Saturday, October 17, 2009

Repulsion (1965)

Repulsion was Roman Polanski's followup to Knife in the Water (1962) and is, quite simply, a psychological thriller as only he could have directed it. At the heart of the film is a lucid performance by Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a disturbed, painfully shy manicurist whose sanity is splitting in two, and whose inability to be understood by her peers is not unlike another Polanski heroine: Mia Farrow's pregnant housewife-under-conspiracy in Rosemary's Baby (1968), another story about a woman who stays in all day and, inevitably, lets temptation influence her common sense. If Rosemary's Baby feels like the better film today, that may be because we get to know Rosemary inside out, care about her, cheer for her and fear for her; Deneuve's Carol in Repulsion is a much less sympathetic character, and when she rejects the men who check out her lustful figure on the street, it almost feels as though she's rejecting the rest of us out in the audience. What is her motive? What makes her go so berserk? Polanski wisely refuses to answer such a cop-out question: “You can do what you want- it's a free country- but don't ever ask me to explain any of my pictures.”

Carol is not the kind of woman you would want to know. The men on the street don't realize exactly how batty the chick is. In the film, she will show up to work at the beauty salon and doze off when she's supposed to be staying awake. She will form a habit of crossing the street without looking both ways. At home, she will have fantasies of large cracks opening up in the walls. She will hang up immediately on angry phone calls. She will have nightmares of imaginary men breaking into her bedroom and ravaging her, and every time she will wake up sprawled over naked on the floor. She will find a plate of diced rabbit in the refrigerator and then leave it out to rot and decay until it bears resemblance to a deformed fetus. She will murder two people. She will kill each of them in two very different ways. And she'll do it all without ever knowing what she's doing and what is happening to her. Carol has given up on paying attention.

Consider a peculiar scene that occurs at the 59-minute mark. A depressed Carol is being sent home early, as a result of her sluggish behavior at work. A co-worker (Helen Fraser) tries to lighten things up by talking about a Chaplin movie she saw the other day. Though she never reveals the title, we can tell that it's The Gold Rush, and after she describes the scene where Charlie turns into a chicken, Carol bursts into laughter. It's the first time we have seen her smile in the entire film. But the joke really isn't that funny, and Carol's laughter is more overblown than it is human. She laughs louder (and longer) than her co-worker does, and she hasn't even seen the movie in question. She's laughing only for the sake of laughing. Carol evidently hasn't had a good chuckle in a while. Unfortunately, she's reached the point where even laughter is ineffective medicine.

Not that her misery isn't logical. Carol, a Belgian, shares an apartment with her brunette sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), who speaks with an English dialect. Helen is not nearly as cautious of men as Carol is, and at night she and her married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) have loud sex in the bedroom next door, driving a mad Carol to wrestle with her pillow in a hopeless execution to drown out the noise. One night in particular, Helen has to rub it in by emerging from energetic intercourse with Michael and barging into Carol's bedroom drenched in sweat and wearing nothing but a towel, just so that she can demand, “why did you throw Michael's things away?” Nobody ever cuts Carol a break.

Well, to be sure, there is one person who tries to make things easier for her. This is Colin (John Fraser), the one man in Carol's life who honestly tries to take her seriously as a woman. But Colin can sometimes be just as naive as she is; we sometimes get the impression that he's only chasing after her because of the stories he hears from his friends at the local bar about her alleged virginity. Whenever they go on lunch dates, he does all the talking. After two failed attempts at a relationship, Carol disregards Colin as just another meaningless specter eating away at her peace of mind. And after Helen and Michael go on vacation, leaving Carol to look after the apartment alone (big mistake), her plagued reclusion begins. A distressed Colin breaks into the apartment, approaches Carol, tries to talk to her, and does not get a response. Then, when Carol turns her back on him, Colin turns his back on her, and an elderly lady walking her dog out in the hall observes them at a distance. Polanski captures all three of them astonishingly within the frame, resulting in one of the film's most extraordinary shots. It is memorable for reasons that are vague, but it is nonetheless memorable.

