Repulsion (1965)

A Polanski masterclass in psychosexual filmmaking, still effectively chilling and disturbing today as it was—surely a shocker!—back in the mid-‘60s.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Roman Polanski
1965 | UK | Drama/Horror/Thriller | 105 mins | 1.85:1 | English
PG (passed clean) *Should be NC16 for sexual references and some disturbing scenes

Cast:  Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser
Plot: A sex-repulsed woman who disapproves of her sister’s boyfriend sinks into depression and has horrific visions of rape and violence.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize & FIPRESCI Prize (Berlin). Nom. for Best Cinematography (BAFTAs)
Distributor: Sony Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Dark/Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 26 Jul 2016
Spoilers: No

Only Roman Polanski’s second feature, after his Polish-language debut Knife in the Water (1964), Repulsion catapulted him to international stardom.

 Made in the UK and starring the beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who speaks English here, the film was supposed to be made as an exercise to instil confidence in potential investors so that Polanski could start on his personal project, Cul-de-Sac (1966), which he would deliver after this. 

Little did he–or anyone–know that Repulsion would go on to become one of his most celebrated works of his career. 

Deneuve plays Carol, a socially awkward and frigid young woman who lives with her older sister in a rented apartment.  The sister has an affair with a married man, and for a couple of nights, they have sex in the adjacent room, keeping Carol awake through the night. 

Carol’s (non)reaction to the sounds of the female orgasm here is especially important in peeling the layers behind her troubled psyche. 

Slowly but surely, Polanski cranks up the suspense through plotting—the sister goes for a week-long holiday, leaving Carol alone, and technique—sound design and editing tricks provide a number of effective hair-raising moments.

“We must get this crack mended.”

Deneuve’s performance is superb, somewhat an antithesis to her riskier and risque-ier work in Belle de jour (1967), though both Bunuel’s film and Repulsion share a similar curiosity towards female sexuality, but from two different touch points. Belle de jour is about sexual repression and rape fantasy, while Repulsion deals with sexual abuse and rape trauma. 

Polanski’s attempt to bring us into Carol’s fragmented, hallucinatory world, one marked by fears of masculine perversion, remains to be a masterclass in psychosexual filmmaking, still effectively chilling and disturbing today as it was—surely a shocker!—back in the mid-’60s. 

Chico Hamilton’s jazz-styled music initially gives the film an almost light-hearted, genteel quality, as if evoking a French New Wave-y spirit—this is most evident in the early on location street scenes.  But a more ominous-sounding reinterpretation, performed through forceful drumming, changes the mood of the film midway. 

Much of why Repulsion gets to us in a raw, primitive way is due to its strong attention to music and everyday ambient sounds e.g. church bell clanging, elevator whirling, water dripping etc.

Together with his US debut Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976), Repulsion would make up the ‘Apartment’ trilogy on fear and paranoia, all essential viewing in the Polanski canon.

Grade: A




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