Béla Tarr’s "Repulsion": Fragments of a Lost Remake

An audiovisual essay and accompanying text that discovers a Béla Tarr film inside one by Roman Polanski.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The fifth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.


Inside every narrative film is a non-narrative film struggling to get out. A film of details, of in-betweens, of atmospheres; of nothing-much-happening and everyday banality. A film of redundant repetition and obligatory scene-setting. A film where glances fall into the void rather than guiding a drama; where gestures and actions happen for their own sakes rather than for the symbolic or thematic meaning they project. A film where the background surges forward and becomes the foreground; where rooms and objects for once really do become (as that lousy reviewing cliché loves to say) ‘characters in their own right.’

A film without intrigue. Or, at any rate, only the most minimal filigree of intrigue, perhaps a single turning point or shock. In their great and too-little-known 1998 book To Dress a Nude: Exercises in Imagination, Yvette Bíró and Marie-Geneviève Ripeau pose to their scriptwriting students this challenge: invent the most boring story in the world, a tale in which absolutely nothing happens. The students quickly discover that the task is impossible: even (or especially) when a story is apparently leeched of all fiction, something incredibly exciting—it could be the smallest thing in the world—will seize and carry it off into a realm of suspense and drama.

This is the film that many people seek today. It is not unknown or inexistent; it even forms, by now, an abundant genre: slow cinema. It’s been going on for a long time, in one way or another, since Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman, since early Wim Wenders and Sohrab Shahid-Saless. By now, it already boasts its festivals and textbooks, its masters and lazybones, its sublime epiphanies and rank wastage. Béla Tarr, Lisandro Alonso, Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhang-ke, Lav Diaz…: we know the roll call. 

But let us leave aside, for a moment, this special realm of ‘world cinema’ (as it is called) and return to the cinema of the world: that great mass of films we would never immediately classify as slow cinema. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), for example: a strongly narrative, wholly psychological/subjective movie, virtuosically controlled down to the last frame. 

Audiovisual essays allow us to form in practice what is called, in many fields, a thought experiment. It’s speculative criticism: let’s project one film into another, through another. Very different films, from very different times and places, with such apparently different goals. Could we discern, through this experiment, something that unites them: something that inhabits them both, informs them both, and undoes them both? Something deeply rooted in cinema, as a bedrock, before specific genres, markets, and modes of production intervene, channelling the possibilities? 

So: re-imagine Repulsion as a Béla Tarr film. There is some very basic and broad, common ground to begin with: Eastern European sensibility; black and white cinematography; a propensity for interiors—usually set in stark opposition to the world beyond the window. See if you can find in Polanski’s movie the dank spaces and the dead moments, the images of food-as-object, the cycle of everyday activities, the endless, implacable passages of walking—all those signatures we associate with Tarr. Arrange it into days, like The Turin Horse (2011). And eliminate most of the intrigue—in the spirit of the Bíró/Ripeau exercise—while isolating perhaps one thread or incident in the original that can be refashioned into a disquieting, Tarr-like apocalypse of the everyday. 

And, now more directly in relation to Polanski’s own work: try to strip out, as much as possible, the fiction, the psychology, the Cocteau-esque apparitions, the aggressively dramatic jazz music score, the suspenseful arc. Take out the beauty parlour scenes and virtually every other character besides Carol (Catherine Deneuve). But add nothing: use as much of the original image/sound relations as will work for the experiment. Listen anew to the film’s remarkably subtle sound design of drips and clicks and footsteps; look at its language of bodily gesture before the heroine’s psychosis is writ large as grotesque expressionism. 

A surprisingly large percentage of Repulsion can be harvested for this purpose; when reassembled in this fashion, we can intuit the profound kinship, across a decade of cinema, between Deneuve as Carol and Delphine Seyrig as Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. 

Polanski’s cinema turns out to be a particularly fruitful site to explore the tension between narrative and non-narrative that is inherent to so many (most?) films. He himself candidly boasted (in Joseph Gelmis’s legendary interview book The Film Director as Superstar) that his work in the mid 1960s was “well in advance of anything that has been done in the semantics of cinema”; and that, in ideal conditions, he wrote (with his collaborator Gérard Brach) “without any story,” purely with an aim to collate “what I like to see in cinema.” 

By the occasion of The Tenant (1976) in Polanski’s filmography, Jonathan Rosenbaum (his Sight and Sound review reprinted here) was perturbed to find two “dissociated sections” in it, the first a veritable ‘open text’ devoted to “certain formal interests,” and the second eliminating ambiguity and subtlety in favour of “the more ‘saleable’ sides of his artistic persona.” Rosenbaum noted ruefully, in this context, that “formalism in mainstream cinema” has to “sneak in under another label, usually stylistic or thematic.” And it has ever been thus in Polanski’s long career.

Repulsion is not the sort of movie that Béla Tarr would choose to remake. (We are not aware if he has even seen it.) But it can shake up our general sense of what is expected and appropriate in the world of cinema – assumptions that are always repressive of deep, virtual, possible connections, as Jacques Rancière’s musings on the ‘intervals of cinema’ constantly remind us—to imagine a ‘lost’ version of Polanski’s film by Tarr, a reworking of horror-suspense genre elements into an everyday-apocalypse frame. A formalist ruin accessible only in a few scattered but reconstitutable fragments.

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