Repulsion, Roman Polanski’s first English-speaking film opens with an extreme closeup of Carol’s (Catherine Deneuve) eye and ends with a vintage family photo of Carol as a child. In the photograph, Carol is isolated from the rest of the family as Polanski’s camera slowly moves in on her same vacant looking 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 all edited to perfection. The film is 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 a fragile, emotional, and sexually repressed young woman suffering from mental illness. Old family photographs appear to only ask more questions than answers. 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 there’s Jake Gittes, (Jack Nicholson) the low-level P.I. in Chinatown.
Carol Ledoux fits right in with this group, a foreigner living in London with her older sister Helene (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol, a manicurist, is a loner, introverted, awkward with others, she would like to be more like her sister but cannot. Helene is outgoing and has a lover, Michael (Ian Hendry), a married man and someone Carol both desires and is repulsed by. Lying in bed, she listens to Helene and Michael making love in the room next door, Helene’s moans leading to a climax. The next day the lovers take off for a vacation in Italy leaving the unbalanced Carol alone with her out-of-control fantasies. She spends time in Helene’s room, trying on her sister’s makeup and wearing one of her dresses in attempts to be more like her.
Colin (John Fraser), a young suitor, has previously pursued Carol for a date with no success. He calls her up; she hangs up on him. He arrives at her apartment unexpectedly one day still trying to make a go of it. She refuses to let him in and he breaks in, apologizes for doing so 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.
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, surrealistic 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, at the time, 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 longtime co-writer Gerard Brach, Repulsion was released by Compton Films, a soft-core film company 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 (Deneuve’s sister Francoise Dorleac would star). 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 the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival and was a box office success in the United States beyond the art house circuit. Catherine Deneuve only twenty-one years old when making Repulsion 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.
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