Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Catherine Deneuve (Carol), Ian Hendry (Michael), John Fraser (Colin), Yvonne Furneaux (Helen), Patrick Wymark (Landlord)
Genre: Thriller / Horror
With its initial credits drifting over the surface of Catherine Deneuve’s wide unblinking eye, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion proclaims its intention as a horror film exploring an interior world, the world behind the iris of its fragile protagonist. When the camera eventually pulls out from this extreme close-up to present us her entire face, we’re already confused as to whether she is staring intently at something… or vacantly at nothing at all, a lost soul disconnected from reality.
Deneuve plays Carol, a beautician living in London with her sister Helen. You might usually use a phrase like ‘wallflower’ to lazily describe her temperament, but it’s clear from the off that there’s more to Carol’s fragile detachment than being merely introverted or shy. Even in the earliest scenes she appears scatterbrained, addled, preoccupied by a particularly cold turmoil; something that’s been allowed to settle. And rot.
Deneuve’s icy beauty is an inherently captivating vessel for such insular preoccupation, but as such a film requires, the performance is far more than skin deep. Deneuve feels taken over by Carol through and through, from the opening scene onward. Her descent into paranoia, madness and homicidal fear is as magnificent as it is terrifying. She appears as consumed by Carol as Carol is by her own demons, her preoccupation with cracks in the walls of her sister’s apartment reflective of her own dismantling health. Polanski’s horror is a character piece. Sometimes the greatest fear is yourself.
I had the great fortune of seeing Repulsion for the first time in the cinema, where Polanski’s stark black and white canvas was able to wreak its full effect. This is a strikingly beautiful film to look at, for all its claustrophobic menace. With her sister away, Carol walls herself in from the world outside, a world she perceives as sordid and sinister. The confined setting echoes the internal traps Carol has sprung for herself – occasional visits to the beauty saloon offer precious little respite, and these diversions become less and less frequent as the film ruthlessly narrows it’s gaze.
Small busy rooms and tight corridors evoke a panicked, cramped world. The aesthetic has proven influential in horror many times since, though the black and white most immediately connects – for me – to David Lynch’s Eraserhead a decade later; another film about an individual lost in a rise of apartments, quietly submitting to troubled thoughts in a perceptively threatening world.
There’re a cocktail of troubles at the heart of Carol; what initially appears to be prudishness develops into a pronounced fear of anything remotely sexual, suggesting some past trauma. That Polanski never defines the exact source of this anxiety is one of the triumphs here, allowing us to focus on effect rather than get sidetracked with cause. Which is not to say that cause isn’t significant, but that this is an examination of behaviour, not personal history – the horror comes from acknowledging that sometimes we all feel fragile; what if this could happen to us…?
There are further concerns here to do with gender roles and attitudes that Polanski seems keen to discuss. When a good-looking young man named Colin shows interest in her, Carol perceives his intentions as wolf-like. As we see the world through Carol’s eyes it is a warped perspective but a telling one. There’s a callousness to Colin’s motives, as though Carol’s physical beauty gives him an invasive level of entitlement. When he attempts to kiss her in the car, she blindly dodges, stepping out into the street without pause for concern that she might be run over. She perceives Colin as a genuine threat to her – once she has left the scene, we see Colin in a slightly different light. He is offered to us without Carol’s skewed perception; he looks harmless, perplexed.
The argument may be presented through the looking-glass of a fun house mirror, but Repulsion strongly infers how male attitudes of ownership over women can be wholly destructive and damaging, that a society where one gender dominates over the other cannot be harmonious. Carol perceives an intruder in the apartment as a sexual threat, is unsettled by the catcalls of builders, and masculine aggression is underlined by her sister’s heel of a boyfriend and their sleazy landlord. Repulsion could, quite conceivably have had a more pointed title; Repression.
Yet it’s also important to remember that Carol does little to remedy her situation. She is aware of her own illness throughout the film, but surrenders to it. There is precious little empowerment to her. This may stem from her lack of self-confidence. As her sense of being besieged by outside forces heightens, she only shrinks inside herself – potentially the most dangerous place of refuge. She frequently appears childlike; simply ill-equipped for the challenging adult world, either emotionally or practically. Panicked violence becomes her zero-sum escape route when threats overwhelm her.
Politics are a definite shade of Repulsion but this is a character piece first and foremost; Carol is not intended to represent all women. Her sister and work colleagues are far more stable presences. But they remain peripheral. This is Polanski burrowing into an individual, going behind the eyes… the individual in question just happens to be riddled with torment.
The craft here is impeccable. Nuanced and insidiously invasive in its construction, this is, for my money, a far better film than Polanski’s celebrated Rosemary’s Baby, and one of the great horrors of it’s era. If anything Repulsion feels ahead of its time, sharing connective tissue with, in particular, Aronofsky’s features Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan. An influence on both (especially the latter), it’s the unblinking gaze that makes Repulsion feel so powerful – not just Carol’s but Polanski’s. In this way the film seems, ironically, fearless. As though Polanski is treading where his contemporaries dared not to.
It is a film of striking visuals; those hands coming through the walls (repeated in the likes of Day Of The Dead, but never bettered), the recurring cracked imagery (which begins with the facepack on the customer in the opening scene) but first and foremost Deneuve’s haunted face. An incredible performance in an unforgettable film.