Film is primarily a visual medium. Sound is important and at times almost more important than the visuals .. but only at times. The sound cannot carry a movie, while visuals can, hence the success of the silent era (It was not completely silent as there was accompanying music, but you get my point). When a director tries to make sound and visuals go together in a highly expressive and artistic manner, it often leads to surprising good results.
One such case is "Repulsion" by Polanski. It is a pretty astounding English "debut" in the full feature length format for Roman Polanski and he delivers like a seasoned artist with decades of experience under his helm. It was only a small british "sex-ploitation" company, Compton, that would touch anything like what Polanski and his writer had come up with. It is not any kind of cheap soft porn excuse for a film, but again it balances on the low budget, sexual horror edge, like no other artistic movie in history - save the like of Hitchcock´s "Psycho".
Carol, a young woman from a French speaking part of Europe, lives with her sister in a mansion flat in London. She works in some kind of beauty parlour in the daytime and after work heads straight home to her room, avoiding as much as she can of contact with the "external world".
What we later learn is that Carol suffers from a severe anxiety of men approaching her and entering into her personal space. As is immediately obvious watching the movie, Carol is magnetically beautiful and attracts men like "flies". She is very introvert in nature and has trouble communicating her situation to anyone, least the men that flirts with her or literally wants to get to know her by more than her sexuality.
It seems that under the right circumstances and the right people around her, this might have been catched before she goes off into the deep end. But there is nobody who either really care for her, understand her or even have a clue what she is dealing with. Her beauty has become a curse she can never lift herself and she can never control the effect she has on the strong male attraction to her. When her sister leaves for a vacation in Italy, she is completely alone with her darkened thoughts.
This starts to go to her head and she slowly but steadily sinks into a more and more schizophrenic and obsessive state. There might be some baggage she is carrying from her childhood or maybe a general lack of interest for her as a person way back that does not help her either. But she is heading into a problematic psychotic state.
She has violent visions of being raped by intruders during the night and even dreams of suddenly finding out a man is lying next to her only to start violating her. Her mental capacities are also fracturing and she starts to loose the sense of where the line between nightmare and reality is.
Sadly there is only one way this downward spiral leads as she is inevitably approached by men and death and destruction follows in the wake of her insanity.
First of all I will mention a few film history nudges I have spotted. In the opening scrolls, the texts are centered but waving left or right as if out of balance, except for the last line "Directed by Roman Polanski". This one enters horizontally from left to right (?) and straight over the middle of Carol´s (Catherine Deneuve) eye. This is in my opinion a direct reference to the scalpel cutting of the eye in the opening of Bunuel and Dali´s "Un Chien Andalou" (The Andalusian Dog). It is one of the most unwatchable sequences in movie history (at least to me) and could possibly have the meaning of the piercing gaze of men and women on her face, that she reacts to.
The only time that we see Carol laughing and joyful is in a scene where her colleague recalls the story in a Chaplin movie she had just watched (The Goldrush) and the specific scene is the famous one where Chaplin is mistaken for a delicious chick ready for eating. Much like how Carol is unwillingly looked at as something to feast your eyes upon.
Apart from these nudges, of which there are probably more that I have not yet spottet, there are many little symbolisms also. like the rotting rabbit meal on a plate, with flies circling around it and crawling on it. A rabbit is a symbol of youth and fertility and acts as a analogy to Carol caught in a dilemma between not wanting to have men around her with the consequence of ultimately wasting her fertility over the years.
Of the more obvious symbolisms, are the nuns playing with a ball in the yard visible from her window. They are playing freely and joyfully having given up their fertility to "god" so to say and thus has let go of the ultimate necessity of attracting a man as they will never really be able to do that, voluntarily living in the confines of a monastery. And there is the fallic nature if the building on the postcard her sister sends her from Italy, reminding her what ils really going on “down there”.
But then there are the horror aspects of the walls starting to crack around her safe space at home representing her inner demolition of her sanity. The hands comes out from the walls and tries to grab her when she passes by. Or the walls turn into a clay like substance that shows her senses are starting to fall apart too.
She walks as if in a trance or in a confused teenage girl like state where she does not really have any clue what she is doing or understanding the effects of her actions. She only have a slight interest in covering up what she has done a few seconds after the deed, but it is only a superficial kind of "sanity" that feeds the immediate desire not a reasoned covering up of like that of a calculated psychopath.
The cinematography is very good. There are so many memorable scenes and zooms here, at times a little wobbly but at other times pure brilliance. Deneuve delivers a near sub-genre defining performance which is balancing the the difficult edge between expressing something mental while portraying a deeply introvert personality.
This is a very early psychological horror movie in the same vain as Hitchcock´s Vertigo and Psycho. There are obvious references and it only prove how monumental those Hitchcock movies were for the development of the genres they created. The difference with Polanski is that he lets the psychological aspects fill all of, or at least most of the movie and let it simmer until the horrific third act. Hitchcock was going more for a shocker and giving the audience a red herring, particularly in Psycho.
In some ways, Repulsion is better than Psycho, as it carries the mood all through the runtime, while Hitchcock has to establish a whodunnit kind of scenario in the third act to wrap things up, albeit in a brilliant manner. Repulsion is soaked in the psychology of the main character and it never lets you go, instead gets more and more under your skin until you actually feel like you are the one intruding in her private space - that she is repulsed by. This close up narrative is quite unique and with all its other fine cinematography and its eery soundscapes "mixed" with silence, that are amplified to a psychotic feeling, it all gels together to a masterful artistic experience of a mental problem.
The only thing I miss is a bit of Hitchcocks impeccable ability to create suspense. I may be judging the movie unfairly, but particularly in the first act I miss a bit of lead into what we are to expect. maybe Polanski is trying to pull a Psycho by being sort of "ordinary" before the big slash. As well cast as Deneuve is (I cannot think of a better actor for that roll than Deneuve´s garbo-like, tomboyish, innocent but personality-imbued look) a bit absent in her acting at times and I miss a bit of oomph in the beginning to give me some appetite for the rest (no puns intended btw !!)
But apart from that, what a great movie and it comes seriously well recommended, and as close to a masterpiece as one can get without having that extra bit. And maybe that is why it is a pretty much forgotten gem, except for those hardcore movie buffs :-)