Repulse (Hrana Zlomu) (2022)

Repulse had its North American première at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2022

Writer/director Emil Krizka’s feature debut Repulse (Hrana Zlomu) opens with DP Ryszard Perzynski’s handheld camera moving over the ground at dawn, passing first a discarded, dirty cloth sheep’s mask, then many sherds of broken glass and an axe – and ending on a messed-up old combi van. A cut reveals a male figure, seated in a room, with his back to the camera – and as he stands and, screaming, plunges his head towards the glass window in front of him, the screen goes blank and the title appears in mannered lettering also suggestive of shattering. 

All that glass, whether already broken or about to be, proves a key symbol in a film that is not just about damaged lives and fragile domestic situations, where characters gradually acquire external injuries and wounds as marks of their deeper trauma, but is also presented in a fractured narrative that begins at its end, thereafter repeatedly shuffles its timeframes, and demands that the viewer put its different pieces back together. Far more show than tell, it builds an atmosphere of grungy dread and doom with very little dialogue.

This is a tale of two families, starkly contrasted yet oddly complementary, as fate brings both into a violent collision that will spread damage – and the possibility of liberation for some – everywhere. Living in a filthy old house out in the country under the thumb of his dominant mother (Alena Sasínovâ-Polarczyk), clumsy, near mute Viktor (Stepán Kozub) is surrounded by animal masks, wire effigies and peculiar rituals, and seems almost as trapped in this toxic environment as the drugged, captive woman on the premises. Meanwhile in an impeccable modernist home back in the city, Katerina (Pavla Gajdosíková) lives in both fear and defiance of her controlling, clean-freak husband Robert (Petr Panzenberger) while their young daughter Sara blocks her ears to the ambient misery. The immaculate surfaces of Robert and Katerina’s apartment serve as an obvious counterpoint to the messy squalor of Viktor’s home and the rusty van parked outside. Yet both these residences are decorated with striking metal sculptures, both will soon be accommodating broken glass and bedbound patients – and both are houses of oppression and abuse.

We know from early on that there are – or were, or will be – dirty sheets, brutal abductions, improvised burials and traumatic accidents, but Krizka’s careful compartmentalisation of his different episodes, told not necessarily in the right order, keeps us, at least until the end, from fully knowing the whos and hows and whys, and so confounds our sympathies for characters who keep shifting in our partial perceptions from villain to victim and back again. And while, as its very title implies, Repulse revels in the repellent impact of both its physical grime and moral untidiness, it tends to keep its more abhorrent acts out of shot, even out of scene, leaving our minds to synthesise the implications and paint the ugly pictures – even as blocked ears, blinded eyes and limited points of view are overtly thematised. In the end, this is a tale of one long-suffering character who finds a way to break the cycle and leave awful circumstances behind, and another who remains caught, perhaps forever, in the Pavlovian conditioning of a vicious home life. 

A peculiar merger of Alfred Hitchcok’s Psycho (1960), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow (2019) and Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (2020), Repulse constructs fragmented dramas from domestic dysfunction, and makes the home an arena of suffocating discomfort, tension and entrapment, where matriarchy can prove no less punishing and pernicious than patriarchy.

Strap: Emil Krizka’s chronology-counfounding feature debut is a traumatic tale of two very different families united in deep dysfunction and damage

© Anton Bitel