★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★ A definitive portrayal of a descent into madness.
Directed by Roman Polanski
In doing Episode LIII for our Podcast, in typical fashion I went through the roster of notable movies from the era to see what I had been missing. Prominent on that list for me was Repulsion. I was rewarded with a slow burn up-close examination of complete mental breakdown and though it started slow, it powered through at the end, justifying its reputation as one of the 60’s standard bearers for the genre.
Maybe it takes a sexual deviant to make a movie about sexual paranoia and suffocating neuroses, making Polanski the perfect person to pen and film this groundbreaking production. Repulsion is an unflinching and difficult movie to watch, and for much of the movie it lacks something critical in my enjoyment of a movie, and that is a relatable protagonist who you can identify with. Carol is not an easily likable central figure.
Catherine Deneuve plays her in an unblinking, completely detached fashion. She is a woman who has an incredible distrust and fear of men, and a crippling case of the yips in general. We are introduced to Carol while she is zoning-out on her job as a beautician, staring off into the mid-distance. After apologizing for her obliviousness, she heads home, where she is pursued by Colin (John Fraser) who is holding out a torch for her, unwilling to let all the signals of what it means to be in the friend-zone. And that’s being generous. He is infatuated with her. He repulses her. And yet, he still tries.
It is a primary factor in the story that none of the people who should be able to pick up on her problems ever really thinks she needs help.
At home, Carol’s sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). provides most of the stability in Carol’s life. Unfortunately, she is not a particularly reliable person, and she is both unaware of the amount of Carol’s developing psychoses, or is just wanting a break from her.
It does not help that Helen’s adulterous boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) is an annoying lout, and that their noisy lovemaking disturbs Carol greatly. These scenes are proof positive of the shift in what movies, particularly European ones, would be willing to depict… even if it was just audible voyeurism.
Helen and Michael have decided to go on holiday, leaving Carol alone to ferment in her own enveloping unease. She neglects all of her responsibilities, both at home and at work, and worse still, she is getting hallucinations of a rapist in her apartment. It is never made clear as to who this rapist was, and if she had been subjected to real abuse in her past, but it is never established between Carol and any of her interactions with others that she had been victimized.
The third act pays off all of the character development that Polanski put forth in acts I and II. What had been aversion tactics and obsessive/compuslive behavioral patterns begin to slide into deep schizophrenia, and she bottles herself in against the world and is full fight/flight mode. Her actions become erratic and irrational, but it is also at this time that you begin to feel for her… right as she slips into being beyond saving. It’s a marvelous piece of script and editing to pull this off.
Polanski’s artistic eye and the European New-Wave are in full effect in this movie. From the opening of the movie, which is a super-close-up of Carol’s eye, to the surreal hallucinations, to the warping of the physical dimensions of her apartment, the director displayed master lensmanship here. This is Polanski’s second feature film, and his first English language production, and it’s almost like he’s showing off with this movie, pushing the artistry like many young ambitious directors tend to do. The difference is that he’s really good at conveying imagery, and utilizing silence, where others merely attempt to.
Repulsion is not rated, but would certainly be rated R. It is one of the films that help drive the industry towards and MPAA rating system, since it was made in Europe and didn’t need to meet the old standards. It is available for streaming on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, and Vudu…. but do yourself a favor and go rent or buy the Blue-Ray Criterion edition, it’s gorgeous.
Here is the trailer… but be warned… it’s full of spoilers!