theme, and it’s easy to want to see them punished…until we see their brutal murders, and we’re repelled.

Sexuality takes precedence over all other themes in Repulsion (just look at the title). Carole is deeply uncomfortable with her own sexuality, repressed where her sister is uninhibited, and threatened by ideas of masculinity and penetration. When she goes on a date with Colin, she’s clearly uncomfortable with him. When Michael touches her, she flinches. When she hears her sister’s orgasms, she looks practically like she’s being tortured, and that’s nothing compared to when she finds her sister’s nightgown, smells it (covered with semen is my guess), and vomits. All sexuality is rape to Carole- her dreams of men dominating her and visions of walls grabbing at her breasts are just stepping stones to her descent into insanity and catatonia. Polanski plays with the idea that she’s a woman out of place- a repressed European girl dealing with the sexual permissiveness of swinging London, but a puzzling final shot suggests that this problem has been with her since childhood. There’s no answer to whether or not this fear comes from past experience or general repression, but that’s part of what makes Repulsion so effective and disturbing- there’s no answer.

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