2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.


0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)


1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)


While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.


2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)


The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.


3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)


Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.


4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)


The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.


5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)


Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.


6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)


A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.


7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)


Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.


8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)


In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.


9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)


The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.


10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)


“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.


Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)



Seven Years in May (Affonso Uchoa)

Brazilian helmer Affonso Uchoa’s forty-minute Seven Years in May contains only four scenes. In the first, a man walks long on the road at night. In the following scene, a group of young men chance upon a box with police uniforms and weapons. They change into these clothes and go out on a raid. They pick up a young man, who we learn is Rafael dos Santos Rocha (playing himself). They rough him up and ask him to reveal where a particular stock of drugs is in his house. Rafael denies that he has any, which prompts the young men to drag the man along with them into the dark. The third and the longest scene of the film is predominantly a monologue. Rafael sits by the fire, recounting the night the police brutalized him in search of drugs. He describes his life thereafter: going on the run, substance abuse, getting cheated, wandering the streets, going to a village to sell drugs, a second double-crossing and finally a return home. It’s clear from the vividness of the description that the trauma is fresh in his mind even though it happened seven years ago. He won’t forget their faces, he says; if he did, what they did to him will be complete. A cut reveals a listener—also a non-white man—who says that every story he hears seems to reflect his own. He declares that, though he believes in an eye for an eye, it’s better “for us and for everyone” to move on.

If one didn’t look at the credits or press notes, it’s hard to guess that Uchoa is mixing fictional and documentary modes here. Rafael, portraying himself, is presumably drawing from his own life for his monologue, which is much more polished and articulate than a spontaneous rendition would be. The second scene, then, is a reconstruction of Rafael’s real-life experiences, which raises the ethical question: why put Rafael through the harrowing situation again? Whether this recreation of violence is itself a form of violence or a therapeutic remedy is possibly only for Rafael to know. What is clear is that Uchoa is building a scaffolding in which power dynamics are presented as a product of role playing. The proposition that a bunch of possibly disenfranchised youth become aggressors by just donning police uniform finds its response in the fourth scene of the film: a white man in police uniform commands a group of about hundred non-white men and women. He utters one of two words—‘alive’ or ‘dead’—to which the men and women must respond by standing up or squatting. Those that react wrongly are ‘out’ of the game. The last man standing turns out to be Rafael, and he refuses to ‘die’ even when the instructor repeatedly commands him to. As a political statement, it’s laughably schematic, but as an instance of curative theatre, it’s at home in the film. Seven Years in May is an odd film that appears to be constantly shifting its axes of operation. Familiarity with the filmmaker’s earlier work would perhaps throw more light.

Farewell to the Night (André Téchiné)

Muriel (Catherine Deneuve) runs a horse ranch in the southwest of France near the Spanish border. When her grandson, Alex (Kacey Mottet-Klein) arrives for a long-pending visit, she discovers that he has converted to Islam and has been radicalized by one of the farmhands, Lila (Oulaya Amamra). We learn this before Muriel does. When Alex meets Lila for the first time, they go out to the lake. She wears a burkini to get into the water, he remains on shore. They embrace, but never kiss. Their interaction and their attitude towards others follow the halal code. He refuses to greet-kiss another man, she refuses to serve men in the old age home she works at. He turns down alcohol and cigarettes, she refuses to uncover her sleeve at work. In collusion with another young radical, the pair plan to fly to Syria to ‘the front’, but are faced with money problems. They decide to steal money from ‘the kuffar’ Muriel, an act Lila justifies as ‘not haram’. Like any liberal-minded film worth its salt, Farewell to the Night ‘explains’ Islamic radicalism to us. The film unfolds over the first five days of spring in 2015. Local elections are underway and, we are told, the National Front is on the ascendant. It’s a soundbite intended to both hint at the other side of the divide and ‘explain’ increasing radicalism.

