FILM REVIEW: Repulsion (1965)

Repulsion (UK, 1965)
Directed by Roman Polanski

Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Ferneaux

Whatever else may be true about Roman Polanski, there can be no denying that he makes a damn good thriller. With Repulsion, his first English-language feature, he established many of the techniques and motifs which came to define his career, particularly his unique ability to unnerve an audience while flattering their intelligence. More than 45 years later, it remains one of the most unsettling films of the 1960s, and one of Polanski's best early works.Repulsion is the first instalment of what would become Polanski's 'Apartment Trilogy', the others being Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant. On top of their common setting, all three films are built around the idea of architecture being able to express, harbour or reflect a given horror. Repulsion is the most straightforward of the trilogy in this respect, insofar as the architecture of the apartment changes and decays along with the mental state of our heroine: plaster cracks and falls off the wall, and the skinned rabbit lies slowly rotting in the living room.Repulsion owes a big debt to two previous entries in the canon of psychological thrillers. Like Black Narcissus, it deals openly with the issue of sexual repression, and how the introduction of overtly sexual, male forces into a pure and female environment can lead to some form of madness. Carol Ledoux is like a warring hybrid of Sisters Clodagh and Ruth: on the surface she is like the former, pure and disinterested, but her vivid fantasies or nightmares hint towards deeper, murkier desires or fears. And like Psycho, the main character with whom the audience identifies happens to be insane - although quite how insane is left for us to judge.Like Alfred Hitchcock, Polanski is not content for us to sit back and discuss Carol's madness as if it were entirely academic. Instead he put us through the mill constantly throughout, pulling us headlong further and further into her madness so that by the end we feel like we are lucky to be alive. But unlike a lot of Hitchcock's work, there is no moment of relief, no tidy pay-off that makes us "come out giggling". By the end of Repulsion you feel like you have lived in that apartment and experienced everything that Carol has, and your only response is to sit, near-catatonic with fear, and marvel at what has been created.The film is anchored by the terrific central performance of Catherine Deneuve, who was only 22 when filming began. Deneuve has the most amazing eyes, which convey the slightest shifts in her mental state. Her right eye follows the opening credits as they dart across the screen in close-up, and there is a recurring shot of one eye hidden in darkness, showing what horror lies beneath such glacial beauty. Deneuve manages to portray a character who is aloof, aimless and very shy while making her constantly intriguing. The men who fall for her may be initially attracted to her physically, but their continued interaction is (seemingly) motivated by an equal desire to understand and study her.Repulsion is primarily an examination of androphobia, or the fear of men. The cause of Carol's affliction is never entirely established; although the photographs imply she was molested as a child, it is not clear whether the man in the photograph is her father, her uncle or a total stranger. The film raises the question of the motivation behind Carol's exact responses to men, particularly in the case of the murders. Were they simply extreme reactions, the end result of concentrated exposure to her fear? Or is there a more aggressive element of Carol which wants vengeance, and therefore actively pursued these killings?In the end, however, the exact reason for Carol's mental state is rather secondary. The film is less about the 'twist' contained in the final photograph than about convincingly depicting an individual's descent into madness and paranoia. Polanski succeeds in this by surreally physicalizing the fears of our protagonist, projecting her fears onto her surroundings so that the apartment becomes Carol's own private haunted house.Repulsion is filled with nightmarish imagery which even out of context has the ability to send shivers down one's spine. Certain moments are played initially for shock value - for instance, the man first appearing in the mirror or the hands bursting through the wall to grope her. But these are accompanied by more subtle touches in the cinematography which point to the film's Freudian undercurrents. The central corridor of the apartment is permanently in shadow, and every time she enters it she is immediately confronted by her fear - whether it's the hands coming out of the walls or finding Ian Hendry shaving in the bathroom.

But what makes such imagery truly disturbing, rather than simply creepy, is the ambiguous response of the central character. Deneuve never shrieks or screams, maintaining some form of dignified façade even as she grows more and more deranged. When she first imagines a man breaking into the flat and forcing himself on her, she is naturally repulsed by it. But the more it happens, the more we entertain the possibility that it is less of a nightmare than a dark fantasy - that in the midst of being terrified she accepts it - or perhaps, in a warped way, she enjoys it.Because the central character is so conflicted, she gradually ceases to be a reliable narrator. But by the time that has happened, we have grown to trust and empathise with her so much that there can be no escape. The level of claustrophobia Polanski creates is astonishing, and the incidental score by jazz drummer Chico Hamilton keeps things at fever pitch. Occasionally the score drifts a little too close to the work of Bernard Hermann with the constant cymbals resounding, but considering the film's relationship with Psycho such indulgences are kind of appropriate.

This marriage of character conflict and intense music to create unbearable claustrophobia is brilliantly demonstrated in the murder of John Fraser's character. The scene begins with no score and the camera on Deneuve's face as she bashes Fraser's head in, out of shot, with a candlestick. We are not seeing the actual perspective of the killer, but we are seeing her mind-set, which seems calm and considered. Then, after he is dead, the reality of what she has done hits her and the score kicks in to complete the effect. We are still looking at her rather than through her, but we still feel what she feels - and that is really smart filmmaking.Repulsion could also be construed as the forerunner of Hard Candy and Teeth in its treatment of men as sexual predators. Its male characters are all defined by a desire for satisfaction in the hands of the opposite sex - whether out of love, in the case of John Fraser, or something more cold-hearted as practised by the young men in the bar. The film is a cautionary tale, advising men to think twice if they think they can dominate women just because they appear more vulnerable. Carol's actions in this respect are an extreme and irrational expression of women's desire to be independent, of both men and gender expectations (for instance, cooking and working in a beauty parlour).Repulsion is an excellent psychological thriller which bewitches, excites and terrifies in equal measure. It isn't quite a masterpiece, being slightly too slow in its opening minutes and with a score with is occasionally over-cranked. But this is more than made up for by the central performances, Polanski's masterful direction and the sheer amount of tension which both parties have managed to ring out of such a simple premise. A watershed moment for Polanski and a real must-see.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: A deeply disturbing masterclass in tension


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