By Dan Callahan
[Repulsion streets tomorrow on DVD—The Criterion Collection #483. Click here for more information.]
It's hard to know how to take Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) at this point, and not just because of the inescapable echoes and resonances it sets off relating to his own grotesque, tragic life. The film has often drawn comparisons to Hitchcock, and that's apt, for its blond protagonist, Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is both object and subject as she slowly starts to lose her mind in a grotty London flat. There are several moments when Polanski's camera stares voyeuristically at Deneuve in her see-through nightie, like a peeping tom, or like one of the men in the movie, both real and imaginary, who see her in purely sexual terms. Is Polanski implicating himself and his camera in the assorted violations that bring Carole to the brink? Not really. Suffice it to say that there are several curious visual choices that let us know he's working mainly from his subconscious; in one of the scenes where Carole imagines a man raping her, Polanski's camera pans down her nude body and finally comes to a stop on the sole of her foot, which looks as wrinkled as the faces of the women Carole serves as a manicurist.
Such instinctive visual choices abound in Repulsion, and some of them are clearer than others. There's no doubt about the meaning, and power, of the image of Carole looking at a crack in the sidewalk and realizing that what's happening in her mind can have exterior manifestations. We see a family photo of Carole early on that lets us know she has always been off in her own dream world, and the film ends on a close-up of her hard, frightened eyes in that old photo; the film begins with a Hitchcockian close-up of one of Carole's eyes, and even at this level of magnification it looks cloudy, unhealthy, wiggling around like a small animal caught in a trap. Polanski borrows from Clouzot's Diabolique (1955) when Carole slides her first murder victim into a bathtub, and he turns the arms holding candles in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946) into a dirty joke; the gnarly hands coming out of the walls of her flat try to grope Carole, and one hand succeeds in getting a good squeeze of one of her breasts. (I've always wondered about that one hand and its owner. Was he paid to simply stand there behind the wall and grope Deneuve? How many takes did Polanski do? It's safe to say that the owner of that hand had the best job in show business on that particular day.)
Watching the early scenes, I was surprised to see that Catherine Deneuve has freckles on her face. You would never know that in most of her French films, where she's usually a fairy princess of some kind, an icon struggling to come alive from the deep freeze through the melting medium of brute sexuality. In Repulsion, you are never aware of Icon Deneuve, maybe because this is so early in her career and she's working in such a radically different context. Deneuve stays faithful to her character, even at the risk of looking foolish toward the end, when she has descended to the level of a four-year-old. Carole has probably suffered some sexual abuse as a child, most likely from a family member; to her, any male sexuality is intrinsically threatening, so that she has to protect herself equally from a well-meaning but dim boyfriend and a rapacious landlord. We feel Carole's suffering intermittently, but the film also stresses the excitement of completely losing control, or letting yourself go.
Repulsion refers to a lot of other movies, but its queasy black humor is entirely Polanski. Forty-seven minutes in, he springs one of the all-time great "gotcha!" moments when Carole looks into a mirror and sees a strange man there for a brief flash; even though I knew it was coming, the lulling rhythms leading up to it, the burst of shrieking music and the overall execution of the "gotcha" made me gasp in fear and pleasure. As a psychological thriller, there aren't many films that can top Repulsion, but is it more than gripping and suspenseful? Are we meant to feel compassion for Carole, or is her ordeal sometimes just an exercise in style? Is she a female victim who briefly turns into a Ms. 45 of revenge, or just a helpless bird lost in an inhospitable country?
At the end, with Carole lying catatonic on the floor, a female neighbor says, "Please, someone help her," in a well-meaning but impotent tone of voice, but there's no help for Carole, just as there's no help for anyone in Polanski's universe. The sleazy boyfriend of Carole's sister finally carries her out of this nightmare apartment, and Polanski makes sure that we register his twinge of lust at having such a supine beauty in his arms. Even after he has seen the gore left behind from the fatal misunderstanding between Carole and her men, this man would still like to lay her, right then and there; it's a complex moment, because he obviously feels guilty for being turned on, yet the flesh is weak. It's in those degrees of weakness and losing control that Polanski is most himself and most troubling.
Image/Sound/Extras: Considering the number of godawful public domain prints of Repulsion that have been floating around for years, it's a relief to see it looking and sounding so well. Polanski himself emphasizes the "shabby" aspect of its look on his audio commentary with Deneuve, recorded in 1994. Indeed, he's quite critical of the film, outlining some of its faults in a sardonic, weary voice, while Deneuve regrets the Playboy shoot he talked her into to promote the film, and remembers that the extras playing the groping hands had to stay immobilized behind the apartment walls all day (she doesn't mention the one hand that made contact, alas). A French television program shows Polanski on the set as an Ernst Lubitsch "act everything out for them" sort of director, and it also shows how lively and charming he could be at this relatively stress-free point in his life. How about Polanski's Cul-de-Sac (1966) next, Criterion?
House contributor Dan Callahan's writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.