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Roman Polanski could have had a career making good, if not great, little horror movies, had he chosen to do so. But he has consistently allowed his pretentiousness to override the capabilities of his midsize talent, an especially dangerous slip since his interests are so—how shall we say?—highly colored. Fascinated as he is by erotic folly (Bitter Moon), masturbatory urban alienation (The Tenant), and sexual hysteria (Repulsion), he can only emerge from such projects having made a kinky peep show, overripe slasher flick, and laughably sober study in unconvincing psychology, respectively. (Only Chinatown stuck to its genre, for the most part, and succeeded—for the most part.) I know he’s made other movies; please don’t make me see them—one William Friedkin in the Northern Hemisphere is enough.

In 1965, when the The Sound of Music was breaking records, Repulsion must have looked smart and uncompromising. But its portrait of a woman bedeviled by murderous sexual neurosis is an uneasy mix of clinical exaggeration—surely the deteriorating female doesn’t indulge in every ticky, cringing, sex-fear quirk in the book—and artistic grand guignol.

Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a young Belgian manicurist who lives with her glamorous older sister in London. When the sister holidays with her boyfriend, Carol goes well and truly mad, alone in the dark, cluttered apartment; plunged into a zombielike state that abates only for episodes of violent sexual fantasy, she moons about in a transparent negligee, surrounds herself with rotting food, and destroys all interested visitors.

Deneuve has an impenetrable beauty that is at its best advantage when she’s playing opaque serenity or, as in the early scenes of Repulsion, a thicket of mental unknowables. (How Buñuel got a real performance out of her in Belle de Jour is one of the great mysteries of film.) But she just makes Carol’s breakdown look silly, because hers isn’t a face that comes alive in fear; fear shuts her down. Her dialogue (when Carol speaks at all) could have been written by someone sending up Deneuve’s chilly career: “I don’t feel…I mean, I don’t know. It’s too late,” etc.

Repulsion’s content has aged badly, but Polanski’s style is still very strong and effective, even if it carries the old-cheese whiff of ’60s European art cinema, a style that has aged with less grace and maintained less relevance than silent film. He revels in fraught still lifes—the messy post-breakfast table with its taint of oral pollution, the imperturbable façade of the convent (!) across the way from the girls’ apartment, a mantelpiece eerily charged by the absence of decorative personal objects. Often Carol is moving toward these places, and we seem to “reach” them first and watch them wait for her.

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Polanski’s talent for the creepy comes partly from his own ability to create a spiky, menacing atmosphere; the rest is pinched from older, better auteurs. His artsy explorations of fashionable themes of modern neuroses are somehow weighty without being ponderous. But for all of Repulsion’s taut passages, it doesn’t do the psychological work it sets out to; it doesn’t get inside you the way something so charged and lurid should. A nice, ambiguous horror story based more on human fears than on clinicians’ diagnoses of human fears would have done a better job—something Polanski should have figured out after watching all those Jacques Tourneur movies.

Ten minutes into Gattaca, the movie stops midscene, shakes its figurative head, and remembers to fill you in on how we got even this far. The next 20 minutes are devoted to the main character’s back story, as you hear how Vincent (Ethan Hawke), an “In-Valid” in the strictly genetically regimented society of the “not too distant future,” managed to wangle a job at Gattaca, a big, scary lab where the elite are supposedly prepared for careers in outer space, although they are only seen sitting rigidly before computers or hitting the treadmill. This space wheeze, by the way, is a growth industry, to say the least; about a dozen shuttles go up a day—the galaxy must look like the 14th Street Bridge at 5:30 on a Friday.

This clumsy device is made worse by the droning narration that explains what we can easily understand by watching—the same droning narration that is with us from the beginning. Since Gattaca’s plot is the same as its point, the flashback succeeds in doing little more than screaming the ending. (It also functions as mass-aversion therapy to the sound of Hawke’s voice, but that’s probably not intentional.) The script posits that America will take genetic tinkering to its logical extreme and start building babies to order. When there is no longer any excuse to have an icky, random child, those who do (or are) will be severely punished. And since it’s the future and we must have a “vision,” Gattaca chooses one of the most popular models: mechanized, unrelievedly conformist, ultrasanitized. Always a wise choice, since it films so well. So does post-apocalyptic, dystopic neo-Goth, but I digress.

Vincent, a womb-child, born of his parents’ love, will triumph over all this clean living and misguided eugenics because the parts of him left untouched by science are stronger and wiser than the parts science could have fixed: his tricky heart, his propensity to manic-depression, the knots in his prognathic jaw (or maybe that’s Hawke acting).

Haunted by the specter of his odious but custom-built younger brother, Vincent contacts a gene broker and hooks up with Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a bitter ex-swimmer with stellar DNA. Unable to take advantage of his fine coding since losing the use of both legs, Jerome (middle name “Eugene”) sells Vincent his genetic material—urine and blood samples, skin cells, shed hair; there’s lots of unhygienic effluvium leaking out the edges of this film.

Having climbed the Gattaca ladder using his own gumption and Jerome’s fluids, Vincent is slated to go on a yearlong mission to Titan—a nice reference and smarter than anything else here. But when the project director is murdered, looky-loo Vincent leaves one of his own eyelashes at the scene, and the hunt for a sneaky In-Valid is on. His situation isn’t aided much by the fact that he falls in love with a colleague, Irene (Uma Thurman).

Gattaca has a pleasantly humanistic message—much better than Contact’s—but hardly one we need a whole movie about, even if it were a surprise. This movie, at least, doesn’t seem too fascinated by its possibilities. Gattaca, the place, is never properly explained; the properties of this future aren’t laid out: Where do people shop? Is anyone poor? Why is everyone white? Doesn’t anyone want female babies, or is Uma Thurman supposed to be woman enough for the whole country? And if Vincent has such inferior genetic material, how come his chiseled face and perfect hair tower above those of his lumpish love-child compatriots?

Gattaca is not too fancily dressed to mask its awkward shape; by the time you start wondering what the hell happened to the brother, they tell you, and it’s so foolish and obvious that, for once in this maddeningly incomplete but slickly packaged movie, you really would have been better off not knowing.CP