Lila rails about the rotten society that consigns old people to retirement homes, and she is genuinely compassionate towards the people she serves. On the other hand, the Caucasian Alex, still affectionate towards his grandmother, is sure neither about his sexuality nor about his new mission. Téchiné’s film psychoanalyses the radicals and professes its good faith by throwing in two “good Muslims”, including a Daesh renegade who tries to dissuade Alex in vain. As a portrayal of racial and religious divides in France, Farewell to the Night is a rather unexceptional. But the seventy-five-year-old filmmaker seems to be making a distinction between generational and cultural shifts rather than racial or religious. The world Muriel represents, in harmony with nature and with people of all stripes, is far removed from the polarized present. She is surrounded by children learning riding, and the first thing she does when she realizes she has lost Alex for good is to stop by a highway to watch boys and girls play football. Lila stays with a lonely old man who longs for company, while the foyer is a veritable refuge of those fading away. At one point, Téchiné cuts between the meeting of the stern radicals and a celebration at Muriel’s with wine and dance to indicate two different conceptions of community and culture. His ever-moving camera captures the landscape, vegetation and infrastructure of the region with an aim to please. Deneuve huffs and puffs her way through the ranch, but is all surface. Her purported devastation over her grandson’s fate and her guilt over her ultimate decisions don’t really register. There is, however, a great shot of her taking a swig.

The House (Mali Arun)

In an unnamed part of France, presumably in Occitanie, lies a massive spa retreat: a 22-room renaissance structure from the 17th century once visited by the likes of Voltaire and Casanova. Mali Arun’s film doesn’t give any more detail and simply calls the building ‘La Maison’. The House opens with a fade in from the structure’s original plan to its current decrepit state. Arun’s camera surveys the decaying façade and decrepit interiors of the house, a seeming repository of the debris of European culture: portraits, musical instruments and other objets d’art amassed carelessly in unused rooms and workshops. The attention soon shifts to the residents of this modern “ark”, as the filmmaker calls it: a constantly changing commune of white men, women and children galvanized around the permanent figure of a certain sexagenarian called Jacques. Arun’s voiceover tells us that the spring running through the site was exploited by Nestlé till the seventies, and that when the company left, they filled the water source with concrete to maintain their monopoly. Jacques and co. make plans of renovating the house as per the original plan. They draft monthly goals for their reconstruction project. They call a water diviner to retrace and restore the stream. However, the group, and Jacques in particular, seems to spend most of its time doing everything else.

Arun’s film is interested less in the history of the building or the personalities of the residents, who get to do little more than pose for closeups. It’s more concerned with the building as a space of memory and experience than as a physical presence. Arun’s emphasis is on the way of life of the inhabitants. We see them cutting trees, making music, cooking, discussing and debating, calling relatives on phone, playing with water, moving pianos, rehearing plays, raising bees and, if time permits, working a bit on the house. Despite Jacques’ central status, there’s no hierarchy within the commune, nor is there any binding faith or vice defining them. At best, they exhibit a faint decadence in their epicurean life of wine and music. For the most part, we see them in the all-purpose workshop-turned-piano room, fine-tuning the instruments, practicing pieces and preparing for recitals. There’s a bit of talk about administration, maintenance and financial problems, but nothing that disrupts the character of the place. As the description above suggests, The House is very loosely organized to give a sense of an ambiance. Even though Arun divides the film into seasons of the year in what seems like a last-minute effort, this lack of a structuring element collapses the distance between the filmmaker—who is part of the commune and is pregnant during the making of the film—and her subject. The outcome is a sentimental work, no doubt successful in certain aspects, that asks us to accept it without furnishing a justification as to why we must.

