Monday, October 25, 2010

Repulsion (1965)

Today I’m classing up the joint with Roman Polanski’s classic English-language debut: Repulsion. It’s essentially The Shining if Jack was Wendy, the Overlook Hotel was a rather roomy apartment, and there weren’t any ghosts.

Meet Carol, a shy, daydreamy manicurist who shares a London flat with her sister. When said sister leaves on holiday with her otherwise-married boyfriend, Carol has the place to herself. So does she—
A)   Cuddle up with a trashy romance and a dish of Karamel Sutra.
B)   Host a drunken shindig and wreck up the place.
C)   Lock herself in and go completely stark-staring bonkers.

Well, yeah, C of course.

As Carol's isolation deepens, she starts having hot-n-bothered paranoid hallucinations: cracking walls, expanding rooms, even a corridor lined with wall-smashing Happy Horny Hands.

If George Romero re-imagined the groping pit from Labyrinth.

Plus, whenever she lies down for some shut-eye, a dream-rapist pops out of the bedclothes for some late-night ravishing. But, let’s face it, if you wear lipstick to bed, you’re basically asking for it.

For a movie that banks so much on the mental wear-and-tear of its anti-heroine, Repulsion is a pretty tame in the hallucination department. I know they should freak me out, but I’ve seen too many Ken Russel films (okay maybe just 5, but you get the point) for some faulty architecture and girlish rape fantasies to puncture my brain callouses. Maybe I’m spoiled. Yeah, it's creepy, but hardly freaky.

Catherine Deneuve really sells the character of Carol. The problem is that Carol is so annoying, my aggravation with her borders on outright hate. She’s nervous, childish, frigid, flaky, boring, needy, skittish, sexist (Honey, not every man wants to rape you. Stop flattering yourself.), untrustworthy, incapable of rational thought, and probably a little retarded, too. In fact, aside from her rather pedestrian beauty (others may dig the Aryan ice-princess look; I don’t) she’s without a single admirable trait. She has the personality of a cornered, knock-kneed sheep; she’d probably wet herself if a stranger said “good morning.” Yet she enjoys—or would enjoy, if she wasn’t so damn paranoid—an head-scratching amount of male attention. How could any man not immediately recognize this chick as a straight-razor murder waiting to happen? Yet, contrary to all reason, suitors are literally bashing down the door to be with this anemic woman-thing. I’m not talking about a rapist here. The film’s male love interest—who up to this point has shown nothing but polite interest, genuine concern, and justifiable irritation for Carol—has to smash through the door like a love-sick juggernaut, just to get a conversation with her. Why bother? Sparks wouldn’t fly between these two if he struck a match off her cold, flinty face.

I mean, look at her. She's obviously nuts.

(Now to be fair, no sensible woman would welcome some door-smashing jackass with open arms, no matter how charming. Just a little hint for the guys: if you want a girl to like you, don’t break into her apartment. It may seem romantic at the time, but unless she’s getting murdered or killing herself, it’s just bad manners. The way to a girl’s heart is not through destroying her house.)

Some see Repulsion as a cautionary tale about repressed libido gone mad. (Back in the ‘60s, virginity was apparently a terminal illness). Others interpret it as a grim portrayal of the lasting psychological scars of childhood sex abuse. The film neither agrees nor disagrees with these theories. Instead, like in many “important” films, the director simply leaves empty patches where the story should be, forcing audiences to pour into it their pre-brewed theories, shake well, and presto: a deep and meaningful movie. It’s a con—and, worse, it’s bad storytelling.

Repulsion may be underwhelming, but it’s far from repulsive (I had to make that joke some time, right?). Polanski can be a genius. He made the fine Rosemary’s Baby, the stupendously awesome Macbeth, the very cool Death and the Lady, and a host of critically acclaimed masterpieces that I have yet to see. As expected, the cinematography in Repulsion is brilliant, effectively transforming the cozy, well-appointed apartment into a claustrophobic spook-house. Even before the walls start trying to feel up our heroine, the place reeks of ominous possibilities. The inevitable murders (you expected a cheerful ending?), though lacking in squelchiness, are exquisitely framed. During the Carol’s solitary ordeal, certain household objects assume totem-like significance: a family photo, a postcard, an envelope of cash, and—most famously—a dead rabbit, skinned and ready for the pot. When Carol takes it out of the fridge and forgets it (she does stuff like that), and as the days tick by, the putrid rabbit starts looking less like dinner and more like the Eraserhead baby. The innocence with which Deneuve portrays this absentminded disgustingness almost salvages my opinion of the Carol’s character.

It's not rotten, it's just well-aged.

You know what? I kinda like this movie. Its primary drawback is a personality crisis. Polanski wished to distinguish Repulsion from the more traditional horror flicks, to instead make a suspenseful psychological thriller (the code-word used by film snobs to describe horror movies they actually like). However, Repulsion is neither suspenseful or thrilling. We all know that there will be murders, and who the killer is, so there’s no mystery. No delicious unease of wondering how the victims will escape their killer. Not even the cheap thrill of a brief pre-murder struggle. Maybe Hitchcock could pull this off. William Castle would have knocked it out of the park. But Polanski seems flummoxed as to how to wring anything but mild discomfort out of an admittedly promising set-up.

Still, it’s well-acted and it looks nice. So...

3/5  for entertainment value.
5/5  for quality.