God, I love this movie! As I mentioned in my previous review for “The Tenant”, “Repulsion” is my favourite of all of Polanski’s films. In fact it is one of my favourite movies of all time, it is simply outstanding.
The film is about a young girl who works in a beauty salon named Carole and her slow (and very disturbing) descent into madness. While it is never said outright, it appears that Carole was abused by someone close to her when she was younger. This has led her to have an absolute repulsion towards men, and with sex, which is what Carole relates men with. Until now though, she has seemed to live a relatively normal life. When the film begins though, Carole’s sister’s boyfriend has started to regularly stay overnight, so much so that he is leaving his toothbrush and straight-razor in the bathroom. This disgusts Carole because the place she feels most at ease in, is being infiltrated by the thing that she fears most. It is this, along with the fact that she can constantly hear the noises from her sister’s love-making, that is the catalyst for Carole’s breakdown. Things start slowly with Carole being unable to concentrate at work and she begins to find herself withdrawing from a boy that she has been dating. However it is when her sister goes on a week’s vacation with her boyfriend, leaving Carole by herself, that her terrifying journey into madness begins in earnest.
The directorial choices that Polanski makes in an attempt for us, the audience, to feel what Carole is going through are outstanding and are some of his best work in his long career. The whole story is told through Carole’s eyes and Polanski uses a number of different tricks and techniques to project just how scary losing your sanity must be. The main and obvious thing that he does, to symbolize Carole’s mind cracking, is have the walls and roof crack around her. These scenes can be very shocking especially on your first viewing of the film, particularly one crack which occurs when she turns on a light. The wall cracks directly under the switch as she turns it on, startling her, because it is so unexpected and it is also very loud.
Speaking of the sound, it plays an enormous role in “Repulsion”. As the majority of the film is dialogue-free, the sound design is used significantly to amplify the strange atmosphere, as well as at times being crucial to the plot. For example, whenever Carole is in bed, the sound of a ticking clock is quite prominent. I believe that this is what Carole used to hear when she was younger and was being abused. She would lie in bed and be terrified that it was going to happen again that night. However the ticking is always interrupted when the church bells ring (the church is opposite their courtyard), and these bells signal her hallucinations to begin, where strange men enter or try to enter her room, or just appear on her bed, where they then proceed to rape her. Interestingly when these scenes occur and Carole is seen screaming, the sound is removed entirely with the exception of the ticking clock again, which illustrates that Carole feels like the abuse is going on forever.
The image of the church is interesting and a frequent one. Carole is often seen looking out her window into the church where she witnesses the nuns playing games and going about their daily business. I believe that you could interpret the significance of the church in two ways. It can either be an attack on the church and religion (ie. If there is a God, where is he when Carole is being abused and why doesn’t he stop it?) or it could be seen in the opposite light, with Carole reaching out to God and using religion to get through the abuse. Personally, I believe it is more of an attack on religion, because the rest of the film offers little hope and light for Carole, so it would fit better within the structure of this story.
Roman Polanski also uses images of decaying food in ways that are very important to “Repulsion”. The food I’m talking about are the potatoes that she leaves out on the sink, and of course the (famous) skinned rabbit that Carole leaves on a plate, unrefrigerated on a table, near her phone. The first thing these images do is represent Carole’s deteriorating mind which appears to get worse and worse as (coincidentally) the food gets more rotten. The other thing these images do is, quite simply, give the audience a sense of how much time has passed between scenes. As the film is distorted through Carole’s eyes, we can never be really sure of just how much time actually has passed and we become a little confused, but the food and especially the potatoes, give a good indication of that.
As Carole’s mind comes close to breaking completely, Polanski starts to mess around with the dimensions of the set. For example, the once cramped bathroom now looks like a very long corridor with a bath at the end. The small living room becomes huge with the furniture looking tiny in it (Polanski does actually change the scale of the furniture to help with the effect), and the narrow hallway suddenly becomes quite wide and very dark. The hallway particularly scares Carole and when she walks down it, hands protrude from the walls, grabbing and fondling her. Finally, the roof of her bedroom appears to be getting lower, as if her whole world is closing in on her. All of these techniques are brilliant and so strange, as it takes your eyes a little while to adjust and actually realize what you are seeing. Polanski would later use the effect of re-scaling a room and the props within it in a dream sequence in “The Tenant” and the impact of that scene is just as powerful as the one’s done in “Repulsion”.
The biggest contributor to the look and atmosphere of “Repulsion” is the work of cinematographer Gil Taylor. This was the first time that Taylor had worked for Polanski and so good was their collaboration, that they worked together another two times (first on Polanski’s next film, “Cul-De-Sac” and on 1971’s “Macbeth”, this time in colour). Taylor’s work here is exemplary, creating a world of deep and dark shadows that terrifies Carole (not to mention ourselves). Obviously because the majority of the film is dialogue-free, the visuals must tell the story and to say that they exceed in their job is an understatement of the highest order. This is an extremely visual film. An interesting technique they used which contributes to the madness was photographing Carole in extreme close-ups while using very wide-angle lenses which created distortions to the image. Also when the film begins it is much brighter in the house, but as she continues to sink into her madness, the shadows get longer and longer and her world gets darker and darker.
Catherine Deneuve plays Carol in the film and she is phenomenal. At the time the film was being made, Deneuve was not the huge star that she is today, in fact she was relatively unknown at this stage, but in viewing this performance alone, it was safe to say that she was always going to be destined for greatness. Also during this time, Deneuve’s English was not that great at all, and the fact that “Repulsion” is told through images more than dialogue clearly helped Deneuve out dramatically (the opposite, unfortunately, is true of her sister’s performance in Polanksi’s next film “Cul-De-Sac”). Right from the start you can feel that something is not right with Carole, as Deneuve makes her appear very vacant and when it continues to get tougher for the poor girl, we actually find ourselves feeling very sad and terrified for her. There is one image in the film I find particularly sad (and I’m not sure why exactly), and that is when we see Carole ironing her sister’s boyfriend’s singlet. The camera slowly pans down until it is revealed that the iron isn’t even plugged in, but she continually moves the iron across the garment, as if in a trance of some sort. I think it is just the loneliness of the shot that makes me feel an incredible sadness when I watch it.
I could honestly talk about this film for ages, but I think it is better to experience the film yourself, because it is just so perfect. I do want to point out that, for that very reason, I have hidden a number of major plot points from this review. Overall, this is a masterpiece from Roman Polanski, which is a stunning achievement from just his second film. I cannot fault this film on any level and it sits very favorably amongst the other great black and white horror masterpieces of that time, including Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques”. This is recommended viewing to anyone interested in cinema.
Incidentally I should point out that my wife came with me to see this film and she hated almost every minute of it. She is a product of today’s cinema, and just the fact that the film was shot in black and white almost sent her home. Inexplicably she also felt that nothing happened during the film. Oh well, we all have different tastes I suppose. I mean, I didn’t get “Burlesque” like she did either. For the record, she gave “Repulsion” one star.