Repulsion – 1965 – dir. Roman Polanski
Looking over Roman Polanski’s career, I feel his strength as a director lies in creating psychological suspense and dread out of confined spaces, and the casual way in which he shows you the horror that was always right next to you. His best work happens to be in the early to middle period of his career, and is roughly bracketed by two events: Polanski’s recent past as a Holocaust survivor, and the murder of Sharon Tate. (There really is no late period, save in the academic and chronological sense. After Chinatown Polanski never made a truly outstanding film, with the exception of Death and the Maiden. Never mind the noise made over the Oscar-winning The Pianist. Only with the recently released The Ghostwriter has Polanski come back to something like top form.) His films of special mention reveal the second life pulsing below the apparent one, the dark desires or fears hiding under a veneer of “normality” and respectability. (As seen in Knife In The Water, Cul-de-Sac, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and the aforementioned Ghostwriter.)
But it’s very likely that Polanski himself didn’t know this when he made Repulsion. (In the Criterion Collection documentary on the making of Repulsion, Polanski comments “Don’t ask me to explain my films.”) At the time he was working on low budgets, looking to build on the popularity created with Knife In the Water, and to break away from the strictures imposed by the communist-ruled Polish film industry. Repulsion offered Polanski the chance to work in a broader reaching English-speaking market, with French superstar Catherine Deneuve. Their collaboration results in a surreal journey through the fractured psyche of a troubled woman, one of the earliest examples of the subjective film. Even before Carol’s (Deneuve’s) suppressed androphobia manifests itself as psychosis we see she is a troubled young woman who clings to her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), and whose behavior alternates between curiosity and vague sexual stirrings for the men that leer and catcall her when she walks to the beauty salon where she works, to outright repulsion of physical contact with men. Colin’s polite but insistent and whiny advances leave Carol indifferent, yet her sister’s moans when she’s having sex captivate her.
These two opposing mental states exist suppressed within Carol, until her sister leaves for a holiday with her boyfriend (Ian Hendry), after which her repressed fears are extemporized, making her a danger to any man that approaches her, with or without good intentions. As evidenced with Colin (John Fraser) who breaks in the door to see if Carol is okay, and gets his head bashed in with a lamp base. (Breaking the door down to see if she’s okay? That’s some way to find out.) Then the landlord, who after coming in for the rent money and commenting on the state of neglect of the flat, gets frisky with Carol, and gets slashed in the neck with a straight razor.
Yet Carol takes a little time to put on lipstick just before an imaginary rapist attacks her on her own bed. Is this gesture an automatic action? A memory from her mother teaching her good girls put on a face when a man comes over?
Polanski and his writing partner Gerard Brach never try to explain the motives for Carol’s behavior, save for ‘hinting’ at possible child abuse. (What are we to make of the little girl glaring at her father in the family photo? Whatever we want.) Explanations are not important to the story, and in fact they’d detract from the pure horror of something too complex to be reduced to armchair psychiatry. Willing immersion is what matters to the story, and Polanski immerses us in Carol’s inner world. The real fright of Repulsion comes from watching Carol’s internal state of mind materialize before our eyes as the food rots in the kitchen and the dimensions of the flat change in size at random. Carol’s blank stare compliments the barely furnished rooms of the apartment, the seemingly chilly interiors she walks through as hands push out of the walls and grope her. (Deneuve’s porcelain beauty would later be used to embody a similar cold sexuality by Luis Buñuel in Belle Du Jour.) The periodic and irritating ringing of the phone with the voice of a stranger hurling insults at Carol, until she cuts the cable, symbolically severing her last tie to the outside world. The sudden spells of eerie silence, with the church bells in the distance and the repetitive piano chords, suddenly shattered with blasts of fusion jazz.
In avoiding a formulaic rationale we are treated to a viewing experience that is visually dense without the dead weight of psychojargon.