Thursday, May 08, 2014

Repulsion (1965)

UK, 105 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach, David Stone
Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Chico Hamilton
Editor: Alastair McIntyre
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Patrick Wymark, Yvonne Furneaux

It's probably not right to call Repulsion a horror movie—it's much too arty and urbane for that. And in spite of a few (highly effective) shock cuts, the disquieting narrative turns are all too naturalistic in the context of mental illness. But I came out of the theater the first time I saw Repulsion with a feeling of desolation I could not shake, and overnight that turned into a case of food poisoning. In spite of the obvious cause, I blamed the movie and not the bad pork ribs and thought of my sickness as profoundly existential. The association has stuck. Repulsion is the kind of movie that inspires one to such things. In fact, it was so disturbing I was even unwilling to look at it again until recently.

It's the first picture in director and co-writer Roman Polanski's so-called "Apartment Trilogy," with Rosemary's Baby from 1968 (in many ways much more the conventional horror picture, because the fantasy might be real and the madness not) and The Tenant from 1976. The idea of a trilogy is a critical figment—I'm not sure anyone thinks Polanski consciously intended them that way—but the elements they share are obvious: isolated individuals lost in great anonymous metropolises slowly going cuckoo inside their apartments, which serve both as sanctuaries and as killing fields. The way they walk the streets, the way they look at the world through peepholes, the obnoxious neighbors, the phones ringing and no one on the other end. All three dwell inside the heads of their protagonists nearly as much as outside. Spoilers ahead.

In Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a Belgian transplant to London who works as a manicurist and shares a flat with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol is painfully introverted, clearly overwhelmed by her environment, and trying to adjust to a life she doesn't understand. The picture is almost primitive, it's so simple, and it feels very much like a '60s art film, shot in high-contrast black and white, with a deliberate pace, sparse dialogue, unusual camera movements, and a surprisingly intricate sound design. Chico Hamilton's jazzy score sets a tone that at once highlights swinging London and somehow throws the disaffected anomie into sharp relief, subtly underscoring the nagging sense that something is very wrong.

Lots of things about Repulsion are insidiously familiar, a mark both of its influence and of the influences it absorbed. One nightmare scene looks like something out of Jean Cocteau, with disembodied arms grasping blindly from the walls of a dark narrow hallway. The rabbit carcass, which starts out as an entrée early in the picture for a dinner party abruptly canceled and then rots away in the kitchen of the apartment for the rest of the picture, looks like something from Eraserhead. A murder that occurs in the apartment feels like it could have been the model for the horrific murder in Heavenly Creatures. A bathroom scene looks and feels like Psycho. I also see many affinities with the Sissy Spacek character in Three Women. The street musicians feel like a Fellini or Truffaut gesture recontextualized.

The more I see Repulsion the more impressed I am with the sound design, which is busy but subtle. For example—and this is something that was used very well in The Tenant too—practically every disconnected strange sound anyone has ever heard inside a big apartment building makes an appearance here: slamming doors, an elevator clanging and rumbling, sex sounds from neighbors, a piano practicing, televisions, footsteps. At times, as in Carol's recurring nightmare of a home invasion, all sound drops out entirely, save for a ticking clock.

One very effective point is that Carol has a fascination with cracks and a horror of them—in sidewalks, in the walls of her apartment, by implication of course in her mind. It's an obvious but potent sexual charge. A lot of it is obvious on a Freudian level, but Polanski works it well, especially in the second half, as the walls crack wide with terrible scraping sounds.

It's all sexuality, of course. Carol appears to be profoundly sickened by physical intimacy, so when her sister's skeevy boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) starts staying overnight, leaving his things around the place, and making ambiguous plays for her, it represents a terrible crisis, and the downward spiral begins. When Helen and Michael make plans for a two-week holiday Carol objects to Helen leaving her alone in the apartment. She's afraid of something and we soon find out what.

This is where Repulsion is particularly effective, putting concrete images and sounds in front of us but obscuring the context. We see Carol struggling with her isolation in the apartment after Helen and Michael have left, but we only learn indirectly that she has actually lost three days altogether, where she didn't go to work and didn't call anyone. She barely seems to understand how much time has passed when she is trying to explain herself to her coworkers, and more and more she lapses into stupors.

Meanwhile, the apartment is becoming repugnant. In one panic Carol pulls kitchen shelves out of the cupboards and uses a brass candle holder to nail them across the doorway, attempting to barricade herself in. Late in the picture the apartment is a horror house—with the rabbit carcass and the human corpses, and the sound of flies buzzing, it's not hard at all to imagine how bad it smells.

And so it goes. It's not named Repulsion for nothing. But it is a little surprising how deeply perverse this movie turns out to be, almost deceptively so, while remaining reasonably innocuous on the surface. You know it's not going to be a fun ride, but it's still surprising what it can do.

No comments:

Post a Comment