Well, I’m probably not going to be getting any sleep tonight. I just finished watching Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological thriller, Repulsion, and for fear of suffering extremely vivid nightmares involving skinned rabbits and hands protruding out of my walls, I’m going to hold off on sleep until I’ve watched something a little less terrifying. Gore and blood and guts have never nor will they ever terrify me as much as some good old fashioned mind games, and while Repulsion takes a while to get off the ground and moves at its own, slower place, when the scares finally come, they are guaranteed to leave you tense and on edge. The film was far from perfect and despite her beauty, I’ll never believe that Catherine Deneuve is a fine actress, but at the end of the day, if you want a film that is going to get under your skin and stay there til you beg for release from its nightmare world, then you need look no further than Repulsion.
Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour) plays Carol, a French woman working at a beauty salon and living in a London apartment with her older sister, Helena. Catherine is a bit off (to put it lightly) when the film begins. She’s a neurotic and sexually repressed mess. At the mere thought of men, she cringes nearly into the fetal position (and often not even nearly but completely). She is awakened most nights by the sound of her sister and her boyfriend’s loud and amorous love-making. She can’t even escape men at her work as her co-workers and clients often discuss men and sex, and it only serves to reinforce her neuroses. Her sister and her sister’s boyfriend leave for a prolonged vacation to Italy and leave Carol in charge of the apartment. Over the course of this period, Carol descends into a terrifying world of paranoia, hallucinations, and sheer insanity that climaxes in moments that I will refrain from ruining on this blog, but needless to say, her sexual repression manifests itself through complete psychosis.
Besides sex being a major themes in both films and certain trademarks of Polanski’s filming style, Repulsion couldn’t have been any more different from Tess. Whereas Tess was a gorgeously constructed period piece examining female disempowerment in a patriarchal society through the lens of one girl’s corrupted sexual awakening, Repulsion is a modern tale of the dangers of extreme sexual repression in a society no longer forcing women to be saints. I’ve seen four Polanski films now (Repulsion, Chinatown, Tess, and Rosemary’s Baby) and Repulsion has been by far the oddest of these films. At times, I couldn’t help but be reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead in terms of the style and themes of the film, and how disturbing the film could be despite my inability to describe what exactly was freaking me out. There aren’t a ton of movies out there that I can say legitimately frightened me, but this one totally makes my list now. While it might not be the masterpiece of modern cinema that Chinatown was, I can say that this particular Polanski film is going to stick with me deeper than Chinatown ever has.
The film has one major and glaring flaw. When it first starts out, it can be slower than Eeyore trying to find his tail after smoking some barbiturates. Even after the scares begin, the movie is never fast in execution. It just becomes so incredibly tense, that you stop noticing how slowly things are going by. However, as things first start to fall in place and we’re being introduced to the world that Carol is living in, you have to wonder to yourself a million times what exactly is this movie about and what in the hell is going on. I wasn’t really sure what it was about when I put it in my PS3, so I was becoming concerned that I had just “treated” myself to another bit of 1960’s art-house cinema that has no plot or any meaning to grasp from it. That was fortunately not the case. Although, even before things did pick up, I was at least able to appreciate the beautiful cinematography in the film which is instantly engaging, and as Carol delves deeper into her world of paranoia and madness, the camera does a perfect job of placing you as deep into her terror as she is. The camera, much like the story, puts its hooks in you and does not let go.
For fans of psychological thrillers or horror, this is a must-watch. It might be a little bit slow for a lot of people’s tastes, and its slowness is costing its score just a little bit, but that should not discourage you from giving this one a try. It’s really a shame that Roman Polanski slept with a 16 year old because I have loved practically all of his movies that I’ve seen and I can only imagine what his career would have looked like had he been allowed to stay in the United States and continue making great movies. He has a very unique mind and style, and talents like his are hard to come by. I’m obviously not saying that his talent excuses his pedophilia; I was simply saying his pedophilia didn’t exist. The only major Roman Polanski films I have left to watch that I’ve never seen are The Pianist and… it may very well just be The Pianist. As it is, I’m looking forward to seeing that one as well. He’s a director with a powerful vision, and Repulsion was no exception. I just hope I can fall asleep tonight.
Final Score: A-