“I must get this crack mended.”
When we call Roman Polanski one of the best living filmmakers, we might be wrong because he has a case in being the greatest living filmmaker today. He is after all the man behind many great movies and such a plethora only warrants him a place at the apex of legendary 21st century filmmakers.
Repulsion is a story of a beautiful schizophrenic, Carole Ledoux – about how she faces her schizoid self when her sister, Helen and Helen’s fiancé, Michael go vacationing in Italy. The beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who went on to act in Luis Buñuel ’s all-time classic Belle de Jour (1967) two years later, stars as Carole supported by the elegant Yvonne Furneaux as Helen and iconic British actor, Ian Hendry as Helen’s blunt boyfriend.
Repulsion is Polanski’s first English film and his second feature following the Polish film, Knife in the Water that came out in 1962. Part of the Apartment Trilogy that started with Repulsion, reached heights with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and concluded with The Tenant (1976), the trio has the same fantastic horror-esque scenario—creating a claustrophobic environment that mirrors the latent and deranged mindsets of the main characters.
When we first meet Carole in a beauty clinic where she works, we observe a beautiful woman lost between the actualities of the world and the illusion created by the fabricated makeup. The mask conceals the true self beneath the vivre of external glow. Only though, time is a constant factor and when the time comes, no makeup can hide the cracks in you, within you, part of you.
When Carole walks back home from work, the melancholy in her face is apparent. Even when a young romantic follows her (John Fraser as Colin), pursues her, she doesn’t reciprocate as this Dame de L’Appartement is focused on the whirlwind within her mind. She’s a child who’s never grown up. The repeated motif of her family picture only fortifies this. Carole is isolated as we decipher from her family picture and she has never grown up to become a woman from the girl she was when the picture was taken, around the time, when trauma seems to have touched her for the first time.
The trepidation of the apartment she lives in, with her sexually hyperactive sister and a predator-type fiancé, only reminds her of the abuse she incurred as a child. This makes her contempt men—yet, most importantly, the pursuit of men whom she believes are only after her for her physical glory, not to soothe her emotional, vulnerable self that may be beyond the point of return.
Paradoxical layers shape schizophrenics as enigmatic and alluring beings, and Catherine Deneuve epitomizes this visceral charm with forlorn expressions. Her gaudy blonde hair, unprimed, forms a strong motif of hiding the cerebral cracks within her head. Under this bucolic spread of bright yellow, we find a dark mind—subjected to torture by her past experiences, and in the loneliness of the apartment, her demons come to the fore, wreaking havoc, ultimately destroying her innocence.
In one of the eeriest scenes of the movie, Polanski creates subtle chaos by showing cracks rampaging through the apartment. Together with Carole’s hallucinations—of being raped by Michael, somebody who reminds her of her abusive father—the movie tickles the subconscious fears of Carole that come to life when she’s alone, slowly decaying like a dead rabbit that attracts flies. So does Carole, but she gravitates normal people towards her, yet she has no comprehension of what is normal and what is abnormal. The line vanished long ago, and as with creepy demons, it’s only surfacing now that she’s coming face-to-face with her repressed sexuality, loathing of men, and loneliness that seems to be her only nature.
The apartment, in this part-surreal, part fantastical, and part noir, merely represents the state of Carole, a beautician who lives in a damp, rusty, and depleted flat. As Carole starts disintegrating into an almost nihilistic trance, she fantasizes her flat degenerating into a habitat for the wild.
As a complement, Polanski oversees use of drastic cinematic techniques to make sure that viewers feel the wrath within Carole. Told from a first-person narrative, the use of extreme close-ups of Carole’s eyes in the beginning to the wide mid shots following Carole down the streets to her apartment and within her apartment sets captures Carole’s polarizing mind—a ruptured state within and the feeling of seclusion despite being amidst buzzing London.
Yet, Carole is on the verge of breakdown and that is only the beginning of the nightmare she has been repressing until now. With the emergence of Colin, the clammy apartment’s isolation, and the ticking of the clock—Carole descends into a path of psychosis where all she wants is to be alone. The last thing she needs. She’s already lonely and when her fantasy, bottled-up sexual desires, disdain for sexuality, and a feeling of subjugation creeps in, Carole is like a frog swimming in lukewarm water, about to reach boiling point. When her mind turns up the heat, she enters a killing spree. She’d consider it self-defense. Others would suppose—acts of lunacy.
Repulsion is uncomfortable and follows Carole in her descend to insanity. Polanski sets the mood for the audiences to be wrapped in horror, and in doing so; he presents a fundamental study of womanhood. Using tight angles to create a suffocating atmosphere, we get into the mind of Carole and that is a creepy experience in itself.
Violent, perverse, and primeval, Repulsion is one of the finest psychological thrillers. It’s almost nauseating at times. That’s not due to what we see on the screen, but how Polanski makes us feel using skintight photography, gripping storytelling, and by creating a dystopian environment. Enhancing all of this is the uncanny performance of Catherine Deneuve as Carole. Through her, we study human behavior under oppression, thereby analyzing the objectification of women and turning home into wilderness—as that seems to be pivotal in the movie.
Roman Polanski’s first English film is arguably his most comprehensive. It shows us why Polanski might be one filmmaker who can get right under your skin and dish out a psychological beating that is sure to leave you with a hangover long after it’s over. Repulsion is a classic.