Repulsion: Cracks in the Façade


repulsionSome people seem to think of this movie as one of the great horror classics, but I can’t help seeing it as primarily a touching tragedy. It’s a psychological study of a human being whose mental problems grow increasingly bigger as the people in her life, her sister in particular, essentially choose to look the other way instead of finding her help. What Roman Polanski has done is visualize what’s going on in the victim’s head, and that’s where the film becomes horrifying.

It is the director’s second feature film and his first English-speaking. Set in London, the film begins with establishing what kind of relationships Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) has with people. She lives with her sister Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux) who is involved with a married man. Carol hates having him in the apartment, but Hélène is not interested in her opinion. Carol works at a beauty parlor and is being courted by Colin (John Fraser), but she won’t let him come too close to her. Few people understand Carol and her problems. Her sister seems to think of her as a pampered child who should just stop acting strangely, her co-workers know her as that quiet girl who just does what she’s supposed to do and even though her would-be boyfriend is seriously falling for her, he finds her erratic behavior frustrating.

Carol is displaying every possible sign of mental unhealth, but as long as she’s with her sister, things are under control. When Hélène and her lover go away for ten days and leave Carol alone in the apartment, she quickly deteriorates. As she begins to have hallucinations and escapes deeper into her mind, she is no longer able to separate fantasy from reality.

Illustrating the sickness of a person’s mind
There’s a sensationalistic touch to the whole concept; Carol is beautiful (it’s Catherine Deneuve for Christ’s sake), but she’s nevertheless a virgin and the fantasies she becomes trapped in is of a rapist breaking into the apartment. However, Polanski never succumbs to anything silly. The story about Carol is painful and realistic and the film is a perfect example of how special effects can be used to illustrate the sickness of a person’s mind; the scene where hands reach out of the walls in the apartment, grabbing for Carol, is quite frightening.

There are many other such examples. In Carol’s mind, cracks keep appearing in the walls; the entire apartment becomes her dungeon, a place where she’s trapped, but also prefers to stay. It takes a while before Polanski has us completely involved in the story, but once he does we’re fascinated by Carol’s descent into madness. An argument could be made that this film is quite useful for anyone interested in trying to understand what’s behind news stories about people who suddenly commit murder for no apparent reason; there are always warning signals.

Deneuve delivers one of her most memorable performances; she doesn’t have many lines, but she’s utterly convincing, and the director uses silence as an effective weapon in his arsenal. Together with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, he turns the quiet and confining apartment into a menace.

Polanski is obviously interested in human psyches gone mad. He had the crazed student in Knife in the Water (1962) and he would subsequently return to having apartments as the scene where people lose their mind, especially in The Tenant (1976). No wonder I felt somewhat uneasy about watching this movie alone on a Saturday night in my small apartment.

Repulsion 1965-Britain. 105 min. B/W. Produced by Gene Gutowski. Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach. Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Carol Ledoux), Ian Hendry (Michael), John Fraser (Colin), Patrick Wymark, Yvonne Furneaux, James Villiers.

Last word: “When you do films like ‘Repulsion’ or musicals, where you have to play someone so far away from yourself, what I do is I come in the morning and get involved in the character, but I’m always very pleased to leave it at night and have my life. No, I don’t live that much with the character. I find it hard enough having to spend so many hours with the character during the day. Because you don’t act all the time and you spend a long time waiting, but you still have to support this character all day long.” (Deneuve, The Guardian)

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