Repulsion – 1965 – dir. Roman Polanski
Few movie reviewing pleasures are as satisfying as being able to sing the praises of Catherine Deneuve. Even more stunning today than she was when she first burst onto international movie screens as a 60s vixen and sexpot, she is still working and continues to fascinate movie audiences around the world. It is impossible to believe she is almost 70 years old, so recently does her reign as France’s leading female star seem to have risen. No other French actress has taken her crown. Over the years, she has allowed some (Anna Karina, Genevieve Bujold, Juliette Binoche) to borrow it for a while, but even they knew it had to be given back, that it was only on loan. Deneuve, with her aloof translucence, her continental cool was and is an international force. Irresistibly beautiful on the outside, she also exudes within a searing intelligence and a dignity that places her on higher planes than those occupied by actresses who are merely pretty to look at. After decades of moviemaking, she remains France’s most delectable export. Like all the greatest movie stars, there is something eternal about Deneuve. Not only is she not of this world; she seems to exist beyond the world of cinema. When you die, you half-expect to find her in some corner of the Cosmos, holding court in rarefied air.
She had not yet made a name for herself in movies when Polish director, Roman Polanski, cast her in Repulsion (only his second English-language movie) as Carol, a single manicurist in swinging 60s London. Producers of the film did not want Deneuve, feeling she was much too beautiful to play a sexual psychopath but Polanski won out and a true star was born.
A singular force of nature himself, Roman Polanski survived a poverty-stricken childhood and Nazi concentration camps to become one of world cinema’s most accomplished and admired directors. Like his hero, Alfred Hitchcock, even the least of Polanski’s cinematic efforts is more watchable, more capable than most of the garbage that is being made today. In film after film, including the remarkably spooky Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and the more recent The Pianist and The Ghost Writer, he has carved out a style and a tone of filmmaking that is unmistakably his.
Repulsion (the first of a trilogy of “apartment movies”, the other two being Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant) is one of the first horror movies to have a psychological bent. Polanski wanted it to be “more than just a slash-fest”
and its probings into the why of a murderous mind run very, very deep indeed.
From the very first shot, a close-up of Deneuve’s eye, we are meant to be drawn into her mind, her thinking. Polanski is warning us that most of what we are about to see will be what Carol, Deneuve’s character, sees and believes and feels. The camera escorts us quickly into her brain and leaves us there in the darkness. Objectivity is not allowed here. We are to see and experience all that is being filtered to us only through Carol’s eyes. From the very start, Polanksi pulls us into Carol’s madness and confusion by creating a claustrophbia that is suffocating in its intensity. Via tight shots and relentless close-ups (some so close, they turn an otherwise striking face — Deneuve’s — into a grotesquerie. The actress actually welcomed the chance to have her features distorted so as to highlight the horror).
Polanski constructs a veritable concentration camp of tunnels and tight places. His direction makes everything feel tunneled: a half-closed window, half-drawn curtains, hallways and doorways left ajar, creating a tension, a disturbance in Deneuve, as well as in us. Everything here is small: small rooms, small restaurants, small caged elevators. Deneuve becomes Alice taking the small pill. A true claustrophobia develops. She cannot breathe. We cannot breathe. Even her hair is claustrophobic, suffocates her face. There is too much of it. It blinds her eyes. The hair is designed deliberately to make us flip our lids, along with Carol. Slowly but surely, we realize she is not just a pretty girl going it solo in a mansion-flat. Nothing brings joy, not a suitor’s kiss, not a stroll taken in the city, not the trio of street musicians who play their instruments joyfully but who walk backwards at us in out of the darkness, like little trolls. And not the food her sister has prepared for her, a rabbit freshly cooked. It is disgusting; an autopsy on a plate. Cracks in sidewalks and walls are omens. Even the musical score works to unnerve us, a tinny, twirling jazz of chaos and flutes and snaky snare drums.
Deneuve became famous for her detachment and here, her coldness has magnificence; her cool-as-a-cucumber reserve serves her well as she descends into absolute madness. Her sudden knife is a surprise. Excitement, as well as danger, can be found in her blade’s thrusts, carving out her therapy. However unreal, however savage, this is healing for her. Her remove makes her savagery all the more compelling, We do not know what happened to Carol in her childhood. It does not matter. Whatever it was, it lay long buried in her brain and is now ready to be re-born. The water of her fear boils over and scalds anyone in its way. The shock of it is intense. The black and white cinematography is as stark as Carol’s mind. Who could believe this angel of cool could burst like a wound? Her rage is mindless and therefore all the more disturbing. It emerges out of nowhere.
Polanski, a master of suspense, was a genius at creating panic (in his characters, in his viewers) and here he uses some very powerful dream sequences to create both panic and suspense. What is real? What is not real? We don’t know. Only Polanksi is in control, and maybe not even him once walls start to produce hands and arms that strangle and rooms start to widen and undulate. Dream sequences are used to great effect here, especially in scenes reminiscent of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. In Repulsion, Deneuve is the beauty and also the beast, victim and monster in her own nightmare. And because she is both, there is no escape. The prey she is chasing is herself.
Polanski was also a master of subtlety. So notice when Carol imagines she is being assaulted. Does Polanski overscore the scene with loud, hysterical music? No. He has a clock ticking ever so quietly. Much scarier!
Repulsion helped make Catherine Deneuve and Roman Polanski lasting stars of the movie firmament. It is one of the seminal horror shows of the 1960s. Unlike many movies we forget a couple of hours after we have seen them, Repulsion haunts us for days and days after. Truly, it is a masterpiece.