Funny that the Charles Theatre should bring back "Repulsion" at a time when so many purportedly shocking and terrifying movies are on the screens.
Next to Polanski's 1965 film, "Scream 2" is a Thursday night sit-com; "Alien Resurrection" is a dance around the Maypole; "Sick," also opening at the Charles, is a mere bagatelle.
With a modicum of blood and nary a vulgarity within earshot, "Repulsion," which stars Catherine Deneuve as a manicurist living in London, epitomizes terror at its chilling, deeply psychological best.
Meshing the long shadows of German expressionism with the fever-dream visuals of surrealism, the Polish director creates a world that for Deneuve's character is at once prosaic and deeply frightening. He also gives the audience the time and silence they need to fill in the fissures of her disintegrating personality. He knew better than most filmmakers how our own anxieties, neuroses, fantasies and feelings of disassociation could out-shock even the most appalling special effects.
Deneuve plays Carol, a virginal young Belgian woman living in a south Kensington flat with her older sister (Yvonne Furneaux), whose married boyfriend insinuates himself into their household with a fey, vaguely menacing charm. Meanwhile, Carol is being pursued by a genial chap who just wants to buy her dinner. London is swinging, but Carol is having none of it.
When the sister and her paramour go to Italy for the weekend, the world outside collapses around her in a chaotic, amoral heap; holed up in the apartment, Carol begins to shatter. Then she lashes out.
Casual filmgoers will see how "Repulsion" anticipates Polanski's later work: His next film, "Cul-de-Sac," would be set even more explicitly in the emotional landscape of alienation and dislocation. "Rosemary's Baby," made three years after "Repulsion," had the same recoiling energy, and Polanski would use architecture in a similarly forbidding way.
Much of "Repulsion" takes place in the hallway of Carol's apartment, which becomes a sinister character in its own right. A sort of psychic (and, later, quite literal) no-man's-land, the corridor is so fraught with unconscious meaning as to be almost impossible to summarize. Suffice it to say that the hallway is where the things most desired and feared can trip us up and take us down.
Polanski achieves great visual feats of imagination in "Repulsion": The recurring image of a desiccated rabbit ("Fatal Attraction" was a PETA commercial compared with this), Carol's sexual fantasies seen in momentary shards, the hallway coming to writhing life. But what makes Polanski a great director is his restraint. "Repulsion" isn't about his dexterity in making a wall seem to crack suddenly. It's about the perfectly respectable-looking mind that we see cracking along with it. That's the blank he allows his audience to fill in.
Working in harness with the visuals and Deneuve's impeccable, impenetrable performance is one of the greatest examples of how sound editing can create a horrific mood. As much as she is oppressed by a collapsing social order, Carol is haunted by the sounds of a world gone drastically awry -- the water dripping from unseen faucets, the shouts from the courtyard below, the tintinnabulation of the phone, the door, the church. As they become louder, Carol's voice becomes more baby-like, as if a whisper could silence an impending scream.
There are no screams in "Repulsion," just the gasps that are as indicative of desire as they are of fear. Polanski expertly plunges filmgoers into the razor-thin interstices between the two and lets them make their own terror there.
Starring Catherine Deneuve
Directed by Roman Polanski
Released by Columbia Pictures
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 12/12/97