Monday 19 December 2011

REPULSION and THE TENANT, Roman Polanski and the Art of Humiliation - Part Two of "You Only Have Yourself To Blame" - The Claustrophobia Films of Roman Polanski - By Greg Klymkiw

Anticipating the release of "Carnage", Roman Polanski's nasty, insanely hilarious four-hander, The Toronto International Film Festival's TIFF Bell Lightbox presents an astonishing mini-retrospective of the work of everyone's favourite genius child rapist that focuses upon his continued obsession with paranoia within the context of closed spaces. Films include: "Repulsion" (Wednesday December 21 09:00 PM), "The Tenant" (Thursday December 22 09:00 PM), "Rosemary's Baby" (Friday December 23 09:00 PM) and "The Ghost Writer" (Sunday December 25 04:00 PM).

REPULSION (1965) ***1/2 THE TENANT (1976) ****
Roman Polanski and the Art of Humiliation
Part Two of "You Only Have Yourself To Blame"
The Claustrophobia Films of Roman Polanski

By Greg Klymkiw

"You only have yourself to blame."

So says the corpulent concierge (Shelley Winters) to Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski), the title character of The Tenant. His apartment has just been broken into. He is understandably distraught. He feels violated, sullied and, for the umpteenth time in his relatively new digs, he's been insulted, humiliated and finger-wagged. And now this, the final straw - a break-in - and the only solace offered to him is:

"You only have yourself to blame."

This whiny kvetch emanating from the ciggie-twixt-the-lips, hair-in-curlers and perpetually shuffling Bubbie from the depths of Hell is merely one of a seemingly infinite number of indignities on display that are, frankly, impossible NOT to laugh at. To stifle one's guffaws while watching The Tenant is pure and utter folly. Every humiliation thrown like a tureen of cold pig slop in the faces of the disenfranchised and/or downtrodden, is a veritable laugh riot. The accumulation of hilarity amidst the darkness is, finally, what contributes to those moments of horror that creep through the movie like some T.S. Eliot Prufrock-like "pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas"

Such is the genius of Roman Polanski.

The Tenant is pure, unadulterated nasty fun that keeps you alternately laughing and cringing in terror. Telling the tale of a young Parisian of Polish descent who thinks he's happened upon a perfect apartment, we follow his tale of insanity and obsession as he begins to assume his landlords and neighbours are conspiring against him to become the former tenant of his digs, a sad young woman by the name of Simone Choule who took a dive from the balcony. Strange people stand motionless in the washroom window across the courtyard. He finds a tooth buried deep in the wall behind a heavy bureau. He visits the dying woman in the hospital and armed with a bag of oranges meets cute with the ravishing Isabelle Adjani who accompanies him to a Bruce Lee martial arts movie where the two of them make out. Soon, it doesn't take long before he begins to engage in avid cross-dressing, sitting in his window and watching the neighbours humiliate another tenant they find disfavour with.

Ah, such is life in Paris. Especially if you're Roman Polanski.

Ultimately, I've always believed that many of our truly great filmmakers are those who obsessively latch onto their favourite depravities (or at least the very worst behaviour amongst the species of man) and fetishize them - the lens of the camera a mere extension of the director's eye, revealing with frankness, their own deep-seeded sickness. This is a good thing. Truth is grand entertainment, especially when mediated through a great artist who lavishes a most meticulous attention to that which most "normal" people find utterly repugnant.

Besides, when an artist fully commits to such obsessions, it's funnier than Senior Citizen Day in Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, where the cross-country road-racers are allowed to mow down the most vulnerable of our society with their souped-up cars and thus score extra points for every hit.

A key reference point for such cinema - and in particular, that of Roman Polanski - are the lines uttered by Nell (a legless old woman living in a trash can) in Samuel Beckett's magnificent play "Endgame":

"Nothing is funnier than unhappiness."

Truer words were never spoken. They're especially apt in relation to Polanski's trilogy of claustrophobia, paranoia and humiliation within apartment dwellings - Repulsion, the sexy, creepy exploration of a woman's descent into madness, The Tenant, the aforementioned demented horror film rife with black comedy and, of course, the queen bee of all devil worship thrillers Rosemary's Baby (a film I'll be reviewing in full at Daily Film Dose).

Repulsion is the female flipside to The Tenant, but its brand of creepy feels more Henry James (a la Turn of the Screw) as opposed to the definite Dostoyevskian qualities of the latter. Following Carole, a meek, but stunningly gorgeous beauty parlour employee who rooms with her gregarious sex-starved sister (Yvonne Furneaux), the movie presents a series of scenes where Carole is objectified by several men and then, forced to spend time alone in the apartment when her sister and her married boyfriend (Ian Hendry) take off for a few days of illicit sin. Once alone, things progressively get creepier and scarier as Carole is plagued with horrific visions of hands and arms reaching out to her through the walls and several men make visits with violation on their minds. Luckily, her sister's beau has left his shaving kit behind.

One common thread stringing through Polanski's overall mise-en-scène is his sense of pace (creepy and deliberate), the manner in which his actors glide through scenes (almost in real time), how Polanski's camera eye lavishes attention upon strange little details which are revealed to be both the POV of The character AND filmmaker and certainly in the case of Repulsion, the fetishization of his central character Carole (Catherine Deneuve).