Repulsion is haunting on another level, that which stems from its technical aspects. The music by Chico Hamilton brings in shadowy flute melodies during scenes of silence, and it piles on thunderous drum rolls at excruciating climaxes. The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor photographs the film in beautiful black and white, and it also allows Polanski to take advantage of scene-to-scene transitions. One scene fades to darkness after Carol tips over a couch right on top of the camera. Another scene fades to white after Carol knocks over a lamp, leaving the lightbulb to shine straight into the lens. The murder scenes have their own originality: whether she's whacking with a candlestick or hacking away with a razor, Carol always directs her blows to the camera. Especially jaw-dropping are the dream sequences in which Carol has visions of male hands bursting out from the apartment walls, with one hand feeling for her waist and another hand grabbing at her left breast. One hand tries to reach out for Carol but fails, because it is being resisted by a "rubber" portion of the wall- as if it's attempting to make its way through an oversized condom.

Strangest of all is Polanski's decision to bookend the film with close-ups of Carol's eyeball. The Criterion essay by Bill Horrigan offers a theory: “It's perhaps Deneuve's presence, as a glacial blonde in distress, that has kept critics noting the film's Hitchcockian qualities ever since its release, not to mention its Psycho-like central poetic effect of the camera closing in on a woman's eye”. On the DVD commentary, Catherine Deneuve herself has another theory, which is that “the eye is really the heart of the head- the window in the soul, but the window in the head as well". Indeed, we are reminded of Janet Leigh's frozen eyeball in the earlier film, but that was the eye of a woman dead and destined for burial. Repulsion illuminates on the eye of the killer.

The screenplay by Polanski and Gerard Brach plays around with the impatience of the characters. If there's one thing Carol shares in common with both Helen and Michael, it's that all three of them have a tendency to change the subject on each other. Helen tells a story about the minister of health finding eels in his sink, but Carol would rather ask about why Michael stores his things in the bathroom. Michael would prefer to inquire about Carol's mysterious condition than he would answer Helen's question about whether or not they'll encounter the Leaning Tower of Pisa on vacation. Helen wants to know what Michael meant when he suggested that Carol “needs to see a doctor”, and when Michael starts talking about Pisa, Helen fusses that he changes the subject too much.

Another odd character is introduced by the screenplay in the form of the creepy landlord (Patrick Wymark), whose cold persona is broken down by the sight of a sulking Carol, sitting down on the couch in her transparent white nightgown, and he considers taking advantage of her mopey state. “There's, uh, no need to be alone, you know”, he grins. “Poor little girl. All by herself. All... shaking like a little frightened animal”. The landlord walks into the kitchen, circles around the couch, examines the family photos, and circles around the couch again before finally make a move on her. Polanski secures this sequence in one unbroken take that last for three minutes.

Ironically, the most three-dimensional characters in all of Repulsion do not even have lines, and we don't ever get a good look at their faces. They are a trio of old musicians who shuffle around the town square and use spoons for instruments. They appear in only two scenes. In the first scene, they dare to take their performance out into the middle of the street. In the second scene, as Carol hides up in the apartment, we can hear them on the sidewalk down below, clicking away like the crocodile from Peter Pan. What has Polanski put them there for? He claims on the DVD commentary that he merely thought it would be nice to include them in one of his movies, but he hesitates to go into further detail. Notice that after they make their first entrance, Carol's mood in the film begins changing. Does the racket of the musicians set off the spark that ignites her insanity? It's possible. And after it explodes, what then? We find out.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Quintet (1979)

Robert Altman's Quintet is a film totally enveloped in a frozen wasteland that is like an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet for the eyes and the imagination. The wasteland is a blindingly white, snowy tundra that stretches in two directions: in the South, there used to be seals to hunt, but no longer; and in the North, well... nobody knows. And in between are the last remaining people on Earth, stranded in their own hellish limbo, with nothing left to live for in life other than to enact violence against each other because of the consequences of a simple board game. This is a survival of the fittest story, set in a futuristic ice age. In short, this is my kind of movie.

