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Last Year at Marienbad and Polanski’s Repulsion on Criterion: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Directed by Alain Resnais

Repulsion (1965)
Directed by Roman Polanski

Reviewed by José Teodoro

The camera drifts like a listless ghost through the corridors of this baroque hotel so sprawling we might suspect it infinite. The well-heeled guests mingle or play baffling table games. Some whisper on staircases or stand still as statues in the gardens. “We always come back here,” utters a lovely blonde. A glass shatters, a marble rail collapses, and everyone holds their breath, not in response to a minor accident but to a creeping sense of familiarity.

Last Year at Marienbad has what’s surely the most acute case of déjà vu in movies. It seems everything that happens has happened already, but the drama lies in the lingering uncertainty of Delphine Seyrig’s gaze. X (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince A (Seyrig) that they met here the year previous, fell in love, and planned to run away together. Is X feeding A an elaborate pickup line? Is he genuinely trying to shake loose a clogged memory? Or is he trying to plant a new one? What’s doubtless is the power of the seduction itself, of having someone assure you that something you lost can be regained, that there’s still a chance to abandon everything for the thrill of romance, upheaval, maybe freedom.

Written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, directed by Alain Resnais and inspired, if rarely unacknowledged as such, by Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 1940 novel The Invention of Morel, the film has spent nearly a half-century most often tagged as pretentious, opaque and overly aestheticized—its luminous black and white widescreen photography comes courtesy of Sacha Vierny, its costumes from Coco Chanel. But Last Year at Marienbad, now available from Criterion, is also playful, sometimes funny, wildly intricate and saturated with longing, capable of triggering buried fantasies. It’s the prototype for much of Wong Kar-Wai’s filmography, and so layered as to reward countless viewings. It is indeed audaciously ambiguous, and Seyrig’s pliant performance, rife with gestures that enchant and repeat with a rippling, dream-like cadence, only heightens this effect. A mischievous smile will slide across her lips, echoing the sweep of her bangs, holding only the vaguest promise of sex. She imbues clothes with secret meanings. The movement of her shoulders and hands alternately cloak and reveal like veils. At times her face will light up with terror, or maybe ecstasy.

This idea of beguiling feminine restraint in collaboration with a deliberately elusive, formalist mise en scène would be taken further by Seyrig in Resnais’ Muriel and Marguerite Duras’ India Song. And by the young Catherine Deneuve, whose still unformed sensuality and arresting presence, sometimes so icy as to edge on blankness, would be imaginatively utilized by Jacques Demy, Luis Buñuel and Roman Polanski, who cast her in Repulsion, his horror movie as character study, also newly available from Criterion.

Belgian-born esthetician Carol (Deneuve) lives with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a dingy London flat with thin, cracking walls through which piano scales, church bells and orgasms can be regularly heard — apartment buildings being always unnervingly public places in Polanski’s films. Carol is painfully timid, typically so withdrawn as to resemble a somnambulist—in the film’s first exchange she’s asked if she’s sleeping. She looks uncomfortable around food while retaining an infantile habit of suckling or gnawing at things when anxious. She displays an intense aversion to men, and little of what she encounters in her daily life—an insistent, frustrated suitor, her sister’s salacious married boyfriend, the anonymous breather who keeps calling—counters her suspicion that all men are sexual predators.

Taking some pivotal cues from Psycho, Repulsion suggests that isolation, stunted development and repressed sexual impulses can breed insanity and homicidal outbursts. Yet unlike Hitchcock, Polanski’s focus stays almost exclusively with his troubled protagonist. His camerawork becomes increasingly subjective, his use of Chico Hamilton’s score is almost tender, and psychological explanations are virtually absent, save whatever we might glean from a grainy old photo of Carol and her family in Brussels. The image hints, perhaps, at the childhood sexual abuse most viewers will have already presumed.

There isn’t a moment where Deneuve, agitated and vulnerable, with those faraway eyes and that absently ajar mouth, doesn’t seem absolutely immersed in Carol’s internal vertigo. It’s hard to think of many other performances that somehow feel so utterly present and unforthcoming at once, though something about Carol that looks forward to Sissy Spacek’s cipher-like Pinky in 3 Women. For Repulsion’s first half Carol seems on the verge of surrendering to her growing curiosity about the carnal offers that repulse her, yet she remains convincingly oblivious to her ample erotic power over men. (Interestingly, the only glimpse we catch of the older, earthier Deneuve occurs when Carol turns to leave a room and her hips sway as she walks barefoot, wearing just a slip. We see this only from behind, thus it’s an effect Carol, and maybe Deneuve, would never herself catch, even in a mirror.) 

In Criterion’s audio commentary Polanski, while greatly admiring his star’s talents, expresses some regret that Deneuve’s subsequent career so often embraced her “cool side.” Yet it’s this very aspect of Deneuve that allowed her to bring such a captivating combination of magnetism and mystery to a film like Repulsion. By the end she’ll have burrowed herself completely in the womb of her psychosis, a place sheathed in rotting food, crumbling plaster and drawn curtains. She’ll have murdered two people. While we’re never fooled into thinking we know her, Deneuve has essentially allowed us to be Carol for 100 minutes or so. It’s a pretty terrifying invitation, but one that’s still fascinating after all these years.


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