Director: Roman Polanski
Producers: Gene Gutowski, Michael Klinger, Robert Sterne, Tony Tenser, Sam Waynberg (Compton)
Writers: Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski, David Stone
Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Chico Hamilton
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Renee Houston, Valerie Taylor, James Villiers, Helen Fraser, Hugh Futcher, Monica Merlin, Imogen Graham, Mike Pratt, Roman Polanski
You could sense the menace lurking just beneath the surface in his debut film, Knife in the Water (1962). But Roman Polanski would elevate that ominous feeling to all-out horror in his next film, Repulsion, his first in English and his first collaboration with screenwriter Gerard Brach. If you think a $300,000 movie from 1965 can’t disturb the hell out of you, pop this one into the DVD player. It remains every bit the creeper it was back then and serves as a great introduction to the twisted mind of Polanski.
The film kicked off Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” about the dangers of urban dwelling, followed by Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). In many ways, Repulsion is the organic, unpolished version of Rosemary’s Baby, planting the seed for many of its elements: peephole shots, voices through walls, raw meat, rape hallucinations and an unsettling Krzysztof Komeda score.
Instead of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, we get Catherine Denueve’s Carol, a Belgian manicurist who shares a flat with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneau), in Kensington, London. Carol is a very attractive woman, yet she is “repulsed” by men — a condition known as androphobia. She fails to connect with any male figures in her life and is tortured by listening to the sounds of Helen and her married boyfriend (Ian Hendry) having sex. Still, this is nothing compared to the plunge she takes after Helen and her boyfriend leave on a holiday trip to Italy.
Alone in her apartment, Carole begins to imagine things, including an attacker breaking in to rape her. It’s not long before she’s a slave to her own sexual paranoia, quitting her job and boarding herself up inside her apartment. Her psychosis proves fatal for the real-life men who arrive at the apartment, including would-be suitor Colin (John Fraser) and her landlord (Patrick Wymark). By the time Helen and her boyfriend return, the apartment has become a bloodbath via candlesticks and straight razors.
Deneuve’s performance will stick with you forever. History knows her as the center of Luis Bunuel’s erotic masterpiece Belle de Jour (1967), but it’s Repulsion that made her reputation as the so-called “ice maiden.” Deneuve delivers a catatonic character, who shies away from contact with all the men in her life, backing away when Helen’s boyfriend tries to greet her, or pulling ahead of Colin as he tries walking her down the street. There’s hope for a second in Colin’s car, as she gives in to his kiss. Then, as we all knew she would, she jumps out of the car, runs home and brushes her teeth – throwing away the brush. No doubt her performance owes much to Polanski, whom Fraser called “the best director of actors I have worked with.” (B)
For as terrifying as Deneuve’s performance is, one knows the true terror of the film belongs to its director. The source of the menace in Polanski’s work no doubt comes from a very real place. At age 8, he and his parents were imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, where his mother ultimately died. Subsequently, darkness seemed to surround Polanski the rest of his career, including the gruesome Manson murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate in 1969, and Polanski’s own arrest on statuary rape charges in 1977, forcing him to flee the U.S. and win an Oscar in exile for The Pianist (2002). Beyond the darkness and the controversy, Polanski has remained one thing — an artistic genius.
That genius is on display from the very first image of Repulsion — a close-up of an eyeball (a la Vertigo), over which the credits roll. When Polanski’s director’s credit arrives, it’s the only credit that crosses the eyeball horizontally, like a razor blade, foreshadowing the violence to come and calling to mind Luis Bunuel’s Un chien andalou (1929).
Polanski’s mastery continues when Carol first enters the apartment. Polanski creates an ominous feel by positioning the camera at ground level and recording Carol’s movements in a static, wide-angle, deep focus shot. As she disappears from the room and re-enters, the room remains constant, always there, always watching. It’s as if the apartment is its own character, inviting tracking shots down its shadowy hallway and hiding its contents until the camera rounds a doorway or a character opens a door. We hold our breath as to what we might see beyond each door jam.