Slits (Carlos Segundo)

Carlos Segundo’s explosive horror-sci-fi hybrid is a high-concept work that draws ideas from quantum mechanics to explore themes of loss, grief and memory. Catarina (Roberta Rangel) is a physicist studying the quantum properties of light. She’s European, but works as a visiting scientist in the city of Natal in Eastern Brazil. In her supplementary research, she makes ‘sound-photos’ to analyse the “displacement of light caused by sound of matter”. For that, she first captures wide shots of ordinary scenes in Natal—digital footage with direct sound. She then ‘dives’ into a particular point on the image—zoom-ins of several thousand orders that abstracts the image—and listens to the ‘noise’ emanating from it. These dives enable her, like the sound engineer of Blow Out, to see with her ears, enter another space-time and listen to stories from another place and period: a kind of synaesthesia that breaks down the barriers between light and sound, visible and invisible, past and present. Shot in crisp, high-definition digital video, Slits is a bracing meditation on the nature of the medium. It finds an expression in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of the contradictions inherent in the digital image: the tug of war between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise. Like the zoom of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, Catarina’s dives reveal stories to her, accounts that belie the banality of the image.

The same uncertainly becomes an expression of Catarina’s existence as well. Through the course of the film, we learn that Catarina has had a stable, privileged life with too many options and no crises whatsoever. She is apolitical, doesn’t know the troubled history of the region and doesn’t even participate in the university strike. Her only student, a fisherman, speaks of the need to initiate movements instead of expecting predictable results. Catarina has come to Natal, historically a region of passage, at a moment when natives are trying to leave the place. We also learn that she has become estranged from her husband in France following the loss of their baby daughter. In a sense, Catarina is fleeing Europe, her past and her reality for another dimension. Like the protagonist of The Invention of Morel, she finds refuge in a world of abstract images and sounds. And like Scotty of Vertigo (referenced here) and Laura of Don’t Look Now, she seeks to make sense of her tragedy through a process of reconstruction and interpretation. Her closest cinematic relative is, however, the gamer of Chris Marker’s Level Five, who too loses grip on the present in a quest to reconstruct the past. In the last shot of Marker’s film, the gamer zooms into a video image of herself to a point of obscurity, enacting the same instabilities besieging Catarina: observing reality from too close, she loses sight of it, just like how the extreme telephoto of the painted portrait at her home becomes one with the image of the sea. Catarina’s observations are coloured by her own subject position, and starting off from scientific premises, she ends up with results that can only be unscientific, unobservable and unrepeatable. As she tells her husband who urges her to move on from her mourning, time for some is chronological, for others its chronic.

Repulsion (1965)
Roman Polanski

“We must get this crack mended.


RepulsionRepulsion (1965), Roman Polanski’s second feature following Knife in the Water (1962) and the first one made in the UK is perhaps one of the few horror movies that have really aged well. The reason for that is probably because Polanski manages to avoid all the flashy temptations and pitfalls of the genre and the era and sticks to minimalism. Enchantingly shot in black and white, Repulsion presents to us the events that unfold in a span of two weeks in the life of Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a foreigner who lives in London in an apartment with her sister Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux) and works at a local beauty parlour as a manicurist. Carol is aloof from her colleagues and seems to be living in her own world. Hélène has a boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) who appears to be eyeing Carol too and whose presence seems to infuriate Carol for no apparent reason at first. Meanwhile, a young man called Colin (John Fraser) tries to win Carol over in vain. Soon, we witness Carol descending into some form of a trance and then into a (self) destructive mode as she shuns herself from everyone. With a storyline that can’t be, by any measure, called meaty, Polanski weaves magic as he performs a quantum leap with his innovation and resourcefulness in translating the text to the screen.

Repulsion fittingly begins with a zoom out of Carol’s eye and ends with a zoom into it, preparing us for the purely subjective tale that takes place between these two shots (and also paying homage to the surreal masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1929) which, too, slit the human eye to look beyond its retina). The movie is entirely seen through Carol’s eyes and faithful reproduction of reality is flushed down the drain. Anything is possible within these two goal posts. None of the events that we witness might have happened in reality, but they sure do in Carol’s mind. Her colleague even talks about the chicken scene in The Gold Rush (1925). Clearly, Repulsion stands as a direct manifestation of Polanski’s ideas about normalcy and abnormality. Right from the early short films, Polanski has always questioned the popular definitions of these two terms. With him, it isn’t easy to incriminate or vindicate any character for their acts. With him, one is never sure who is in the cage and who is out. One could say, in Repulsion, that the old lady next door was unethical when she listens to the conversation between Colin and Carol, but is it her mistake that the door is open to all? Same is the case with his very first film Toothy Smile (1957). In The Lamp (1959), we see broken toys separated from the new ones that are manufactured to perfection – perfection as defined by the society. In Repulsion, characters are presented to us as they appear to Carol. They conform to or deviate from what she sees as normal.

