Saturday, September 7, 2013

#164: Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Over the course of his long career, Roman Polanski has worked in many genres (horror, drama, comedy, thrillers, children's adventure, literary adaptations, film noir, and various combinations of the above), but this genre-hopping is always in service to a consistent vision and worldview, a visual style stamped with the personality of its designer, and a determined compulsion to document in as many ways as possible his obsession with claustrophobia and paranoia. The claustrophobia in Polanski's films is often physical, with his characters stuck (sometimes voluntarily) in or on boats, apartments, and houses, but is just as often mental or institutional, with characters confined inside bureaucracies, mental illnesses, unhappy marriages, criminal organizations, secret societies, conspiracies, and their own limitations and weaknesses. The paranoia in these films often occurs naturally as an inevitable byproduct of the claustrophobia and is always justified by events in the plot. Polanski's body of work reveals a collection of characters who grow more paranoid and claustrophobic the closer they get to the truth and a world where the accumulation of information and experience makes people's lives narrower, smaller, and darker.
This is an exceedingly disturbing worldview, but Polanski has had an exceedingly disturbing life. Jews in Poland in the 1930s and '40s, Polanski's family was torn apart by World War II. His parents were captured and sent to separate concentration camps. His father survived, but the Nazis murdered his mother at Auschwitz. Polanski, though only a small boy, escaped the Krakow ghetto and hid in the countryside, sleeping in barns, moving from place to place, and occasionally finding shelter with Catholic families. In 1969, the Manson family murdered Polanski's pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, and several of his close friends at his and Tate's home.
In the mid-1970s, Polanski was tried and convicted of the statutory rape of 13-year-old model Samantha Geimer. He served some time, was released early, and was nearly retried as a result of a legal clusterfuck and a judge with an axe to grind when he fled the United States in 1978. Geimer says she was drugged and raped. Polanski says she wasn't drugged and the sex was consensual. Even if Polanski's version of events is true, the fact remains that a powerful 43-year-old man had sexual contact with a vulnerable child, and the unfair trial, celebrity-seeking judge with a vendetta, and years of exile and persecution Polanski has contended with in the intervening years strikes me as karmic justice for the terrible thing he did, notwithstanding my tremendous admiration of his films and Geimer's forgiveness of him. It's a complicated situation, though, and I despise the phony outrage about Polanski exhibited by right wing pundits who only pretend to give a fuck about women when they can use it as part of their tough on crime posturing and liberal media/liberal Hollywood conspiracy narratives. Enough of that horrible subject. I'm getting sidetracked.
Polanski's second feature following Knife in the Water and several short films, and his first English-language film, 1965's Repulsion, may be his most claustrophobic. A black-and-white psychological horror film about a disturbed young French woman living in London with her sister, Repulsion is a tightly controlled, slow-burning exploration of dread, fear, insecurity, sexual disgust, madness, and loneliness. Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a French ex-pat working as a manicurist at a beauty salon, lives in a nice, spacious apartment with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), though they're behind on the rent. Carol is a beautiful but nervous and shy woman who lives in her head and exhibits some disturbingly compulsive behavior in private. She's repulsed by sexual behavior, though also fascinated by it. She fears being left alone. Helen is a much more ordinary woman, more responsible, less neurotic, capable of kindness but often exasperated by and irritated with Carol's neuroses, particularly when they create friction with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry). Michael is not a terrible person, but he is a condescending and mildly unctuous sort who disturbs Carol. She lies in bed, unable to sleep, while her sister and Michael have sex, and he puts his razor and toothbrush in Carol's glass in the bathroom.
Quietly and gradually, Carol's mental state worsens, though her quietness and shyness do a good job of masking it. The breaking point occurs when Helen and Michael leave Carol alone for a few weeks to go on a romantic trip to Italy. Carol can't handle the solitude, and her fears and anxieties manifest into hallucinations and nightmares. She stops taking care of herself and lets the condition of the apartment degenerate, and things only get worse from there. Still, Carol has every right to feel paranoid about the men she knows, with disturbing results.
Though reminiscent at times of a French New Wave/Swinging London youth picture reimagined as hellish nightmare, and at other times a Hitchcock-worthy paranoid thriller (Polanski even has a Hitchcock-style hidden cameo as a hunched-over street musician playing the spoons), Repulsion, finally, is all Polanski. No one else does what he does, in the way he does it. With the exception of three key scenes, Polanski takes us inside Carol's head, seeing what she sees, reacting to the world the way she does, with the help of Deneuve's remarkable performance, jazz musician Chico Hamilton's percussive score, Gilbert Taylor's beautiful B&W cinematography, and Alastair McIntyre's sharp editing. We share her madness, her fears, her repulsions. The camera lands on objects and imbues them with the dread Carol feels. Her hallucinations are real. We see them, too. As dark as Repulsion gets, we never lose that empathy for Carol. This empathy is what keeps Polanski's films from being too overwhelmingly negative. It's not going to save anyone from the terrible things, but for a brief while, we can share a space that is usually only open for one and help carry the burdens we usually carry alone.

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