Thursday, September 9, 2010

Repulsion (1965) A Film by Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski's Repulsion begins and ends on an image of its main character Carol's eye, unblinking and nearly abstracted by the chiaroscuro lighting. In the first instance it's Catherine Deneuve as she sits in a trance at her job as a London manicurist, and the second time it's the worn photographic version of Carol as a young girl, standing with a haunted look in the background of a family portrait. But physical proximity, the film reveals, is no measure for emotional understanding, and as a result both shots remain singularly unsettling, the camera's extreme intimacy doing nothing to illuminate the complicated inner workings of the pathological Carol, who dwells in every scene of the film without ever communicating a graspable level of psychological continuity. She's blank, inexpressive, and aloof, but, like a troubled Hitchockian heroine, she's also physically angelic, clad in a white dress and regularly seen brushing her expertly balanced blond hair. For what reason, we don't know, because she harbors an extreme aversion to the male race, silently interpreting often earnest attempts at communication as vaguely aggressive, hormonal attacks. Like in Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel (whom Deneuve would later work with on Belle du Jour, a film with thematic parallels to Repulsion), Polanski makes the eye a key image only to subvert its familiarity with startling psychosexual ambiguities elsewhere.

It takes approximately 35 minutes for Polanski's film to really click, but when it does, and the horrific madness sets in, one understands the film's sometimes ponderous, disengaging set-up as a basis of normalcy on which to shatter expectations. Polanski saves his most inventive visual and aural motifs for when Carol's sister and husband finally leave the London apartment they're sharing for a vacation in Paris, stranding Carol, much to her dismay, in the quiet, claustrophobic domestic space. Before this, the film nurtures a relative sense of realism, systematically establishing Carol's relationship, or lack thereof, with those around her. She is deeply dependent on her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), even insisting she not go to Paris, while shunning Helen's methodically macho husband Michael (Ian Hendry), who writes Carol's eccentricities off as mere social clumsiness. The persevering Colin (John Fraser) is less apathetic, as he fruitlessly tries time and time again to woo Carol with his cool charm. At work, she is emotionally absent to all but her lovely female co-worker, who elicits rare amusement out of her through the recounting of a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush. This unexpected moment of laughing and communion (and comparative aesthetic convention, as Polanski shoots it in a casual two-shot) throws the film off balance and posits Carol as a potential repressed homosexual.

Any psychological suspicion such as this though tends to find a paradox a scene or two down the road, collapsing into the wash of ambiguity that makes up Carol's enigma. And it is this ambivalence towards pat character explanation, this sidestepping of easily identifiable pathology (a pitfall of its frequent critical bedfellow Psycho), that allows Repulsion to remain the uncannily terrifying film it was 45 years ago. It's after greater, more universal mysteries, like that which aligns it obliquely with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman: the speculation as to whether Carol's feeling of male sexual oppression and antagonism points to a larger truth about femininity. As Carol spends her first few nights alone, her entire world transforms rapidly into the domain of her itchiest nightmares, such as men invading her privacy and virginity in the wee hours, the barriers around her (walls, cement ground) cracking, and the nagging intrusion of the outside world, constantly attempting to make contact with her through telephones and doorbells. Polanski shoots these surrealistic sequences with claustrophobic dread, alternating between intense close-ups of Carol's distressed facial orientation and wider shots that dwarf her, usually from an oblique angle like the floor or the ceiling. He also will pan into total darkness, filling the screen with black before emerging again to another episode. This particular tactic, as well as the inclusion of a skinned rabbit carcass that Carol leaves out for fear of cooking it, seem like peculiar augurs for the macabre techniques David Lynch would use to elicit disorientation and discomfort in his Eraserhead.

The rabbit, in particular, is one of the film's most interesting perversities. There's something especially penetrating about the way Polanski scrutinizes its slimy, rotting flesh, as if he's anticipating it to all of a sudden come alive like in a monster movie. Furthermore, why Carol does not make an effort to remove it from her kitchen and living room is an even greater curiosity, because it comes to almost signify her grotesque visions, bearing the weight of her traumas. She can't seem to escape them, no matter how simple it might be to do so. This is clarified by a scene when the decapitated head of it is found, shockingly, in her purse at work. But what adds another layer of mystery to it all is how Carol in some instances almost seems to invite her hallucinations. The most unsettling moment in Repulsion reminds me of the sole occurrence of movement in La Jetee, and it comes when Carol applies lipstick before going to bed. In a close-up from above, Deneuve meets eyes with the lens, appearing to grin for just a second. It's as if she's asking Polanski to insert another one of his harrowing rape sequences, and of course, he does. Carol is simultaneously desperate from sexual repression and frightened of sexual contact, which insures she will involve herself in an ourobouric loop of horror.

Sonically, this is just as much of a teasing, dense work. One could say Polanski luxuriates in a tension between "indoor" and "outdoor" sounds, emphasizing how they are infiltrating one another as if through the cracks Carol fantasizes about. On her trance-like strolls through London, jaunty street jazz and eventually a mildly comical banjo-percussion trio permeate the soundtrack. (Later, the same trio is seen out of Carol's window.) Brash, discordant drum solos accompany her in moments of severe panic, like when Colin makes a move on her in the car and she runs inside to wash her mouth of impurity. In its quieter moments the sound of a piano player practicing scales haunts her dreams, and then, the repetition of church bells nearby becomes the only sound during the nightmarish defilement. In fact, the linking of religion and sex is a constant, if superbly understated, motif; Carol herself, in her white nightgown, resembles the group of nuns in the churchyard seen from her window, and her relentless drive for ascetic sexual purity is the exaggerated practice of a devout Christian. This makes her eventual murders all the more chilling, the notion of a woman rising to a heinous act for fear of violating her own code of purity. In the final shot, we see the younger Carol arguably staring uncomfortably at her father, perhaps suggesting a backstory of incestuous abuse that would inspire her abysmal fear of men, but frankly this inquiry suffocates the tensions the film expertly creates, lumping it all into a blunt case study. Carol's tale acquires an iconic weight even as it elides easy interpretation, making Repulsion a disquieting odyssey of a mind out of sync with itself.


Adam Zanzie said...

Polanski even laughs off the theory that Carol may have been abused by her father in one of the Criterion interviews, when he says "it's a free country, but don't ever ask me to explain any of my pictures!" Not that Carol having an incestuous past isn't possible, but as you write here, it would be a cop out to deem it as a concrete solution. Your suggestion that the laughing-fit scene may reveal Carol as a homosexuality is something that I never thought of before.

Repulsion is actually one of the first films I wrote about on my own site, here:

And as you no doubt remember, there was a ton of anti-Polanski sentiment going on back then; I mostly wrote that piece in an attempt to keep Polanski's importance as a filmmaker alive for people whom I feared were starting to forget. I prefer your piece to mine, however, because your writing is way more precise and you note the great allusions to Bunuel that I hadn't been familiar with back then.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks, Adam. That's a good reason to write about Polanski, and I feel like there's no better place to start in supporting him than Repulsion. It's solid proof of his artistic prowess, devoid as it is of any business compromises.