Polanski's grisly `Repulsion' follows the lead of Wilder

FILM

December 10, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In 1965, Repulsion (playing tomorrow at noon and Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Charles) was greeted as Roman Polanski's riposte to Hitchcock's Psycho -- a brilliant, grisly potboiler that gave the 32-year-old Polish filmmaker commercial entree to the West. Four decades later, it's evident that Polanski was always drawn to existential horror and that his lucid moviemaking owes as much to Hollywood's master writer-directors as to visual maestros like Hitchcock.

After Repulsion premiered, Polanski told Cahiers du Cinema, "I like to shut myself up. I remember: when I was twelve, fourteen, I liked atmospheres that came from ... what do I know? Ultimately enclosed atmospheres, stifling. ... And [I] liked films like [Billy Wilder's] The Lost Weekend."

Repulsion could be titled 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" picture. But it has the same suspense hook as Wilder's Oscar-winner: A sick but deceptively presentable person (Catherine Deneuve) is left alone in an apartment usually shared with a sibling (Yvonne Furneaux). Deneuve in Repulsion, like Ray Milland in Weekend, scrapes psychic bottom in isolation; 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 characters' fluctuating senses. Their ultra-conscious technique puts audiences into the movie 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 to stay with her. Even the sister's shrewd married boyfriend (Ian Hendry), who suggests that Deneuve should "see a doctor," thinks she's merely "a bit strung up."

Unchecked and unnoticed, Deneuve's illness transforms the apartment into a nightmare landscape. In the final shot, Polanski 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."

For information, go to www.thecharles.com.

Cinema Sundays

Cult director Wes Anderson (Rushmore) has come up with a seafaring farce that promises to top even his The Royal Tannenbaums for unmitigated perversity: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It stars Bill Murray as a slobby American version of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, Anjelica Huston as his wife, Willem Dafoe as an enthusiastic lieutenant, Owen Wilson as a stranger who's possibly his son, and Cate Blanchett as a curious journalist. For its Cinema Sundays presentation (10:30 a.m. at the Charles; doors open for coffee and bagels at 9:45), Gary K. Ostrander, associate provost for research at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Institutions, will give a real-life context to all the crazy comedy. Admission: $15. Information: www.cinemasundays. com.

CineMaryland

The latest edition of CineMaryland, the 10-channel cable show about movies and moviemaking in the Free State, covers the premieres of two big Baltimore productions, John Waters' A Dirty Shame and Jay Russell's Ladder 49 (starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix). It also offers an on-set look at Syriana, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, and a conversation with up-and-coming independent filmmaker Francis Xavier (Johnny Come Lately). For information and broadcast times: www.cinemaryland.com.

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