A Bell Jar Etude

A Bell Jar Etude (photo)

Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" and Kevin Rafferty's doc "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" are new to DVD.

Famously a mere low-budget Brit horror movie produced by a softcore outfit and directed by a young Roman Polanski with only one feature under his belt, after he’d emigrated from Communist Poland, “Repulsion” (1965) is also the first truly Freudian movie. That is, not a movie that merely employs Freudian psychology to tell its story (that began, more or less, with Pabst’s “Secrets of a Soul,” from 1926), but a movie that harbors a silent Freudian reptile brain and insists that we search for answers to the heroine’s irrational mysteries, without narrative assistance, acting like analysts ourselves in the dark.

This idea, I’ve always thought, was manifested best a year later, in Bergman’s “Persona” (1966), the Gordian knot of which positions the audience as the unspeaking therapist to Bergman’s spewing neurotic, just as Liv Ullmann’s mute patient becomes the confessor to Bibi Andersson’s logorrheic nurse. But Polanski’s film isn’t nearly as meta; its diegetic hothouse has four very distinct walls, which sometimes turn to clay and emit grabbing hands, but which are nevertheless solid and unreflexive. There’s something to this setup that suggests a distinct microgenre: the bell jar etude, in which one or perhaps two characters dissolve psychologically in a closed space, summoning the memory of “Psycho” and of John Parker’s “Daughter of Horror” (1955), other breakdown movies sustained by exegesis (in the latter, by Ed McMahon’s ranting narration). Polanski does it his way — nobody explains a thing, and watching the chips fall is “Repulsion”‘s only mode of discourse.

Catherine Deneuve, a spacious London flat, a skinned rabbit that never gets cooked, a few unlucky male visitors, a family photograph, passing days — that’s about it. Of course, “Repulsion” isn’t difficult to figure out, at least to the degree of a rash DSM IV diagnosis by the end credits. The title says it all — left alone for a fortnight by her room-sharing sister, Deneuve’s French manicurist is catastrophically mousey and hesitant around men, while being unbelievably hot, and it doesn’t take us long, in the film’s roll-out banquet of clues, surreal non sequiturs, hallucinations, reaction shots and symbolisms, to assess her as being damaged sexually, and in ways that only fester with time. The famous last image, placed beside the sled shot in “Citizen Kane” as the “explanation” for the entire questioning mess that preceded it, isn’t definitive, but it is, telling us something we already know (because we’ve seen other movies and read newspapers), but doing it nonetheless with an image that’s as improbable (would you keep this family snapshot in a frame?) as it is haunting.

07262009_Repulsion2.jpgStill, Deneuve’s reactions — be they flight or fight — are never quite predictable (as they shouldn’t be, if she’s disturbed), and the inquisitional action the film forces us to perform, as we quickly become hyperaware of the possible secondary meaning of everything, was a new kind of storytelling in 1965. At the same time, Polanski’s movie is an eye magnet, crafted as an impeccable Petit Guignol spectacle in deep black and white, with all of the nascent master’s deft neo-Hitchcockian attitude. Watch how the apartment’s rooms and hallways slowly grow enormous (William Friedkin went to school on this movie before “The Exorcist”), how the heroine’s experience of time gets utterly lost between fishing out a shoe from under the bureau and checking on a running bathtub (a whole day could’ve passed), how imaginary rapists appear in places we weren’t looking, and so on. Though never quite profound narratively, it remains a fascinating ordeal by cinema, sometimes dangerous but always seductive in a rubbernecking manner that’s quintessentially cinematic.

Another kind of clinical tale-spinning, Kevin Rafferty’s “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29″ recounts a football game, a game that shouldn’t have happened the way it happened when it happened, and yet is still just a game. The doc’s saving grace is the absence of sports movie homilies — the notorious 1968 face-off between the two Ivy League teams doesn’t “mean” anything to anyone, or serve as an inspirational template for self-actualization or salvation or any of that bastard nonsense. Given that, I’ll leave the actual arc of the game to a spoiler safety zone, but it is a ridiculous and extraordinary story, told exclusively by the men who played it. (They include Tommy Lee Jones and Brian Dowling, Yale’s star quarterback and the model for “Doonesbury”‘s B.D., but do not include Garry Trudeau, Meryl Streep, Al Gore and George W. Bush, who were all football team cohorts in various ways, but none of whom actually played.)

The leathery cast of narrators are themselves a fascinating bunch, all of them gregarious and dazzled by memory, except for one lineman, Mike Bouscaren, who not only comes off as a lizard-eyed heel, but who’s demonstrated to be an outright liar by Rafferty’s careful use of archival footage. All in all, this may be the best way to watch a football game: edited into up and down moments, narrated by the participants who have gone on with their lives, referencing the social history of the moment (Vietnam was the game’s larger context), but always coming back, lightly, to the fact of the play and the crazy luck at work and the athletic glory moments that peak and then vanish forever. I’m not a football fan, and Rafferty’s movie was a hypnotic pleasure.

“Repulsion” (Criterion Collection) and “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29″ (Kino on Video) are now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

[Additional photo: Yale quarterback Brian Dowling in "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," Kino, 2008]

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