Repulsion also resonates with the most dominant Polanski theme of them all, which is that of violation of boundaries. Right from Toothy Smile, where a man stares at a naked woman through the open window that he notices by chance, the director has been preoccupied with characters who breach some form of limits that are imposed on them by the society. Although it is highly likely that this vision of Polanski, who had had to put up with a lot during his stay in communist Poland, was politically motivated it has trickled down into every kind of scenario, refining itself and exploring various manifestations of this notion of infringement of limits (Looking at the events that have transpired in Polanski’s life – the murder of Sharon Tate, his arrest in Switzerland recently and the weight of his celebrity status – one can only conclude that life has a morbid sense of humour). It is no mere coincidence that he chose the well known tale of Macbeth, where too the sacrosanct border between the ruler and the loyal warlord is breached with miserable consequences, to make a film. Be the violation interpersonal in nature, as in the case of voyeurism, break-ins and conquests, or individual, arriving in the form of agnosticism, impotence and alienation, it seems to be only detrimental to all its participants.

RepulsionMoreover, in this film, this motif of violation manifests itself in social, psychological, sexual and even religious terms. Carol is the symbol of complete purity in the film (Dressed in white, Deneuve is nothing short of a divine angel). She keeps warding off every kind of threat to that purity. A foreigner, now living in a completely alien city, she not only has to adapt to the new conventions, but also has to put up with every kind of oppression that the place may impose on her. There are enough indications in the film that Carol is homosexual (or, at least, unsure of her orientation). Now living in London, a city that must be far more conservative and, I daresay, homophobic than the place that she comes from, Carol is, clearly, far from freedom of choice (The anonymous phone call in which a female threatens Carol just goes to show how concrete this hostility is, as perceived by her, of course). It isn’t just sexual penetration that she is fighting against, but also those of conventions – political, social and religious– upheld strongly by the right wing. Carol is battling all the models presented by the society through its oppressive structures as the “right” way to live. But eventually, starting with the shaving knife – the first trace of a man in her apartment – that seems to have a disturbing presence, she is persuaded to give into all these forces.

Evidently, Polanski draws a lot of inspiration from Hitchcock, especially from Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960). Both Jeff (James Stewart) in Rear Window and Carol in Repulsion are alienated individuals living in an urban setting who look at their world through their skewed vision with a preconceived opinion about it. The only difference between them is that while Jeff becomes the aggressor, trying to find a deeper meaning to the world around him in order to add depth to his own life, Carol becomes the victim as she turns paranoid about her surroundings and pushes herself into a shell further away from the society. But the film is perhaps closest to Psycho, when it comes to genre elements, as it constructs a similar lonely, claustrophobic atmosphere where trespassers will be punished irrespective of their importance in the narrative thus far. My only gripe with Psycho is that it tries to explain Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) behaviour scientifically till the last detail. By attributing his behaviour to a psychological disorder, it isolates him as a stray case and hence fails to aim higher and explore why each one of us is a potential Norman Bates (Hitch corrects this slip stylishly in The Birds (1963)). However, Polanski, like Akerman did in her Jeanne Dielman (1976), which, also, dealt with an alienated woman taking to violence, carefully keeps all the ambiguity generated in the film intact, thus providing ample space for discussion and interpretation.