Quintet is the third installment in Altman's unofficial "surrealist" trilogy of the 1970's, a trilogy that began with Images (1972) and reached its peak with the incomparable 3 Women (1977). All three films are ghoulish minions spawned from Altman's rarely-seen dark side: with Images, he took a stab at the horror genre; with 3 Women, he redefined the meaning of uncertainty; and Quintet, lastly, was his interpretation of science fiction. If there are any noticeable differences, let it be said that the previous two films were about the psychological troubles experienced by women- wheras in Quintet, it is the men who spiral down into Freudian madness. But Quintet, like Images and 3 Women, was a box-office disaster, and there have even been (unconfirmed) stories of theaters promising moviegoers their money back in case they couldn't sit through the first 20 minutes. Why? Maybe the theater chains themselves considered the film to be one giant bore. Not one American soul could figure out what Altman was getting at with the film. At least with Images and 3 Women, the perplexity of the plot twists seemed intentional; Quintet was attacked by critics and audiences as confusing for all the wrong reasons.

Altman had a method for determining which of his films needed extra support. He knew that alongside those heavily lauded American multicharacter epics, there were other, more underrated films from his career that had somehow fallen off the face of the planet. They needed someone to lean on. Sometimes fans would go up to Altman and ask him which of his films were his favorite. He would answer them by, first, asking the fans which films of his they had liked the least. A couple of fans were reported to have mumbled, "Well, I didn't understand this Quintet thing...", to which Altman would snap his finger and point: "That's my favorite movie."

The film's screenplay by Altman, Frank Barhydt and Patricia Resnick is one that I would have happily directed myself had I been in Altman's shoes. Some charge that the film is too slow-paced, which may account for the accusations of supposed boredom; you could have fooled me, then, because I find that the film moves like a streak. In fact, I had to watch Quintet twice in order to fully comprehend the experience, and I ended up both enjoying and admiring the film even more on a second viewing. Maybe the popular opinion of disappointment with the film stems from the hard-pressed challenge of having to look at Altman tackle a genre like science fiction. The material is not unlike that of Richard Matheson, so it's possible that those who don't understand the goofy delight of a gritty Matheson story won't buy into Altman's approach. "The thrill is just the magic of it- of making somebody sit in their chair for two hours and be interested or curious", Altman explains in the Making Of documentary now available on the film's DVD, although he admits that the film didn't provide the sort of experience that can be easily digested by audiences. "When we did it," he said, "nobody knew what it was."

Altman bookends his film with shots of the tundra landscape. He begins Quintet with nothing but a white screen, tracking the camera alongside a lengthy barrier until we can just barely make out two blurry gray figures up ahead; and he ends the film with a long take depicting a single figure walking off into the far distance- off into nothing- disappearing into the blizzard. The beginning and ending of Quintet are the film's polar ice caps. Everything sandwiched inside is the last remaining ounce of civilization. The structure of the film is made to resemble that of the world.

The Earth seen in Quintet is suffering from reverse global warming. In these dark ages, children are never born, and the dead become buzzard food for stray dogs. Trailing out from the mist is Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter with no aspirations and no future. In tow is his young wife, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), the daughter of one of Essex' late hunting partners. She is the last pregnant woman alive, in a society where the women long so much for children that they begin acting like children themselves. Vivia, for example, has all the energy of a seven-year old. When she and Essex reach the sector where Essex' brother Francha (Tom Hill) currently resides, Vivia dashes from place to place, watching with a juvenile curiosity as others play the board game of Quintet. She is a thumbsucker. She throws tantrums: "I'm so tired of walking! I'm hungry!" In the sector's Information Room, she plays a sneak attack on Essex, and he refuses to go along with the joke: "Don't run off like that", he grumbles.