Polanski’s style is so deliberately quiet and foreboding that he’s clearly setting viewers up for the music to jolt, a phone to ring, a figure to appear, a character to scream. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “an absolute knockout in the psychological horror line” and said “to miss it, would be worse than missing Psycho, if you’ve a taste for this sort of thing.” (A) Similarly, critic Kenneth Tynan said, “Repulsion is Psycho turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film, we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims—in Polanski’s, our viewpoint is the killer’s.” (B)
Tynan no doubt means “viewpoint” in the narrative sense, as we stay with Carol for the duration of the film, whereas in Psycho, we mostly stay with Marion, Lila and Sam during their respective run-ins with Norman Bates. While we narratively stay with Carol, visually Polanski shows the first murder from the POV of the victim. As Carol approaches Colin from behind with a candlestick, we cut into Colin’s POV as he looks through the door’s peephole. We hear the sound of the crack to his head and see the camera wobble from the blow, accompanied by blood splattered against the door. We then cut to a new shot from Colin’s POV looking up at Carol as she bludgeons “the camera” to finish the job.
The second murder is brilliantly foreshadowed, as Polanski sets up the razor blade in multiple scenes. Early on, when Carol complains that Helen’s boyfriend left his toothbrush in her cup, Polanski is really setting up the razor blade in the cup. When she uses the blade to cut her phone line, Polanski is really reminding us of the blade. So when the doorbell rings — jarring us with the thought that perhaps the phone is ringing even while the line is cut – we just know Carol is going to slice and dice her caller.
Speaking of cuts, Polanski clearly demonstrates a mastery of the cinematic cut. He knows exactly when to use them – like the seamless jumpcut from ruffled bed sheets to the wrinkles on Carol’s work uniform – and also when not to – like the slow disclosure that shows Carol humming while ironing clothes, before tilting down to see that the iron is unplugged.
Polanski’s prowess continues in his use of familiar image. Sixteen minutes into the film, he shows us a family photo on the dresser, but presents it in a medium shot. Later, in the film’s final shot, a personified camera searches the apartment and settles upon the same family photo, only now Polanski pushes in to show the photo in a close-up. The way the shadows fall, the entire photo is blacked out, except for the neatly framed faces of young Carol and an Older Man. From (a) Carol’s cold eyes staring at the Man, and (b) the diagonal shadow stretching from the Man’s mouth to Carol’s crotch, Polanski offers a possible explanation for Carol’s androphobia – a sexually abusive relative.
Most powerfully, there are the scenes of Carol’s hallucinations, which Polanski constructs with great terror. Starting with more tangible images like a plate of rotting rabbit meat (recalling Aerosmith’s suggestive lyrics “can’t catch the rabbit ‘cause the rabbit done died”), Polanski transforms Carol’s apartment into a shadowy world of nightmarish fantasy. Giant cracks appear in the wall. Hands reach out from the walls and grab her. And at one point, the walls even turn to clay, covered in hand prints. Critic Bill Horrigan says the film recalls the magic corridor walls of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Val Lewton’s low-budget style of light and shadow in films like Cat People (1942), but the onslaught of Carol is much more horrific. (B) As cinematographer Gil Taylor muttered during filming, “I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,” and yet, as Kim Morgan writes, “one loves doing this to a beautiful woman, especially one like Deneuve.” (C)
Elevating the horror is Polanski’s magnificent use of sound. On top of Komeda’s unsettling jazz score, the soundtrack is layered with dripping water, ticking clocks, church bells, doorbells, ringing phones, footsteps, creaking walls, morse code signals, piano notes, and the first depiction of female orgasm to be passed by the British Board of Film Censors – heard coming through the wall. As Horrigan writes, “The overriding acoustic effect is one of invasiveness, of unwelcome sounds overheard, the centerpiece being Helen’s orgasmic aria penetrating the thin walls of Carol’s bedroom, sexuality itself loudly proclaimed.” (B)
Polanski has said Repulsion was a means to an end, a way to earn enough money so that he and co-writer Gerard Brach could make their more personal project, Cul-de-sac (1966), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Decades later, Polanski even complained that, of all his films, Repulsion “is the shoddiest . . . technically well below the standard I try to achieve.” (D) Film history has proven the final judge, and for all its low budget inexperience, Repulsion is widely considered a seminal work of Polanski, Polish cinema, the horror genre and of the history of cinema.
CITE A: Crowther, Bosley. “Repulsion.” The New York Times. Web. <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF1739E471BC4C53DFB667838E679ED>
CITE B: Horrigan, Bill. “Repulsion: Eye of the Storm.” The Criterion Collection. Web.<http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1207-repulsion-eye-of-the-storm>
CITE C: Morgan, Kim. “Roman Polanski understands women.” The Huffington Post. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kim-morgan/roman-polanski-understand_b_301292.html>
CITE D: Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Repulsion.” 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2nd Ed.). Edited by Steven Jay Schneider. Quintessence Editions Ltd., 2005. Print.