Written and directed by Harmony Korine. Starring Jacob Reynolds, Nick Sutton, Jacob Sewell, Darby Dougherty, Chloe Sevigny, Carisa Bara, Linda Manz, and Max Perlich. Opens Thursday, May 21, at the Red Vic.
In 1965, critics treated Repulsion as nothing but a brilliant, grisly potboiler; they viewed it as Roman Polanski's riposte to Hitchcock's Psycho, a gambit designed to give the 32-year-old Polish filmmaker commercial entree to the West. Three decades later the movie plays like echt-Polanski; now we know that Polanski has always been drawn to existential horror, and that his lucid moviemaking owes as much to writer/directors like Billy Wilder as to visual maestros like Hitchcock. After Repulsion premiered, Polanski told Cahiers du Cinema that even as a teen-ager he was attracted to "stifling, enclosed atmospheres" and movies like Wilder's no-exit portrait of alcoholism The Lost Weekend.
Repulsion, which returns to the big screen at the Castro this Friday, could be subtitled "The Lost Fortnight." Centered on a beautiful schizophrenic instead of a dapper alcoholic, with a backdrop of swinging London instead of wartime New York, it's a horror movie, not a "problem" movie. But it has the same suspense hook as Wilder's Oscar-winner: a sick but deceptively presentable person, left by a roommate sibling, disintegrates in isolation. Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, like Ray Milland in Weekend, ultimately scrapes psychic bottom; she, like him, has scary hallucinations that emanate from cracks in walls. And Polanski's observant style owes a debt to Wilder's. These directors rely on concrete detail to convey their characters' fluctuating senses. Their ultraconscious technique puts audiences into the filmic equivalent of a headlock.
In Weekend, Milland maneuvers his way into solitude so he can slake his thirst; his brother and girlfriend are on to him. But in Repulsion, Deneuve alone intuits how loony she'll get -- in vain, she begs her sister (Yvonne Furneaux) to stay with her. The sister's shrewd married boyfriend (Ian Hendry) thinks she's merely "a bit strung up." Unchecked and unnoticed, Deneuve's illness transforms the apartment into nightmare-land.
In his autobiography, Roman by Polanski, the director treats Repulsion rather harshly, his memory colored by his constant fight for more time and money. "Of all my films," he writes, "Repulsion is the shoddiest -- technically well below the standard I try to achieve." He knew he could finance a horror movie and gain some box-office clout; that's why he and his co-writer, Gerard Brach, "included bloodcurdling scenes that verged on horror film cliches. Any originality we achieved would have to come through in our telling of the story." But Polanski and his team, especially cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, did come through. Only a confessed claustrophile like Polanski could have created this skin-crawling, claustrophobic thriller. Only a man of his violent and erotic imagination could have arrived at its diabolical incarnations of sexual disgust.
From the opening moments, when the camera emerges from one of Deneuve's eyeballs, Polanski alternately shows the world as it is and the world according to his psycho. As in his other "evil apartment" movies, Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976), he depicts everyday callousness scarring vulnerable protagonists. Deneuve works as a manicurist in an antiseptic beauty parlor. The job underscores her own blank prettiness, which blinds people to her weirdness. A thread of deadpan feminist satire runs through Polanski's narrative. A polite, romantic "smooth boy" (John Fraser) fancies this most anti of anti-heroines, but never figures out why she won't return his kiss. When he declares that he's "miserable" without her, his passion seems ludicrous, since it's based only on her blond dreaminess. (She puts him out of his misery.) Later, when Deneuve drops even deeper into dementia, the landlord (Patrick Wymark) comes to collect overdue rent. He chalks up the chaos and clutter (including a moldering skinned rabbit) to feckless youth. He proposes swapping rent for personal services -- before she takes care of him for good.
Deneuve's bad dreams of rape and entrapment, and the panicky murders she commits, are less graphic than similar episodes in (say) the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What gives them an undiminished fright quotient is Polanski's straight-razor intelligence. Repulsion is an inspired textbook on the use of performance, sound, and image to convey bizarre mental states. From Deneuve he exacts the best acting of her career. She invests this pale manicurist with an underlying tautness that jumps out in gestures like busted springs.
Polanski poses her in an expressive frame. When Deneuve lies awake listening to her sister come to orgasm, Polanski pulls the camera back slowly; visually as well as aurally, her moans fill Deneuve's room. Throughout, Gil Taylor adapts his gliding yet hyperrealistic camerawork to Deneuve's manias; in a split second, buskers in the street or lines in the pavement turn portentous. Even the dated special effects retain their emotional potency -- when hands burst out of the apartment walls and grab Deneuve's body, Polanski anticipates the dehumanization of sex in half-a-dozen current magazine covers or rock videos.
Polanski's tough-mindedness escalates the terror. He and Deneuve bring out the tinge of arrogance in her craziness. In the final shot, he closes in on a family portrait that captures her as a girl. The last line of the script refers to "her beautiful and proud, implacably vague child's eye, where madness had already gained the day."
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