Roman Polanski’s Repulsion was released in 1965 on a budget of $300,000, and managed to break a few taboos in the process. Aside from being Polanski’s first film in the English language, Repulsion also pushed the boundaries of sexuality in cinema. It was also one of the first films since Hitchcock’s Psycho to tackle the subject of mental deterioration in a serious manner. It was unlike anything that had been seen at the time – a shocking psychological horror film, with definite sexual undertones.
The film concerns a young French woman named Carole Ledoux – played to perfection by actress Catherine Deneuve – who works as a manicurist during the day in an upper-class spa. She lives with her sister in an admittedly shabby apartment, and spends most of her time alone while her sister carries on an affair with a married man. From the start of the film, we know one thing about Carole – she seems slightly disconnected from her surroundings. She drifts into tiny trances at work, and becomes distracted by seemingly insignificant things, such as cracks in the sidewalk and an empty chair in the locker room at the spa. At first, we assume that she is just a socially awkward daydreamer, until the spells become more frequent and increasingly disturbing.
When her sister leaves her alone at the apartment for a week, Carole begins to lose all traces of her sanity. The house is completely silent, save for the ticking of the clock and the chimes of the convent bells next door. She finds that her sister has left a skinned rabbit in the fridge for supper. Carol removes it from the fridge. We assume that she is going to prepare it and have a nice dinner all to herself in the quiet of the apartment. The rabbit never quite makes it into the oven. Carol leaves the carcass out to rot, right after she slices it up with a straight razor. She also begins to have violent hallucinations; hands begin to spring out of the walls in the hallway and grasp for her, those same walls begin to crack and deteriorate, and a shadowy figure appears in her room and attempts to rape her. When Colin – a young man with a crush that Carol frequently ignores – breaks in to her apartment, she murders him.
Things only get worse before the terrifying – and somewhat heartbreaking – finale.
It is suggested throughout the film that Carol is afraid of sex. She is repulsed by it. She is both frightened and sickened by the fact that the men around her seem to long for her sexually. In an extended scene, she listens to the sounds of her sister making love to her boyfriend through the thin walls. As her sister reaches orgasm, a look of horror washes over Carol’s face. Not only is she visibly angered by her sister’s moaning, she is frightened. This disgust for sex coupled with her admittedly delicate mental state causes Carol to slip farther into the dark abyss that is her mind.
A picture in Carol’s apartment seems to hint at the fragility that we can clearly see in her face. The picture is that of a family portrait – perhaps a Sunday Easter gathering. The family stands together, all smiling happily at the camera. Carol stands off to the side, staring off into the distance, completely detached, cold and mysterious.
Catherine Deneuve delivers a mesmerizing and fearless performance in this film. She captures Carole’s mental breakdown in such a way that it never feels like an act. Polanski is clearly in his element here, unapologetically minimalist in his approach, creating a mood that lingers long after the film has ended.
Repulsion is a must see for cineastes. It will stay with you for days afterward, and you will never forget the images that it plants into your mind.