Given the subjective and mostly surreal nature of the movie and the advantages of the genre, there is a lot of scope to employ warranted symbolism in the film and Polanski does just that. Phallic and penetration symbols galore, Repulsion is a gold mine for any student of Freud (The postcard showing the Leaning Tower of Pisa from Carol’s sister is the closest the film gets to being humourous). During the course of the movie, Carol’s apartment becomes the embodiment of her psyche and her virginity. What was initially well lit, neatly arranged, spacious and unblemished becomes, by the end of the film, a ruptured, dark, ramshackle mess overcrowded with neighbours, much like Carol herself. But, like it was done in Psycho, these symbols never become necessary elements for the film to be successful. They merely impart an additional layer to the film without ever having to reveal their presence. The object that she slams Colin with may be the symbol of the very thing she is hostile to, but, first of all, it is a weapon. The cracks on the wall may signify the cracking of her own psyche and resistance, but, primarily, they are elements of horror. The head of the rabbit in her handbag may allude to something deeper, but, again, it is first a shock factor. Furthermore, the film itself, notably, remains faithful to its genre instead of digressing into needless discourses or trying to be too clever for itself. It is, in the first place, a solid horror film and, only secondarily, a film that is a satire against the mores of our society and the baseless tenets that it proposes to everybody.

More so than the masterful Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which, too, spoke in subjective terms and satirized religion within the framework of a conventional horror movie, Repulsion is Polanski’s version of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). When, in Antichrist, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) does the unthinkable after knocking Him (William Dafoe) out, what she is actually doing is the exact opposite of what religion has taught us through the years – to be fruitful and to multiply. So does Carol as she slays – the icon of reproduction – a rabbit, destroys all the phallic symbols in the movie and, essentially, combats the obligation placed on everyone by religion to get a family and reproduce. Only that Trier isn’t content with just employing symbols for this purpose! Early on, Michael, upon observing a catholic procession, jokes that the church perhaps has wild parties at night. Soon, this notion of religion and sex being the two sides of the same coin takes shape in the movie as the soundtrack consistently replaces sounds of sexual moaning with those of the church bells. For Carol, who has been so far standing in opposition to this unfair responsibility of perpetuating the human race, this hypocrisy of organized religion is too just much to take and she, sadly, succumbs to it.



Even technically, despite being the director’s second feature, Repulsion reveals itself as an auteur’s work. One has to just look at a few of those early short films to see the consistency of directorial choices that Polanski makes. The pan shots that stray from the central object of attention, the ground-level deep focus shots and the spectacular interplay of light and darkness confirm the signature of Polanski. Furthermore, Polanski uses the camera (maneuvered magically by Gilbert Taylor) to provide contextual meaning using the pans and the zooms. His camera often starts out at the sunlit window and gradually makes its way to the darker interiors where Carol is sitting as if penetrating the resistive apartment. But what is truly the high point of Repulsion is the way it prunes down details to the most basics leaving the rest to our imagination – the most important factor as far as this particular genre is concerned, for horror never concerns itself with what’s out there, but with the uncertainty about something being out there at all. There is rarely a B-movie moment in the film that goes for cheap shock. For almost the whole movie, Polanski’s camera lingers entirely on Deneuve’s face. Every other information that we require is provided by the meticulously assembled soundtrack that not just evokes the creeps that it should, but also provides meaning to the visuals that we see.

One just can’t abstain from mentioning the role of Catherine Deneuve in the movie for Repulsion flourishes upon her very presence. More than her performance, which is indeed pretty commendable, it is her very image that provides depth to the film’s text. With looks that could puncture any man’s heart, Deneuve as Carol is the angel herself. In Repulsion, Polanski lets his probing script collide with the cherubic image of Deneuve and comments on what mass hysteria could do to even a goddess. Polanski gives feline mannerisms to Carol (cats being the cleanest of all animals), who is seen fiddling with her nose and purging herself like a cat now and then. After watching Repulsion, the casting of Deneuve as a bored urban housewife who takes to casual prostitution in Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour (1967), another superb film that examined the consequences of sexual conformism and oppression albeit in a hilarious fashion, looks all the more virtuoso since it absorbs the image of Deneuve distorted and updated by Polanski’s film and further subverts it in ways that only a master could have thought of. Employing Deneuve, Polanski, like Buñuel, has successfully turned the Cinderella story inside out (Michael calls Carol “Cinderella” early in the film), with escapism giving way to confinement, hope giving way to despair and fantasy giving way to paranoia.