Roman Polanski’s first English speaking film opens with an extreme close up of Carol’s (Catherine Deneuve) eye and ends with a vintage family photo of Carol as a child isolated from the rest of the family as the camera moves in on her same eye. An absolute masterpiece of psychological horror, “Repulsion” ushered in, along with Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Powell’s “Peeping Tom” the modern day horror film. Polanski presents a nightmarish, hallucinogenic world full of dark expressionistic shadows with extreme close ups and wide angles edited to perfection. The first in an unofficial trilogy of “apartment films” with “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tennant” completing the threesome. In all three films Polanski conveys a disturbing unreceptive view of life in city dwellings.
Carol is emotionally and sexually repressed, Polanski never explaining what is causing her illness. Maybe he is telling us there are no answers, just old family photographs that seem to only ask more questions. Many of Polanski’s characters are placed in positions of being outsiders. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is from the Midwest, now living on the upper east side of Manhattan in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) in “The Tennant” is Polish living in France, Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) in “Frantic” is an American in France who seems to be the only one interested in finding his missing wife and of course Jake Gittes, (Jack Nicholson) the low level P.I. in “Chinatown.”
Carol fits right in with this group, a foreigner living in London with her older sister Helene (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol is a loner, introverted, awkward with others, she would like to be more like her sister but cannot. Helene is outgoing and already has herself a lover, Michael (Ian Hendry), a married man and someone Carol both desires and is disgusted by. Lying in bed, she listens to her sister and Michael making love in the room next door; even hearing Helene’s moans from her climax. The satisfied couple soon takes off for a lover’s vacation in Italy leaving the unbalanced Carol alone with her out of control fantasies. She spends time in Helene’s room, trying on her makeup and wearing one of her dresses in attempts to be more like her. Colin (John Fraser), a young suitor, who previously pursued Carol for a date, arrives at her apartment to see if they still can make a go of it, only to end up beaten to death with a candelabra and dumped into a bathtub full of water for his efforts. Isolated, reality and hallucinations merge together, Carol’s condition deteriorating into an absurd image of a little girl playing a strange game of house. Delusional images infest her mind; a man’s reflection in a mirror, rape, cracks appearing in the apartment walls, hands reaching out fondling her.
Carol kills a second time when the landlord comes looking for his rent money. Turned on by Carol’s passive semi undressed childlike state, he offers her a proposition; sex in place of paying the rent. Not taking no for an answer the landlord attacks her. Carol gets hold of a straight razor and cuts him on the back of his neck, then proceeds to slash him to death. When Helene and Michael return from their Italy vacation, they find the two dead bodies in the bathtub and Carol under Helene’s bed in a catatonic state. Neighbors gather around gawking, doing nothing to assist as Michael lifts Carol up and carries her out to an ambulance.
Polanski creates a chilling, dreary atmosphere throughout the film. Helene and Carol’s apartment, where most of the film takes place, is small, rundown, depressing and tensely claustrophobic, the last a mood Polanski has used effectively in much of his work (Knife in the Water, Cul-de-Sac, The Tennant, Death and the Maiden). Additionally, his use of sound contributes hugely to the mood, from the pounding opening credits to the imaginary rape scenes where only the lone ticking of a clock is heard. The dialogue is minimal, leaving long periods of only the empty natural sounds of the apartment. Perhaps the lack of dialogue may be partially contributed to Polanski still being new to the English language, and possibly even accounts for his protagonist being Belgium. Whatever the reason, it worked to the film’s benefit.
Written by Polanski and long time co-writer Gerard Brach, “Repulsion” was released by a soft-core film company named Compton Films that was looking to get out of the sleaze business and in the market for a film that would combine sex and art. According to Virginia Wright Wexman in her book, “Roman Polanski,” Polanski saw the film as a potboiler that would make financing available for his next film, “Cul-de-Sac.” Upon its release in 1965, many critics hailed “Repulsion” as a masterpiece, Polanski even being hailed as the second coming of Hitchcock. The film won top prize at the Berlin Film Festival and was a box office success in the United States beyond the art house circuit. Catherine Deneuve was only twenty-one years old when making “Repulsion” having already appeared in thirteen movies, including the first of her many iconic films, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” The music is by jazz great Chico Hamilton, one of his few film composing credits.