The function of form

I’m taking a class on Roman Polanski this term. I’ll likely post the pieces I write for it here, just for fun. Here’s a write-up on Repulsion:

In numerous interviews, Roman Polanski has noted how, early in his career, his formal preoccupations tended to trump any thematic or analytic elements he may otherwise have been concerned with. Like many young filmmakers, Polanski had a zealous relationship with the art of cinema, manipulating and experimenting with its language as they search for a more consistent voice. Repulsion (1965), with its emphasis on mood and tone over narrative and subtext, proves to be the perfect example when exploring the early visual strategies of his filmography.

Because the film is so sparsely assembled plot and story-wise, some have labeled it a character study. Though this may be in apt term when attempting the film narratologically, Repulsion rarely divulges any information about its protagonist, Carole. Aside from a closing shot of an ambiguous photo from her past, Polanski proves to be mostly unconcerned about his character’s roots. For some viewers, this could prove problematic as Western storytelling typically puts emphasis on narrative context and continuity (in other the words, the formulaic “inciting incident, rising action, resolution” three-act structure), of which Repulsion is noticeably lacking. In lesser hands, the lack of narrative context would make for a sloppily constructed film, but Polanski’s stern aestheticizing adequately takes the place of such devices. In fact, any additional narrative elements would have felt superfluous. To have all the answers would surely take away from the mystery and covertness of the film. Additionally, the film’s visual style would have also taken a hit: the starkly photographed apartment, with its jutting hues of black and white, would have appeared far less ominous if the cause of Carole’s neurosis had be explicitly defined. Polanski, by eschewing elements of narrative in favor of a more vivid mise en scene, was able to put greater emphasis on the aspects with which he was more overtly concerned.

In attempting to wrestle further with the film’s enigmatic plot, others have described Repulsion as something of a case study or cautionary tale about untreated mental illness. For the audience, Carole’s unstable mental condition is obvious; for those in the film, the people who see her everyday (namely her well-meaning if self-centered older sister) appear to be oblivious. The only person who seems to have some sort concern is Michael, although his condescension masks any sort of sincerity he might have. In any case, Carole’s situation has clearly gone undiagnosed and any explanation for her erratic behavior is attributed to her perceived frivolousness. Of course, analyzing such matters further proves futile considering our perspective throughout the entire film is through Carole’s point of view.

As a most unreliable narrator, it’s impossible to decipher the true nature of her surroundings given her skewed state. In terms of Repulsion being a cautionary tale, such a label would denote a certain amount of sympathy for the case in point. However, it’s safe to say that Polanski feels little compassion for Carole. Her character, instead, proves the perfect archetype for the kind of psychological horror film for which he’s striving. To see Catherine Deneuve, yellow-haired and angelic, in such a ghastly state makes for the sort of unsettling imagery typical of Polanski, who, in turn, pulls no punches in ensuring his actress faces the full brunt of his vision. In particular cases, Polanski skirts with elements of exploitation, namely the sexually violent night terrors that plague Carole’s dreams. It is with Repulsion that Polanski cements a thematic interest in sexual intrusiveness (a la Rosemary’s Baby [1968] and Chinatown [1974]) that would, infamously and tragically*, seep into his personal life.

Moving beyond the film’s narrative elements, Repulsion reveals itself as a largely formal exercise in which Polanski experiments with sound and space to create a truly unsettling atmosphere. Whether it’s the ticking of a clock or the drip from a leaky faucet, the film’s incessant ambient noise has become something of a trademark. It reminds us that, for the most part, noise never stops. Even in situations we perceive to be silent, some semblance of noise is usually present. To heighten this concept, Polanski often layers these seemingly innocuous sounds over images of horror, most notably those aforementioned night terrors. By infusing the mundane with a sense of the macabre, he ensures that there’s nary a moment of rest throughout the film’s 105 minutes. Visually, Repulsion is saturated in expressionistic black and white, heightened by Polanski’s tendency toward extreme angles that seem to fluctuate the size of the apartment. Also present are a number of dexterously executed long takes that glide gracefully throughout the space. Rather than cut from one shot to the next, Polanski is prone to simply moving the camera either closer or further away, artfully moving from an master shot to a two shot with the simple push of his camera. These are precisely the formal elements he refers to when he admits to being less concerned with story early in his career.

As the second film he made in London, Polanski exhibits the stylistics typical of his early career. These elements would begin to crystallize in a number of ways as early as Cul-De-Sac (1966), but to see them in this raw and developmental fashion is essential to understanding his work as a whole.

*By which I mean tragic for the victim, of course.


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