Directed by Roman Polanski
United Kingdom, 1965
The first in Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” (preceding Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant), Repulsion is a landmark psychological horror film, whose influence can be seen from Fat Girl to Black Swan.
Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a meek young woman working in a London beauty salon and living with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol is classically beautiful, nearly mute, seemingly terrified of men, and progressively suffering from some sort of internal trauma. When Helen and her married lover Michael (Ian Hendry) leave for a holiday, Carol’s issues become violently externalized.
His sophomore film, Polanski’s Repulsion continues his trend begun with Knife in the Water of deep focus to enhance tension and of countering wide open spaces with smaller, confined locales. Also like that film, the director limits himself to few locations and characters (including the requisite nosy neighbors), keeping things to a near-microcosmic level, an oppressive style that he will favor for some time.
If Repulsion has an ancestor, it might be the films of Val Lewton, who managed to put out several horror movies on a shoestring budget through RKO studios in the 1940s. Lewton famously relied on shadows and menace rather than on-screen violence and effects to achieve his ends, and Polanski has a similar strategy. Though some of the disturbing rape sequences are shown partially on-screen, the director uses the sound design of cracking plaster and creeping footsteps, and handmade effects like a clay wall to achieve his form of terror.
A master of camera blocking, Polanski shoots much of Repulsion in long fluid takes and rarely cuts in. His camera turns the streets of London into endless drudges through a sea of leering male faces and serves to counteract the inherent claustrophobia of Carol’s apartment. It’s perhaps those constant male gazes, all of which exist between the safety of Carol’s job and her apartment – her only two sanctuaries – that drives her to the madness that takes full form in the second half of the film.
On the rare occasion that Carol is not front-and-center in the film, Polanski shows us a range of men, from Colin (John Fraser), the young man that ardently pursues her, to Michael, to the myriad of ogling lascivious faces on the UK streets. The unnamed men in the film are threatening and grotesque, silent and sweaty. Colin may be of the more sensitive variety, but even his masculine entitlement allows him to break down Carol’s door to profess his love. One of the more chilling points in the film comes at the end when Michael, whom Carol has heard throughout the film having sex with her sister, tenderly picks up limp Carol after her trying ordeal and carries her away from the eyes of curious neighbors and out towards the hallway and an oncoming ambulance. As Polanski pans with him he stops for a moment, alone with the helpless woman in his arms, and looks down at her, his eyes full of care…or possibly lust.
There are a few shock-horror moments in Repulsion – a mirror gag that is one of the most successful early examples of such in film; a rotting, beheaded rabbit; a back-of-the-neck slash with a razorblade; death by candlestick – but the most effective are when we’re alone with Carol as she gingerly navigates her apartment, slowly succumbing to a horror known only to her.
If there’s a definition for “Hitchcockian” perhaps it’s the artful withholding of knowledge, either from the audience or from the characters. Polanski subscribes to this idea masterfully and, in a painfully long interaction between she and her landlord where her fears are for once proved to be warranted, uses careful framing and a razor blade to that end.
The conclusion of Repulsion has often been compared to that of another horror film ending with a slow camera move towards a photograph from the past. In Polanski’s film the young Carol’s gaze could be directed towards the older man – ostensibly her father, or it could be directed nowhere, vacantly, insisting on a variety of interpretations. It’s an unsettling end to the film.
– Neal Dhand