Hypnotically beautiful Catherine Deneuve is Roman Polanski's "girl with a problem." The director probes deep into the mind of a damaged female, in a feature which pioneered a new era of gender-horror.
SUPERFICIALLY in the mould of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, Roman Polanski's REPULSION couldn't have had a less auspicious origin: a low-budget British horror film produced by soft-core porn outfit Compton, directed by a young Polish émigré with only one sparse feature under his belt, and starring a 22-year-old French actress who had never spoken English on screen before. But the result was a masterwork, an evocation into schizophrenia which follows Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a Belgian manicurist living with her older coquettish sister (Yvonne Furneaux) in London. When her sibling and boyfriend (Ian Hendry) go on holiday, Carol's fears and isolation in the apartment fester along with the uncooked food, which includes a sinister-looking skinned rabbit.
REPULSION acts as an expressionistic nightmare. The apartment in which most of the film takes place assumes the shape and mind of a anguished consciousness, and Carol's nocturnal rape fantasies are orchestrated by the metronomic ticking of a clock. These latter sequences are brought to a halt by the ringing of bells (phones, doorbells) just as Carol's murders are heralded by the bell in a neighbouring convent. The work is full of such weird echoes of disorientation, which act as the perfect complement to the judicious mix of slow, subtle scares (cracks splitting the walls, with hands emerging from within) and sudden shocks (the razor scene).
Koch Vision's ludicrous 2001 DVD cover design renders Polanski's claustrophobic masterpiece as bargain-bin fodder.
For once in a Compton film, sexuality is used as something other than a publicity stunt. Carol's carnal frustration is contrasted with the openness of everybody else, from casual discussion in the salon to the attempted rape by her landlord (Patrick Wymark). Work colleagues refer to Carol's withdrawal as "day dreaming," walking across Hammersmith Bridge and through the streets of South Kensington oblivious to buskers, leering workmen and even a road accident. But there is nothing inevitable about the way she falls apart; Carol seems to be in the forceful grip of a malign fate. Deneuve is spellbinding in the role; even at her most catatonic, she remains sympathetic thanks to her amazing, doe-like eyes.
Photographed in cold black and white by Gil Taylor and Stanley Long, REPULSION is a stark and absorbing film which is easier to admire than to actually like. The director’s narrative concentration on confined spaces would be honed over his entire career - most notably in ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE TENANT - and REPULSION can be considered a companion piece to Andrzej Zulawski's cult classic POSSESSION, where love and murder are conundrums in which tormented young women struggle with their mental and physical beauty.