Repulsion (1965) Roman Polanski

Repulsion image

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 Tenant completing the threesome.  In all three films Polanski conveys a disturbing unreceptive view of life in city dwellings.

RepulsionCarol 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 leave us asking 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 Tenant 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.

repulsion devCarol 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 found 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 deteriorates 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.

repulsion3Carol 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 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.

Repulsion2Polanski 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 Tenant, 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.

Repulsion4Written 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 with 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. He probably was influenced somewhat by Psycho which was released only a few years earlier. 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.” She had 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.

This review is my second contribution to the  TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon.


18 comments on “Repulsion (1965) Roman Polanski

  1. KimWilson says:

    Repulsion should be shown to anyone interested in making a psychological horror film. There are definite Hitchcockian elements in it. Nice post.


  2. Great review of REPULSION, John! It’s both chilling and horribly sad, in that nobody seems to notice how truly unhinged protagonist Carol she is until it’s too late for her and so many others. Everyone in Carol’s world are too busy with their own lives to notice the red flags flying madly; I especially felt bad for that nice young fella in love with her. (But that sleazy landlord had it coming! :-)) Catherine Denueve is both terrifying and heartbreaking, especially in the scene where Denueve imagines that hands are reaching out to get her. The closeup of the photo of young Carol always unnerves me, too. This could’ve given Hitchcock himself the shivers!


  3. lassothemovies says:

    There are so few films that can be this entrancing and also so unnerving. Polanski is talented beyond words, and each of his films finds a way to make me uncomfortable. Thanks for the great post John.


    • John Greco says:

      Paul, – Polanski has been a favorite filmmaker of mine since I caught this film at a theater in NYC back in the mid-60’s. I’m sure I did not understand all that was going on at time but the quiet intensity just gripped me. Thanks for the kind words.


  4. The Lady Eve says:

    John, Thanks for another insightful review. I watched Repulsion this morning for the first time in years. So brilliant, so fascinating, so disturbing. Like all of Polanski’s best. Catherine Deneuve is perfectly cast. And what an opportunity for her to stretch as an actress. Such a departure from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

    I saw Rosemary’s Baby before I saw Repulsion and thought Polanski might be the second coming of Hitchcock based on that film. I recall reading in a book on Polanski – maybe his own autobio – that he watched Psycho several times during its run at a local cinema (not sure what country he was in at the time). Would love to know Hitchcock’s take on Polanski – he was around long enough to have seen some of his best.


    • John Greco says:

      Eve, – Deneuve is wonderful in the role and she was so young at the time. Fabulous performance. This film is absolutely one of my favorites of all time ever since I first saw it way back when. have watched it multiple times since. Thanks as always!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, John!
    As I was reading your review I kept thinking about Hitch so when you brought up that Roman could have been influenced by the recent film, Psycho I started wondering if Polanski was a big Hitch fan, took a lot of inspiration from his work. Granted, I don’t know a lot about Polanski and what or who influenced him but I can see Hitch on the list.

    Polanski goes to darker places than Hitch but I can really see Hitch doing the same if he had not felt restrained by the early studio system.

    Like Hitch, Polanski certainly did like his blonde muse that he seemed to enjoy watching get tortured, terrorized on screen.

    Another stellar review on an intriguing film.

    See ya soon!


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Page! I’m sure if Hitchcock did not have his hands tied by the production code, some of his films would have been darker. I think you see this in a film like FRENZY.

      Polanski we definitely influenced by Hitch. Some of his early shorts show touches of Hitchcock macabre style humor. One biography on Polanski notes that while in France, before he made REPULSION, he found a cinema that was showing PSYCHO and watched it multiple times.


  6. classicfilmtvcafe says:

    John, thanks for another very insightful review. I’ve never thought of REPULSION as Hitchcockian; as you pointed out, it “fits in” with other Polanski films, both visually and thematically. It’s wholly Polanskian! I think the casting was a stroke of genius, because initially–in spite all the obvious clues–it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything wrong with the stunning Catherine Deneuve. So when she kills, it becomes all the more shocking. Polanski’s visual depiction of her deteriorating mind is something not easily forgotten.


    • John Greco says:

      The film is definitely Polanksian but there are touches of AH such as the drab apartment with Denevue commits her murders. In both films, the bathroom plays a significant part. And of course, Deneuve would have been perfect as an ice-cold Hitchcock blonde. thanks Rick!


  7. Jill says:


    Can I make a confession?

    I have never seen Repulsion. So ashamed…

    The film sounds equally fascinating and terrifying. And you had me at “Hitchcockian!”

    Great piece. Thanks again.


  8. Sam Juliano says:

    “Polanski presents a nightmarish, hallucinogenic world full of dark expressionistic shadows with extreme close ups and wide angles edited to perfection.”

    Indeed John, and a fabulous review of one of Polanski’s most rightly celebrated works. Your succinct and arresting detailed visualizations makes a great case for a re-visit, perhaps at Halloween or even before.


  9. John Greco says:

    Thanks Sam, always a pleasure to have your thoughts here and yes this would make a good Halloween treat.


  10. vinnieh says:

    Great review, psychological horror at its best. Deneuve is so haunting in this.


  11. […] John from Twenty Four Frames returns with a fantastic piece on Polanski’s Repulsion […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s