Tragedy strikes when Vivia and Francha are both killed in a freak explosion. Essex notices a gambler fleeing from the scene, and angrily chases after him. This is Redstone (Craig Richard Nelson), whose escape is short-lived; in the Information Room, Essex witnesses Redstone's sudden murder by another gambler, the Latin-speaking Christian fundamentalist St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman). Finding a piece of paper in Redstone's coat pocket, Essex realizes that it is actually a list of marked gamblers currently participating in a deadly Quintet tournament in another sector. Deciding to take matters into his own hands and get to the bottom of the mystery, Essex follows Redstone's old trail all the way to an inn known as the Hotel Electra. It is here that Essex will assume Redstone's identity and journey into the Quintet underworld.

The Hotel Electra is populated by several colorful characters. The downstairs Quintet casino is run by the dealer Grigor (Fernando Rey), who warmly invites Essex into the tournaments even when secretly being aware that Essex is not the real Redstone. He gives Essex lectures on why Quintet is such an important economical factor in society: "The only intelligent expression left is the game of Quintet. All the elements of life are contained in it. Our art, our philosophy. All things of value fit the game. The game is the only thing of value". Was Altman a fan of Friedkin's The French Connection (1971)? Those who remember that film will recall that Rey played the narcotics king who eludes Popeye Doyle's grasp; the decision to cast Rey in Quintet could not have been a mere coincidence because Altman had previously cast another French Connection actor, Marcel Bozzuffi, in Images (he played one of Susannah York's ghostly tormentors). In both films, Altman thankfully makes Bozzuffi and Rey out to be more than just the stereotypical French cartoons that they were in Friedkin's film.

But at least Rey's Grigor in Quintet backs off from becoming a potential threat to Essex; the same cannot be said for St. Christopher, whom Essex finds preaching in the local charity house. Here, he gives the kind of pessimistic sermons that Jonathan Edwards wouldn't have dreamed of: "You must cherish your tortured life", he chants, "because it is a pause, an interruption of the void preceding AND following it!" St. Christopher is a dangerous, overzealous man, and he would sooner scare the charity house's inhabitants than he would help them. He is also, it is reported, the deadliest Quintet player alive.

Essex has better luck making friends with Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), whose preference is to play "the sixth man" in the Quintet tournaments, meaning that she always gets to play the winner. She usually wins, but explains to Essex that the downside of playing the sixth man is that there is never anybody else left to play. Andersson seems to have the most fun out of all the actors in the film. When she lets down her red hair and downs a pair of pink pajamas at one point, she looks as sexy as ever; most of the time, however, she's dressed in an over-the-top winter wardrobe that truly catches the eye. You can imagine Ingmar Bergman watching Quintet and wondering where in the hell Andersson must have gotten than ridiculously oversized hat.

Then there is the matter of the game of Quintet itself. How do you play it, exactly? The rules don't make much sense when they are featured in the film. I'm not so sure we're really supposed to understand the rules, anyway; the game of Quintet is really just a MacGuffin, a plot device to help fuel the film's Darwinian thriller elements. The point is that these characters have become so obsessed with the idea of "killing" each other while playing the board game that they are beginning to raise the stakes by playing a reality-based game of cutthroat outside the casino. "Tell me- do I misunderstand the word, 'killing'?" Essex asks Ambrosia. "Not if you understand Quintet", she replies. As if that explains anything.

