Although it cannot quite live up to its reputation, Polanski’s startling psychological horror film is a bona fide genre classic.
Back in the day when newspaper and magazine critics had some influence, Roman Polanski’s REPULSION was one of the few horror films (along with Alfred Hitchock’s PSYCHO) that earned any respect. Variety called it “a classy, truly horrific psychological drama,” while the New York Times Bosley Crowther warned, “Prepare yourself to be demolished when you go to see it – and go you must, because it’s one of those films that everybody will soon be buzzing about.” At a time when British horror consisted mostly of colorful Victorian-era Gothic tales produced by Hammer Films (a company with a reputation as profitable entertainers rather than artistic visionaries), Polanski’s startling, black-and-white depiction of homicidal madness, set in swinging London, was just the sort of thing to make critics sit up and take notice, assessing REPULSION as an artistic achievement rather than a routine genre effort. It certainly didn’t hurt that Polanski had established his artistic bona fides with his 1962 feature film debut KNIFE IN THE WATER; shot in his native Poland, that three-character drama identified Polanski as an upcoming European auteur who would not be dimissed as just another genre filmmaker when he made his English-language debut with psychological horror movie.
Unfortunately, the supremely high level of adulation for REPULSION (which continue to this day, with a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes) is not altogether warranted; as good as it is, the film is not perfect. Fortunately, in spite of its flaws, Polanski’s dark little gem deserves to be regarded as a mini-masterpiece, because it merges horror conventions with art house aesthetics (one of the first films to do so – after George Franju’s 1958 EYES WITHOUT A FACE) in a way that creates a nightmare all the more disturbing because it is crystal clear and contemporary, carefully establishing a believable sense of reality (instead of Gothic atmosphere) before turning on the thumb-screws.
Co-written with the agoraphobic Gerard Brach, REPULSION depicts the psychological disintegration of Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a disturbed young woman working in a salon. Isolated and withdrawn, Carol is barely clinging to her sanity when we first meet her, living in an apartment she shares with her sister Helene (Yvonne Furneaux). Exactly what is wrong with Carol is not specified, but we have no doubt it is sexual in nature, a point emphasized when we see her lying in bed at night, listening to Helene and her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) make love in the next room. When Helene and Michael depart for a vacation, Carole’s tentative connection to reality is severed, and she succumbs to paranoia. A sleazy landlord (Patrick Wymark) makes sexual advances; Carol kills him with a pair of scissors and barricades herself inside. The abyss of madness yawns before her, and into it she plunges, succumbing to nightmare visions that seem completely.
Using the simplest of resources, director Roman Polanski manages to convey Carole’s descent into madness, in a way that invites audience inside her head even while giving viewers the creeps. Much of the imagery is memorably revolting (a rotting rabbit) or surreally disturbing (hands emerging from the walls to fondle the hallucinating woman).
Nevertheless, REPULSION does not sustain full tension for its entire length; the later scenes grow repetitions, and the carefully wrought camera set ups and methodical pace border on boredom as the film wears on, slowly charting the disintegration of Carole’s last shred’s of sanity. Although Polanski makes good use of the limited space to convey Carole’s gathering claustrophobia, which climaxes in a scene wherein the walls seem to press in on her, one cannot help noticing that the space islimited. With the last half of the film set entirely in the Ledoux’s apartment, the visual possibilities tend to run dry. One loses count of the number of times the degenerating character’s psychotic solitude is interrupted by the ringing telephone, always shown in the same close-up camera angle. When Carole finally cuts the phone’s cord, it’s supposed to symbolize her final break with the outside world; instead, you want to cheer, “At last!”
The visual monotony is combined with a storyline that wears down rather than amps up. Yet strangely enough, this ultimately works in REPULSION’s favor, leaving the audience without the catharsis of an explosive climax. The “morning after” scene – a return to normality in conventional horror films, like awakening from a bad dream – is rendered here in dark and distressing terms, suggesting that the nightmare never ends. Nearly comatose, Carole is carried out of her room by Michael, but the scene plays less like a rescue than a prelude to confinement. (Ian Hendry’s briefly glimpsed expression is hard to read: is it smirking satisfaction that the unwanted third wheel will be gone from the apartment, or does he seem to have some kind of designs on Carole?).
We are denied even the satisfaction of a last-minute revelation regarding Carole’s unhinged mentality. Polanski’s camera merely zooms in on a photograph of Carole as a young girl, staring angrily at her father, suggesting that the seeds of her madness were planted in childhood, perhaps buried forever, never to be fully explained. (It has become common to interpret the photo as evidence that Carole was sexually abused by her father, but Polanski has denied this in interviews, stating that he merely wanted to show that Carol had been disturbed from a very early age, without offering an exact explanation).
These minor quibbles are not meant to argue against REPULSION’s reputation as a classic but rather to point out that certain films seem to get a fairer shake from critics than others. This is especially true in the horror genre, where a little bit of artistry goes a long way toward earning favorable reviews that less ambitious but sometimes equally effective films also deserve. However, it would be unfair to suggest that the critical consensus is totally exaggerated; it is merely blind to the minor blemishes that mar this otherwise excellent work.
REPULSION may not be perfect, but it is an excellent example of the “horror of personality” sub-genre. Its imperfections tend to fade from memory with the passage of time, eclipsed by the haunting memory of Carole’s malaise. This is a horror movie that is not afraid to shock, but the shocks are few and fleeting; instead, Polanski wants to get inside your head and make you feel the dementia troubling Carole. The director has cast a light upon the inner darkness in the twisted corners of a human mind, but instead of exposing an enlightening truth, he casts more shadows – shadows that persist long after the theatre curtain has dropped and the lights have gone up.
REPULSION (1965). Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Roman Polanski and Gerard Brach; adaptation and additional dialogue by David Stone. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Renee Houston, Valerie Taylor, James Villiers. Helen Fraser.