Sunday, 17 March 2013

Inescapable Angles: A Psychic Folly

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space was in circulation when Roman Polanski made Repulsion. Published in 1958, it appeared in English translation in 1964 just one year before the film’s release. Bachelard observes an intimate relationship between the form of a domestic dwelling and its inhabitants. Corners, garrets, drawers, chests all affect a way of being. In turn, the occupant leaves a trace on their home both physically and in the realm of memory and the imaginary. Polanski too made much of this interdependence in each of his ‘Apartment Trilogy’ films: Repulsion (1964), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). They all encapsulate the feng shui nightmare of cheapskate landlord’s conversions: thin walls, creaking floor boards, damp and drafts. Polanski’s architecture of choice is the late Victorian flat with its excesses of cornicing, cast iron radiators, sash windows which all provide details for his lingering camera. These are pads with ‘character’, ornate abodes that have an agency in his films that make them unsung stars. For Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, the South Kensington flat she rents serves as an escape from the busy streets and bustling beauty salon where she works. It is a place where she can resist the advances of suitors and relax with her sister, Yvonne Furneaux. Gradually, it houses and mimics her mental collapse where she becomes locked into an alternate reality of paranoid visions and catatonia. Polanski’s scenes of ‘living walls’ are some of the most memorable in the psychological horror genre.

Many writers have tried to decipher Carol’s mental state. Is she depressed? Schizophrenic? Is she ‘sex repressed’, or possessed by ‘demons’ of the unconscious mind as Bosley Crowther reviewing for The New York Times would have it in 1965. Or, more delicately, was she abused as a child? The cryptic family portrait we see in her lounge might suggest this. The film shrugs off definite answers but what is clear is that Carol is terrified of being ‘broken into’. Her comfortable routine is shattered by her sister’s oafish boyfriend and his clumsy stuffing of his toothbrush and razor into her water glass. Sexual imagery here speaks for itself. It is often mentioned in write ups of the film how openly Polanski exposes the intricacies of Carol’s demise. But just what does this involve? My interpretation is that Polanski creates a psychological space with his sophisticated use of the mechanics of cinema - a space where a woman is terrified of intruders and then he invites us in. We are with Carol every step of the way, perceiving the world as it is to her: when she is alone in the house, when she is visited in the night by the imagined rapist grabbing and pushing in close. We are given the spare key and invited to take up a kind of multiple occupancy of Carol’s mind. Polanski makes us psyche-cine intruders, able to come and go as we please. It is this that makes the film so unsettling and perversely enigmatic.

So what of this filmic architecture, how does Polanski build this cine interior? To me his methods are Lovecraftian. By fragmenting and dislocating sound and image Polanski creates monstrous and unearthly reconfigurings of the banal. One observation I made in seeing the film again was the fracturing of one of the early moments where Carol is walking outside and passes by a roadworks site. Piles of rubble suggest disintegration and recall the cracks in the pavement and wall that Carol is fascinated with. One of the workers, sweating and wearing a soiled vest leers at her and suggests ‘a bit of the other’. This one scene then splits into tiny shards that resurface during the remainder of the film. A similar vest keeps reappearing in the flat, as if it moves of its own accord. It is a sign of Carol’s curious disgust of male sexuality - one she finally absorbs into her own horrific version of domesticity. Later and quite separately from the initial workmen scene, Carol appears even more disturbed on her walk home. Here, within the drums and percussion of Chico Hamilton’s jazz score it is possible to hallucinate the sounds of car horns and drilling. The film is shaped by these explosions and dream logic arrangements. Cinematography (Gilbert Taylor) sound editing and mixing (Tom Priestley and Leslie Hammond), editing (Alastaire McIntyre), art direction (Séamus Flannery) are the building materials for Polanski that result in this psychic folly.

In Poems to my other self(1927) Albert-Birot pre-empts Polanki’s concerns in Repulsionand indeed his words suggest one of Polanski’s interior tracking shots. Bachelard selects this quotation in Poetics:

…Je suis tout droit les moulures
qui suivent tout droit le plafond

I follow the line of the moldings
which follow that of the ceiling.

Mais il y a des angles d’où l’on ne peut plus sortir.

But there are angles from which one cannot escape

Bachelard is a good way into Repulsion. Architecture as a metaphor for mental states was Bachelard’s calling card. But can’t we go a bit further. If the South Ken rented flat is symbolic of Carol’s psyche then surely we need to address what it means to equate a woman’s mentality with rented accomodation. I am thinking figuratively here. I don’t want to suggest Carol is a real woman. But let’s unpack this trope of woman as rented flat. Dido would sing years later that her ‘life is for rent’, and make Disney-esque laments about how unsettled and ungrounded as a person she is because she doesn’t actually own her flat. For naughties Dido homeownership was the ur-state of being a sorted post personal development woman. Girly independence a thing of the past or is it for Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City 2?  She manages to keep her single lady place on in the middle of New York (‘not the right time to sell’ is the narrative glue here). This allows her to go through rebellious married woman discomfort as she boomerangs from the crash pad to her opulent home with Big. For Carrie marriage doesn’t have to mean submission, but it ‘kind of’ does too. Ambivalence here is not liberating, just compliance dressed up as dithering. Another post might attempt to embrace the complexity that is Sex in the City 2 another time.

The South Ken flat is lewd, it’s creaky and unprivate. It’s got cracks and gaps under the doors. No family home would be like this. It speaks of the improper. It says: ‘these residents have got it coming.’ These are the ones that don’t want to sacrifice their freedom to the god of mortgage repayments. Social pariahs now, and more so since they can be slightly smug about not making the repayments all those years just to sit on a valueless property. The tenants can get out quick, they are not contributing to growth. There is no glory in lining the pockets of landlords, but less so in flaunting now useless mortgage debt disguised as a good investment. So thanks Bachelard for making us look at architecture as mind, but lets also think about the kinds of architectural signals that have become burried in the economic psyche of late-capitalism. Home owning took off in the 80s and it could be argued that there were less frowning attitudes towards renting. But still the film is a way for me to articulate this short hand, the way attitudes towards women are implicit to the extent that film narratives work because of them. These attitudes are bound to their economic position.

This use of the rented flat trope is used by Polanski as shorthand for flighty, economically uncommitted, untethered, transient, more at risk and vulnerable. How would the story have been if she had been married and in her own home. The valid excuse for her to kill the men would not have been madness but moral good. Her economic state would be all tied up in this version of the story. Cinema is very good as a tool for pointing out just how much women need an excuse to do anything. They cannot just do it because they want to or because they have reason to as individuals. As wives or protectors of the family (male dominated) home their behaviour is validated. The female psychotic must be explained by madness or dissolved into death. Female violence at large is inexplicable within patriarchal mores. Polanski wanted to create the portrait of a psychotic woman and part of his schemata was to present her as ‘the tenant’. The impermanent the unbound economically, the insignigicant and not quite a citizen. She is a virgin and a tenant, open territory, no-one’s yet, not citizen nor girlfriend or wife. She is placeless. As Polanski wanted to create this horrific affect of inviting us into her psyche, then it makes sense for him that we are ‘her first’, this makes for a greater ‘affect’ and as someone described to me his response to the film, a further sense of ‘ickyness’. By icky I mean this implicit, sneaky sense of being a seated cine sadist. We become complicit in Polanski’s plan for our viewing experience, we don’t turn away. It’s simple perversion and I’m not knocking a culture for viewing sadistic material in celluloid fantasy form, or for that matter real physical sexual sadists but Polanski’s methods for getting us here are notably underhanded.

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