– By Edward Boff – Roman Polanski first rose to international success with his last Polish film Knife in the Water.
By Edward Boff
Roman Polanski first
rose to international success with his last Polish film Knife in the Water. Now, to kick off a new season
celebrating his long, but controversial, career, the BFI have prepared a
special re-release of his first English language film, Repulsion. How well
does this psychological horror stand up?
Well, for a start, it’s a rare case of a horror film that genuinely
deserves the title of “psychological thriller”….
Carol Ledoux (Catherine
Deneuve), a Belgian living in London, has problems. She is losing touch with reality,
especially in regards to her relationships with men. Her sort-of boyfriend (John
Fraser) and her sister’s (Yvonne
Furneaux) significant other (Ian
Hendry) don’t help matters either with their attitudes. It’s been a long time building, but a
long period alone in the flat while her sister is away is one of the final
tipping points for Carol…
Going with the film’s biggest strength first; Catherine
Deneuve. Deneuve gives a
magnificent performance, showing from the very first frame the character’s
emotional distance and fragility.
Communicating this primarily through her eyes, she shows Carol’s thought
processes becoming more and more introverted as her fractured sense of reality
overwhelms her real world. She
also perfectly sums up the character’s own horror at the world she’s trying to
retreat from, that her fantasies make worse, and the terrifying ferocity when
things turn from bad to worse.
It’s a remarkable, almost entirely physical, performance that the entire
film is worth watching for alone.
Of course, one reason it’s performed that way is because of
Deneuve’s inexperience with English.
Casting a European actress in an English film was a good way for
director Polanski to convey the theme of alienation, specifically that in an urban
environment. Polanski would return
to this theme of urban paranoia in The
Tenant and, most notably, Rosemary’s
Baby and it’s conveyed perfectly here. Carol’s walks through South Kensington and Battersea are
perfectly photographed showing her, even as she walks among people, somehow
still apart from them. This is at
its most plain in the scene where she walks through crowds of onlookers, not
once turning to see the car crash they’re staring at. Almost every scene in Repulsion is filmed from her point of
view; the only ones that aren’t are directed and played so differently you
While there is excellent location work, the bulk of the film
takes place within a single flat and this is where the horror is at its most
effective. This was made at a time
when screen terror was moving from its gothic roots and there are few examples
that reflect this idea as well as Repulsion. The latter stages of the film, with Carol on her own, are
when the lines between what is real and her distorted perceptions’ are
completely shattered. The flat
suddenly taking on impossibly large dimensions, hands emerging from the walls,
men appearing seemingly out of nowhere to molest her; it’s a surreal descent
into hell. Adding to this are some
more objectively “real” sections that show some of her neuroses and
fears about the opposite sex may not be entirely unjustified, such as one tense
sequence when the sleazy landlord (Patrick
Wymark) turns up…
For an obviously low-budgeted piece, funded by legendary
British independent producer Tony Tenser,
Repulsion is an extraordinary piece of work. It goes further into darker areas of the psyche than nearly
any other film from that time or before had dared. Its influence can be seen on many a subsequent work; notably
it shares many commonalities with David
Lynch‘s debut Eraserhead, and Darren Aaronofsky‘s π. There are definite flaws; the low budget
does intrude on occasion and the ending is more than a bit muddled, clumsy and
a tad anticlimactic but what leads up to it is more than strong enough. Repulsion is the moment when a director
moved into his prime and it’s no surprise that Polanski went from this
micro-budget to major studio productions with Paramount in just four years.
It’s a dark, uncompromising journey of a film that is not for everyone and will
leave all unsettled.