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."
Gus Van Sant has declared Gummo, the directorial debut of Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine, a life-changing experience. In a "forward" (sic) to this movie distributed to the press, Van Sant throws around words like "genius" and "inspirational"; he contends, "Like Larry Clark did when he made Kids, Harmony causes us to wonder 'what are we watching exactly? are these real people, is there a script?' " Actually, the abysmal failure of Gummo is that its what-are-we-watching? value shrivels within seconds, before we see the first of many tortured and killed cats. And the movie's people don't come off as "real" whether they're following a script or not.
A couple of years ago, Kids, a pubescent sexual apocalypse, aroused the sort of industry-quaking controversy that can inflate a film's reputation -- especially in retrospect, since the millions who stayed away from it are made to feel they feared the "truth." Calling Gummo a suburban variation on that urban nightmare should be a put-down, not a compliment. To me, Kids was the teen-sex equivalent of the highway-carnage films that high schools show before prom night. As they presented a multiracial clique of lower-to-middle-class Manhattan adolescents taking drugs, committing violence, and engaging in unprotected shtupping, both director Clark and first-time screenwriter Korine (aged 19 when he wrote it) tapped into adults' fears that teen-agers were getting crazier -- and teens' perennial belief that nobody knows the trouble they've seen.
In Gummo, Korine teeter-totters through a similar exploitative balancing act, camouflaged with the "serious" themes of poverty and perversity in present-day Middle America. The day-in-the-life sort of action (spread out over several days) takes place in the tornado-wrecked town of Xenia, Ohio. (It was filmed around Nashville.) The actors encouraged not to act and the non-actors encouraged to act come together as an ersatz-Fellini dysfunctional-family circus of glue-sniffers, cat-killers, and moral and physical slobs. The two main characters are the narrator, Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), a gnomelike teen, and his partner in feline extermination, the taller, supposedly wiser Tummler (Nick Sutton). They get their pocket money from selling the corpses for meat. Solly thinks that Tummler has magical insights and the makings of a legend. But those powers hardly come into play as we watch the boys sell their furry goods to a grocery owner; plot revenge on their cat-killing competition; and take turns with an incongruously primped-up, addled whore. (Tummler may be the catalyst, but Solomon has the "sensitive" touch; he boyishly flirts with the prostitute.)
The rest of the dramatis non-personae appear in their own vignettes and then pile up on each other. So we'll see a subpoetically morose skateboarder in a bunny hat (Jacob Sewell) play dead for toy-gun-slinging grade-schoolers, or work a PlaySkool accordion in a commode, before cavorting in a pool with two bleached-white blondes (Chloe Sevigny and Carisa Bara, in a scene reminiscent of the water sports in Kids). We've already seen the girls struggle to determine whether their beloved cat Foot Foot is pregnant (in any event, she's doomed), and strive to improve their nipples by applying and ripping off duct tape.
It's a hellish hodgepodge. Visually, there's a melange of film stocks, camera styles, and "found" and mood lighting. Aurally, the songs span the kids folk tune "My Little Rooster" and Madonna's "Like a Prayer," and the words are a farrago of voice-over confessions and mumbled improvisations. The result is meant to be a daring new style, but in effect Korine is merely aping Clark: He's a bug on the walls of messed-up dens, stoops, kitchens, and bedrooms. As in Kids, the bugs are in front of the camera, too. I don't just refer to the roaches infesting a suburban slum: The teens themselves are cloned from that reductive parable Lord of the Flies. Because they're neglected and confused, they engage in casual cruelties, pointless rivalries, and solipsistic kinkiness. At one point, Solomon shoots a pellet into a comatose old woman's foot to see if she's still alive; then Tummler offhandedly shuts down her life-support system. Korine doesn't invest any of them with the emotional and moral dimensions of full-blooded fictional characters, and they don't come across like the complex people in empathic documentaries like the raucous, touching Seventeen (1985). What they are is sad or horrifying specimens.
Fans of underground cinema once believed that movies would bloom artistically when filmmaking tools were cheap enough for everyone. But I leave a low-budget disaster like Gummo and ask, "What gives a guy like Harmony Korine the right to direct a movie?