It is that time of the year again when everyone is writing about exciting spooky stuff, and to accomplish two objectives with one action, I am contributing to the “October Birthdayz” blogathon by Nuwan at No Nonsense with Nuwan Sen to celebrate the birthday of his sister. The theme is famous people who were born in October, and, to celebrate Catherine Deneuve’s 75th birthday, I am reviewing Polanski’s “Repulsion” with Deneuve in the lead role. A review of this highly influential psychological horror film, that showcases Deneuve’s talent to the full extent, will not only fit nicely into this blogathon’s theme, but can also get you early into the Halloween spirit. Thanks for hosting and inviting me, Nuwan, and the readers can also check out other entries for this blogathon here, here and here.
“Repulsion” can be considered a classic in the psychological horror genre. The plot revolves around Carole (Deneuve), a young woman from Belgium who works in a beauty parlour in London and lives in an apartment with her older sister Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux). Sweet and shy, Carole often finds herself day-dreaming, and tries to politely rebuff the advances of her obsessive suitor Colin (John Fraser). She also expresses hostility towards her sister’s married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry). Things take a turn for the worse when Carole’s day-dreaming leads to her mind having the life of its own and the triggers seem to be any sexual hints or attempts made at intimacy. When Hélène leaves for a vacation in Italy, Carole is unable to cope, and, feeling abandoned, slowly starts her descent into madness.
It is safe to say now that the then very controversial “Repulsion” propelled a new genre of psychological horror in the 1960s where a young woman finds herself so confused, conflicted and disoriented that her mind’s dual nature opens up to disastrous consequences. “Repulsion” was a precursor to such films as Argento’s psychedelic “Suspiria” (1977), Lynch’s deep “Mulholland Drive” (2001) and Aronofsky’s hallucinatory “Black Swan” (2010). Polanski himself, while contemplating movie aesthetics, was probably influenced by Jean Cocteau and Kafkaesque mentality.
However, one of the most interesting aspects now about “Repulsion” is that its low-budget probably contributed to making this film so great, as counter-intuitive as this may sound. Polanski had around £65,000 to make this movie, and a large part of that went to cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who is known for such films as “Dr Strangelove” (1964) and “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964). This choice of a cinematographer was wise because Taylor’s superior black-and-white imagery is partly why the film is so claustrophobically atmospheric. Like later “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Repulsion” has a catching opening sequence where we see nothing but Deneuve’s eye in an enlarged frame, taking in whatever is in front of her. This sequence unsettles because beauty and horror fuse, and whatever is beautiful is distorted to a horrifying effect. As there was a limited budget, we see Carole going about the same spaces, which makes her character more isolated, and Polanski also employs reflections, shadows and everyday objects effectively to accentuate the heroine’s mental confusion and detachment. Carole’s distorted face reflection in the objects hints at her mental disorientation, and numerous everyday objects, from a razor to pavement cracks, are given a new horrifying meaning in the story. Also, the most everyday sounds such as the ticking of a clock or the buzzing of flies add to the atmosphere of unease, and the director knows that the most pivotal and shocking scenes in the film has to be without or almost without sound to have the greatest effect. Moreover, Polanski has the ability to imbue the most innocuous and harmless everyday scenes with horrifying underthoughts. For example, a woman with a beauty mask lying on a massage table somehow becomes the very definition of dread.
The cinematography and the clever play with environment are far from being the only things that make “Repulsion” such a fascinating watch. As in his later “Rosemary’s Baby”, Polanski emphasised the perspective of the heroine in this story, and there is a feeling that we really get into the head of Carole and see the world through her distorted perception. Catherine Deneuve gives her best performance to date. She presents Carole’s symptoms with a staggering accuracy, and her facial expressions speak the loudest in the film. From inquisitiveness and morbid curiosity, Carole then shows resignation, indifference and absence. Deneuve’s determination to make the character appear both so disturbed and yes, understandable, really pays off in this movie. Polanski makes something so strange and provocative both familiar and recognisable. Carole starts to experience hallucinations and mental detachment from reality, with sexual contact being the cause of her neurosis, but it is also clear to us that, from her point of view, her (apartment) sanctuary is being rapidly invaded by unwanted men and the character feels the need “to protect” herself from this unwelcomed intrusion. Despite murderous, shocking turns in this story, Deneuve manages to make her character even somewhat sympathetic, because there are clues that her irrational actions may stem from childhood sexual abuse and subsequent trauma.
It is also the use of contrasts which makes the film so effective. Carole is both a beauty and a beast, and her outward beauty very much contrasts with her deranged state of mind. No one really expects anything morbid or violent from such an innocent-looking girl as Carole, and the story plays on this misconception. Carole herself is both completely repulsed by all things male and sometimes displays morbid attraction to it. She is also contrasted with her suitor Colin. If Colin is all fire and enthusiasm, Carole is subdued and almost cold, as she tries to be polite and friendly to Colin. There is a fear and repression sensed in the main character, and she is like a ticking device that is on the point of going off. Another hidden contrast is made between infidelity, as being a sin, and fidelity, as being a virtuous path, in the movie. Carole’s sister is having an affair with a married man, who is unfaithful to his wife, and somehow the fact that they have their extra-marital, morally reprehensive relationship in an apartment just next door to a nunnery (this being the abode of the virtuous), makes the whole situation even more pronounced.
The movie is deeper than appears at first glance because it can be seen as a cinematic equivalent to a psychoanalysis into one person’s sexuality. Carole’s fear and attraction become one. At the beginning of the film, she is emotionally depended on her sister, and male “artefacts” in the bathroom unsettle her, as well as such innocuous actions as taking off gloves. Carole repressed sexuality and correspondent repugnance of a male image pursue her whenever she goes, and when her sister “abandons” her (going on a vacation) and prioritises her male partner over her, Carole’s mental disintegration is given free rein at last (cinematically, it is also represented by the state of food decay and the apartment disarray after Hélène’s departure).
The story is such that it tries to present a male as having negative traits. There is a banter among Colin’s friends in which they belittle women, a client at Carole’s place of work hints that men only want one thing from a woman, and Carole’s best friend at work gets heartbroken because of a man. In this context, Carole feels even more justified in her inward repulsion, and it is telling that even her profession – an assistant beautician – is partly designed to make women more attractive to men. Carole’s relationship with food (hunger being a similar human urge to sex) is also naturally complicated in the film. She contemplates a dish of fish and chips, as well as a toast and coffee her sister prepared for her, with a detached indifference, and a dead skinned rabbit becomes almost a minor character in the movie.
Like Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant” (1976), “Repulsion” is an apartment horror movie, but it is also fair to say that it is a city horror movie in some way as well. In “The Tenant” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, the director turned the most exciting and buzzling cities (Paris and New York respectively) into the depressing places of loneliness where people can be isolated or ignored. In “Repulsion”, shot mainly in South Kensington, London is also seen as a place of endless construction works and intrusive self-interested people and neighbours, who are only prying, but are reluctant to help. The apartment is also presented in the movie as a claustrophobic and lonely place that has an unaffordable rent.
“Repulsion” is innovative, atmospheric and highly effective psychological horror, which is clever in a way it uses its entire low-budget cinematic arsenal, from wide angle shots to sound effects, to achieve the best possible results to induce the particular sense of apprehension, uncertainty and dread. Deneuve’s totally committed performance and her character’s fascinating turns take central place in this film which really set the benchmark for psychological horror. 10/10