Although his first feature, Knife in the Water, was something of an international success, Roman Polanski’s career plans remained uncertain. He did not want to return to Communist Poland and, in spite of the fact that he was born in Paris, he did not consider himself to be especially French. After three years of frustration, he made his first trip to England. Quoted in James Greenberg’s superb new book, Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, the director says, “Repulsion was my discovery of London…. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the Anglo-Saxon world: language, objects, sets, people. It was new to me and I was tremendously inspired.”Of course, the London Polanski depicts is not exactly that of a tourist. In some ways the film is even more claustrophobic than Knife, with its three people isolated on a boat. Even the scenes outside the apartment Catherine Deneuve shares with her sister—in a pub; in a “beauty” salon/torture chamber where she works, with little recognition of contemporaneous swinging London—seem isolated. Polanski subsequently bemoaned the limited resources at his disposal, but these constraints may have contributed positively to the surreal effect of his imagery. (There is more than a touch of Polanski’s film-school education in his nods to Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau.) Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho far more cheaply than some of his other films, but sometimes less is more. Deneuve’s startling and primitive hallucinations might have been spoiled by a bigger budget.
My colleague Dave Kehr writes that the director “uses slow camera movements, a soundtrack carefully composed of distracting, repetitive noises…explicitly expressionist effects…to depict a plausible schizophrenic episode.” Andrew Sarris argues that by “forcing the audience to share the girl’s demented point of view, Polanski manages to implicate them in the irrational uncertainty of the plot…. What Polanski counts on is the fact…that we will somehow identify with the most perverted privacy rather than blow the whistle for the authorities.” Although few of us might fantasize about wanting to kill Janet Leigh in the shower, I suspect that the director’s skills make many of us hunger for the murder of at least one of Deneuve’s victims, just as we savored the delicious prospect of what awaited Martin Balsam as he ascended the stairs in his search for Mrs. Bates. Perhaps, seeing Repulsion now calls into question whether our attitudes toward sexual repression have changed during the intervening half-century, but perhaps not so much.
Cinematic cases studies of madness have always been problematic—a recent example is Silver Linings Playbook, where the nuttiness of the whole cast detracts from Bradley Cooper’s bipolar performance—but even the greatest works of Shakespeare fit more-or-less comfortably into this genre. What the film medium does offer is substantial visual and (later) aural tools to enhance the subject matter. At least from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, through Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein in a multitude of incarnations, Sam Jaffe in Josef von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress, right up through Polanski’s own much underrated Macbeth, movies have provided memorable looney tunes that didn’t feature Bugs Bunny. Hitchcock himself, before Psycho, offered such classics as The Lodger, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and several other films depicting appealing and sympathetic psychopaths.
Roman Polanski, now 80, has had his share of troubles, but he is a strong candidate, in my opinion, for the greatest living filmmaker, and The Pianist is arguably the best film of this still-young century. He seems to be having difficulty getting financing for his proposed film on the Dreyfus affair. If it is not made, it may deprive us of a treasure that the director seemed predestined to produce.