The female characters have all, understandably, been ruined by this poisonous underworld. When Essex locates the deceased Redstone's apartment, he finds Redstone's wife (Monique Mercure) inside, burning her hand over an oven. When Ambrosia realizes that she may be the next real-life victim in the Quintet tournament, she pleads for Essex to spend the night with her; rather than have sex, they instead literally sleep in bed with each other- and then Ambrosia begins sucking her thumb, just as we had seen Vivia doing earlier. The thumbsucking is further proof that, in the world of Quintet, women find the absence of children so unbearable that only by behaving like children will they cope with the pain of loss. In some ways it also distracts the females who take part in the Quintet tournaments. There is a scene where Ambrosia and the hotel's landlord, Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), end up in the same room behind closed doors; logically, because they are both on the killing list, they should be seizing this as an opportunity to try to kill one another, but instead they make a pact to unite against the male players together. That is, until they are the only two players left in the tournament.

The men act like children, too. What else is Quintet but a pointless game of cops and robbers? Imbeciles like Goldstar (David Langton) don't last long because their temper overclouds their common sense. And when Essex is eventually forced to face off against St. Christopher out in the snow, they fail to make good on the promise of really duking it out- the duel ends with a pathetic thud. It foreshadows, actually, another duel in one of Altman's later films: the hurricane brawl between Kenneth Branaugh and Tom Berenger in the trashy neo-noir flick The Gingerbread Man (1998). That was another film in which Altman portrayed male violence as a moronic waste of time.

Quintet is often criticized because the characters are not three-dimensional. Nor should they be, in my opinion. When humanity has been so utterly driven to the ends of the Earth in the way that it has been in this film, it is only natural that the characters will begin to adopt a very dehumanized, very Kubrickian state of mind. Some might argue that this affects the quality of the performances, but I would beg to differ. As Essex, Paul Newman is given the standard Harrison Ford role, which requires him to be stoic most of the time; because of this, we have the pleasure of studying Newman's facial expressions over listening to the delivery of his lines, and in the process it results in a Newman performance that feels so different from his past work.

Others complain that Quintet has none of Altman's signature overlapping dialogue. This is true, but then again Altman didn't employ overlapping dialogue in Images or 3 Women, either. In surrealist Altman, characters wait for each other to finish speaking, and this is because Altman is not so much interested in realism as he is interested in expanding the films visually. To be sure, Quintet does contain one scene of overlapping dialogue- it is the scene where Grigor tries to talk over a drunken Essex, who keeps on mumbling about the fate of the planet's goose. They're headed North. Grigor pretends not to understand.

Aside from that, what a great-looking movie this is. The art direction by Wolf Kroeger truly maps out the beauty of the tundra, and the production design by Leon Ericksen presents us with a stupefying array of buildings frozen over. The lights in the apartment rooms are growing icicles. The lamps are emanating dry ice. The outside staircases are sometimes dangerously iced over; Stephen Altman claims to have broken his foot slipping on the stairs during production. Altman himself takes advantage of the shadowy production design by squeezing in his directorial secret weapon: the zoom effect, which is plugged into the film during various moments of surprise- from Redstone's murder to Ambrosia spying on Essex as he ascends an indoor staircase. Then there is the chilling musical score by Tom Pierson, which is just as eerie and magical as the score composed by Jerry Goldsmith for Alien, released the same year. I dare anyone to watch Quintet and then tell me that they didn't feel as if they were really there, out in the tundra.

I know exactly why Altman defended Quintet as much as he did. Like me, he was fascinated by the mythology of the film--by the maniacal madness of this strange little board game that he created. Is that so uncommon? Every artist takes some sort of morbid delight in creating a universe in which characters kill for the littlest things. Quintet involves a universe in which the only thing left to live for is the game.

But Essex does not give in. He leaves the people of Hotel Electra to die in whatever way they please, and journeys up North to accept whatever fate has in store for him. Altman closes Quintet with a long, long shot of Essex disappearing into the Northern distance, reminding us of the last shot in Truffaut's Missippi Mermaid, or maybe even the last shot of Visconti's The Leopard. Essex keeps walking on and on, until we can see him no more--until the Northern distance swallows him whole, and we feel as though we have been swallowed up along with him. What a glorious movie.