The Cult Class Collection

Repulsion (1964)

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark

Directed by: Roman Polanski

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Hangin' on the telephone... Catherine Deneuve as Carol in Roman Polanski's Repulsion

Roman Polanski's classic psychological film noir Repulsion is an absorbing, disturbing and beautifully crafted portrayal of mental disintegration. Shocking, violent and lyrical, its masterly style attracts as much as its grim subject matter repels: rarely has a film been so well named.

Right from the start, the film is both weird and uncompromising, beginning with a close up of a huge gelatinous eye, squeamishly overlaid by the opening titles. The eye, it transpires, belongs to one Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a French beautician who lives with her sister in 1960s London. This being a Polanski film, the sisters' apartment is huge, old, shabby and faintly sinister. And Carol, of course, has some serious issues. She stares into space in a catatonic trance when she should be doing manicures. She gazes in horror at cracks in the pavement as if afraid they'll swallow her up. And she clearly has problems with the opposite sex, treating her would-be suitor Colin like a vaguely familiar but annoying acquaintance she can't quite place.

Carol is clearly a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but her sister, Helen, can't see the signs (that or has had to put up with her strange sibling for so many years she no longer cares) and blithely departs for a fortnight's holiday with her married lover, Michael, leaving Carol alone in the flat. Her horse-faced boss also plays right into the hands of her condition, sending her home when she spaces out in the salon rather than demanding that she knuckle down and do some bloody work.

Home is the last place Carol should be. Alone in the flat, her dippy absent-mindedness and strange sexual hang ups are given full rein. A skinned rabbit from the fridge is left out in the living room to rot and gather flies whilst potatoes sprout eyes in the kitchen and the bath overflows and floods the floor. At night she is visited by terrible hallucinations (or are they fantasies?) in which men appear from beneath her bedclothes and rape her violently, yet silently, the relentless ticking of her alarm clock the only sound to be heard.

Part student midden, part surreal Dali-esque nightmare, the flyblown chaos of the flat reflects the chaos in Carol's mind as she gradually loses her grip on reality. Not only are the walls closing in, but they're crumbling, cracking, reaching out to grab her and turning to porridge beneath her hands. As Carol's mind disintegrates, the seedy, run down, claustrophobic apartment becomes the site of gothic horror, the castle, the dungeon, the lonely shack in the woods. The terrible place. But of course the terrible place isn't the flat at all. It's Carol's mind.

Having a dead body in the bath makes washing awkward for Carol in Repulsion

But perhaps Carol's sexual hang ups aren't so surprising given the nature of the world she inhabits. London may have been 'swinging' in 1964, but women's lib was still a long way off. 'Hello darling, how about a bit of the other then?' an unreconstructed construction worker asks with a leer. 'How d'you get on with Little Miss Muffet. still keeping her legs crossed?' Colin's drinking buddies enquire with appropriate nudge-nudge-wink-wink gestures. As for the creepy sex-mad landlord who wants to come to 'an arrangement' about the rent. No wonder Carol, passive and listless as the dead rabbit, feels that women are nothing more than pieces of meat to be used and abused. And why her fractured mind revolts at the idea as, all the while, outside, a tolling bell calls nuns in a neighbouring convent to prayer, perhaps symbolising a straightforward purity that poor Carol, trapped in the disordered mess of her flat and her mind, can only yearn for.

And then she starts to kill people. First up is poor hapless Colin, who only wants to know if she's okay. Bam! He's violently bludgeoned to death with a candlestick and deposited in the bath. Next up is her oily, perspiring landlord, who thinks he can exchange rent money for sexual favours. Big mistake, mister. As sudden and unexpected as they're inevitable, the killings are vicious and shocking, although Carol's subsequent oblivion to the bodies littering the flat is, if anything, more disturbing.

Eek! A spider! Carol sees something scary in Repulsion

While we never find out why Carol is the way she is, certainly by the end of the film we know what it feels like to be her. The camera acts as a conduit to her emotions: long slow shots that track her aimless progress down the street or follow her eyes as they alight on something horrible in the flat allow us to get right under her skin. And believe me, it's not a pleasant place to be. When she passes leering workmen on the street we feel her stiffen self-conscious; as she stares engrossed at a crack in the pavement, we have no choice but to become similarly hypnotised by the image. When she's attacked in her dreams, the remorseless ticking of the clock creates a terrible sense of claustrophobia and panic, and when her sleazy landlord starts coming onto her, we feel her rising horror and disgust. When she finally lets rip and savagely stabs him to death with a cut-throat razor, we experience a huge sense of cathartic release, mingled with, well, repulsion.

Carol's neuroses are never explained, but wherever they come from, they seem to have been with her for a while. The film ends as it begins, with a huge blurry close up, this time of the face of the child Carol in an old family photograph. Isolated, vacant, and staring into space. We're left to stare back, mesmerised, as we have been throughout the entire film.

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