Both Repulsion and The Tenant are given miraculous boosts thanks to the men Polanski chose to cinematographically render his vision. The former features exquisite fine grain black and white photography courtesy of the magnificent Gilbert (Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day's Night, Frenzy, The Omen) Taylor while the latter is lensed by Ingmar Bergman's chief visual collaborator, the great Sven Nykvist. Polanski also didn't skimp on composers to render astounding scores for both - the former featuring Chico Hamilton's percussive jazz stylings, the latter imbued with Phillipe Sarde's rich, baroque orchestral drones.

And both films, especially Repulsion, are imbued with wildly imaginative and more than apt soundscapes.

Repulsion is aurally driven with the quiet - a score of silence punctuated by occasional natural (and some, not-so natural) noises. One especially salient example of this in Repulsion is when we cut to a slightly skewed God's eye closeup of a decaying uncooked skinned rabbit, then we see the stringy eyes that have grown out of some neglected potatoes. As the camera moves away, Polanski cuts to a closeup side-view of said potatoes until the camera glides up and we see Carole studying them intensely. Several perspectives for the price of one. We see Polanski's fetishization of the potatoes, Carole's fixation upon them and, in turn Polanski's fixation upon Carole/Deneuve.

And, of course, accompanying the aforementioned is the endless ticking of a clock wherein time moves forward, but without a seeming end-point and certainly, no light at the end of a deep tunnel of madness and despair.

In the same sequence above, Polanski then follows Carole's every move as some odd noises draw her to a spot of solace, which, in turn is broken by a sharp unexpected action, more silence and finally, the jangling sound of the door bell ringing. Polanski follows her as she apprehensively approaches the door - the camera hovering at about shoulder level, but tilted slightly downwards. This approach, blending perspectives of the artist and his creation is what makes the whole affair potent indeed. It's also perversely funny, undeniably sexy, grotesquely creepy and scary, to boot!

The whole notion of laying blame upon the victim - especially when mental illness is involved - is a thematic concern that Polanski has, to varying degrees, explored in virtually all of his films. Certainly in Repulsion, Carole is a victim. We're never completely sure if she's suffered sexual assault or not, but Polanski trains his camera upon her like a constant ogling eye and we are afforded shot after shot, scene after scene of men training their sights upon her - drilling holes into her beauty with their eyes. Some of this might be imagined, some of it real, but we get the overwhelming sense that she is, at the very least, a victim of constant OBJECTIFICATION. This, frankly, is as real an assault upon her as those physical violations she (possibly) imagines and/or (possibly) experiences.

Trelkovsky in The Tenant is told outright that he only has himself to blame (which, admittedly, might even be hallucinatory), just as there are strong implications throughout Repulsion that Carole is seen by virtually every character as being responsible for her own shyness, loneliness and lack of trust (in most everybody, but especially men). Like Trelkovsky, when Carole is alone - truly and physically alone - the horror, whether imagined or actual is REAL. When Carole is visited by an intruder from the shadows of her apartment, the sexual assault that occurs is real to her. Polanski presents this horrific scene by omitting the sounds of her screams, but we feel them and are repulsed just the same.

One might, of course argue that Polanski is as responsible for objectifying victims, especially women. Catherine Deneuve as Carole is ravished by his lens. It prods and pokes at her, exploring her beauty and vulnerability to a point of abject obsession. In fact, there's a strong sense that Polanski might well be objectifying the notion of virginity and that only true purity can come from madness and repulsion towards ALL sexual activity. Outside the apartment (and this IS truly hilarious) we constantly see and hear white-frocked nuns playing basketball - their giggles and shouts of joy punctuated by an almost constantly ringing bell.

Ah, virginal Carole, if only she'd join them - perhaps it's the cloister of Jesus that will provide solace and protect her virginity.

Or maybe, she just needs to butcher a few nasty fellows.

Not unlike Trelkovsky in The Tenant who needs to prove to the world that he IS a victim, by donning a dead woman's clothes, tossing himself out the window, then dragging his battered body back up the stairs, smearing blood everywhere before taking a second plunge from the balcony.

And finally, as funny, nasty, scary, sexy and horrific as both films are, it is finally the notion of blaming a victim that is most terrifying of all. I daresay, it is work that is also very strangely moving and imbued with a humanity that many do not wish to give Polanski credit for having.

Polanski has experienced horrors, perpetrated horrors and on film, both horrors are laid bare.

He's a creep, but he IS an artist.

And a great one at that.

Besides, those who are WITHOUT sin, might wish to consider casting the first stone. They'd be hypocrites, of course, and they'd be all the more so for denying the humanity in his work and that more than likely, looking deep into a Polanski film, is frankly, like looking into a mirror.

I urge anyone who has not seen either "Repulsion" or "The Tenant" to make their first experience of both on a big screen. Thanks to TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto movie-goers will have an opportunity to see both on film. "The Tenant" is sadly only available on a barebones DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment. "Repulsion", on the other hand, is available on an exquisite Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Both will more than suffice for repeat screenings, and in a pinch, they'll do for first helpings. But no matter where you live, endeavour to see them on film, before succumbing to a virginal screenings on a home entertainment format.

Part One of my coverage of the Polanski retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox can be found HERE.