(Roman Polanski, 1965)
(essay by Robert)
Polanski used a minimalist approach to give us this shocking depiction the deteriorating mind. In doing so he delivered one of the finest examples of psychological horror of all time. Still today an intriguing and gripping film, Repulsion unapologetically explores the thin and fragile balance of sanity without accusing or presuming. The first of his “apartment trilogy”, Repulsion unfolds with the director’s distinctive subtlety and humanism.
Catherine Deneuve portrays the sexually fearful Carole. She is perfectly cast as the voluptuous but apprehensive manicurist. All around her in swinging London are the trappings of a sexually parochial society that is threatening and revolting to her. From the daily cat calls she endures and the lingering presence of her sister’s (married) boyfriend to the aggressive advances of her landlord and seeming shallowness of her own profession, she is cornered relentlessly. When she is pursued by Colin (John Fraser) she groups him with all of her pent up feelings and stereotypes. He essentially has no chance. Deneuve’s casual portrayal of such an agonized character is absolutely mesmerizing. Her violent and murderous charges overtake her calmly as her natural defense mechanism. These spurts seem to be her truest moments. What at first seems a quite and impenetrable shield turns out to actually be a front for completely terrifying anguish and instability.
Of course you cannot explore Repulsion without deep musing of the sexuality of Carole (and all the film’s characters). Polanski depicts Carole’s torment aggressively by showing us her dreams/hallucinations of sexual assault and allowing (forcing) us to hear her sister’s real life sexual encounters. He also takes full advantage of her physicality by not-so-subtly parading her in her divulging nightgown. These powerfully build Carole’s tension and defenselessness. The film though is about much more than sexual resistance and repression. Polanski uses this very sensual theme to explore his deeper subject of the inhibiting and anguishing command of human fear.
It cannot go unmentioned that, in addition to this compelling concept and fantastic delivery by Deneuve, the young director shows an inspiring level of depth by utilizing strikingly simple (but powerful) visual and audio. He maximizes the effectiveness of his black and white film buy shedding countless shadows and shooting close-up angles. He also somehow manages to transform everyday noises like dripping water, train tracks, ticking clocks and house flies into horror devices. Also, notice the awesome rapid-fire drumbeat that accompanies her slashing of her landlord.- this is an exceptional representation of her pounding mental torture.
The absence of plot though is Polanski’s most effective tool. It is also his most telling clue that he does not intend to place guilt or provide us with rational explanation to Carole’s plight. He casts us straight into the scenario without history and back-story. Although he refuses to let us off the hook by telling us too much, he does tease us with glimpses of a family photograph showing detached Carole as young child. This perhaps suggests some lifelong Freudian explanation to Carole’s ultimate undoing. He does not elaborate further. Instead he wonderfully challenges us with questions (not answers) about his characters and ourselves and leaves us to devise our own solutions. This photo often times (unfortunately) becomes the focal point for discussion of the film. It is often commented that the photo tells us all we need to know about Carole. I maintain the director was making a much deeper point about the fragility of the human mind- one that cannot be explained away so simply.
Repulsion, most simply put, is an exploration of madness. In his truest form, the director includes us in his study. Polanski most certainly wants us to taste the madness; to sympathize with Carole’s torment, but he is more interested in us recognizing our own. What makes the film so engaging and human is the undeniable sense that madness is not only a completely reasonable response but one that we all teeter-totter with.
(this film appeared on Roberts list at #4, Jamie’s at #19, and Troy’s at #22)