Roman Polanski's English-language follow-up his acclaimed debut Knife in the Water is in some respects one of the all-time great horror films. More than almost any other psychological thriller, it so effectively portrays its protagonist's madness that it leaves the audience itself unsure of their own sanity. In other ways, Repulsion is a great but spotty movie that clearly demonstrates its director's relative inexperience. However, I believe that Polanski overcomes his early shortcomings by placing us within a firmly subjective point-of-view, one that continues to grip me even when I spot the cracks in the story.
As with all great horror films, Repulsion can sum up its plot in a sentence: an unbalanced woman comes undone over a brief period of time alone in an apartment. However, all great horror films must also flesh out their basic stories with proper scares and, just as important, solid characters outside of the villain. Repulsion must make doubly sure of this, because it contains no tangible villain.
Polanski succeeds in his endeavor, chiefly through a combination of New Wave photography and a textbook-worthy usage of sound. Carol, a shy, withdrawn beauty, works at a beauty parlor where her unkempt hair and nail biting are constantly at odds with the permed and manicured clients she serves. She works there with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), and the two struggle to pay the rent -- though looking at the lavish decor of their sizable flat, I would venture to say that they aren't as crushed by society as living beyond their means. When the camera follows Carol through the streets, it moves in a decidedly realist, New Wave style. Shots within the apartment tend to be either static or steadily moved. In both scenarios, Polanski frames his shots with precision, making subtle use of shadow to convey the impending nightmare. The most striking element of his direction and Gilbert Taylor's cinematography, however, is their ability to frame every single shot to mask part of Carol's face. It reminded me of how Polanski isolated the flawed eye of Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, and they both evoke similar, albeit different, character traits: the shadowing of Chinatown reflected classic film noir moral gray, while the jagged masking of Carol's face displays her growing madness.
But sound, more than images, set the tone of the film. Not much happens for the film's 40 minutes, which chiefly consist of repetitive scenes of Carol's discomfort with those around her. The only inkling of what's to come lies in its audio: an ever-dripping tap, other apartment complex residents moving about outside the flat, ticking clocks echo ever so faintly in the background, a far cry from the in-your-face approach that would define future uses of these same sounds. Even with remastered audio, these noises are barely perceptible, because Polanski did not want them to dominant the scenes.
It all changes when Helen leaves with her boyfriend for a holiday in Rome; Carol begs her sister not to go, as Helen is the only person with whom she can communicate. Without Helen to guide her from place to place, Carol is at last alone with her demons. Things spiral slowly at first: Carol fills a tub until it overflows, then simply leaves it. She prepares a rabbit for dinner, only to leave it in disgust (she displayed an earlier aversion to food in one of the film's first scenes). Shots of this slowly decaying animal, as well as rotting potatoes, become the most solid indicators of passing time as Polanski moves deeper and deeper into Carol's point of view.
Sexual frustration and aggression defines several of Polanski's films (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown), and the director builds his script on the same foundation. At the beginning, Carol cannot sleep at night after she overhears Helen and her boyfriend making love; when Michael leaves his toothbrush and razor in a glass in the bathroom, Carol approaches them as if hazardous waste and finally dumps them in the bin. Once alone, she spots a figure of a man in her mirror, who attacks and rapes her in her dreams. This insight into her past and lingering trauma is horrific enough, but she must face a real rape in the present when the landlord comes for the rent. Initially curt and offish, he softens into a lascivious grin upon realizing what a fragile girl he has alone in the apartment. In a fit of crazed fear, Carol slits the landlord's throat with Michael's razor. This is actually her second murder; earlier, she slew her hapless, unwanted suitor Colin with a candlestick. The film's final shot suggests that the rapes that haunt her were actually perpetrated by her own father, which casts further parallels with Chinatown. (I'm not one to hold an artist's private life against him, but the prevalence of tortured, sexually abused young women in Polanski's early work can make it even more difficult to watch as it draws open comparisons to Polanski's own troubled life.)
Catherine Deneuve had been working for less than a decade before she landed the role, and was barely in her 20s at the time. However, she, like the director, overcomes her inexperience with a commanding performance specifically designed to alienate. She and Polanski craft Carol into an ice queen worthy of a Hitchcock film. Carol, like Evelyn Mulwray or Rosemary, works as a brittle, unapproachable beauty but Polanski differs from Hitchcock in his ability to add dimensions to his blondes. That the reasons for their coldness always trace back to terrifying sexual abuse is disturbing and even facile, but it's hardly less sexual than Hitchcock's brazen fetishism.
I first saw Repulsion earlier in the year, on a DVD from Netflix of such low quality I thought perhaps the previous renter loved the film so much he made a shoddy copy and mailed that back. The image was so blurry, so grainy, that I actually stopped paying any attention to the film, and when I finally noticed that the film had ended, I just popped it back in the envelope rather than give it another chance. At last, Criterion once again obtained the rights (it produced a laserdisc in the early '90s), and their reissue, though not on the level of their restoration of The Seventh Seal, is a revelation. I can now see the cracks in the makeup of Carol's pushy, gabby salon client, which reflects the cracks seen later in the apartment (which of course serve as a visual cue of Carol's mental state). Some parts of the film will always look soft and grainy (Polanski calls it the "shoddiest" of his works in the commentary), but now the visuals pack all the power they once did.
Thank God for this remaster, as some shots are the best in Polanski's canon: the extreme close-ups of Deneuve's eyes in the opening credits as Maurice Binder's titles roll over them like razorblades, a possible reference to surreal cinema touchstone Un Chien Andalou, perhaps (Polanski says that if such a connection exists, he is unaware of it). Hands emerging from the walls to grab and grope at Carol. That's a fine special effect, particularly on the film's low-budget, but I enjoyed two much simpler moments: both of the murders in the film contain some of the most realistic looking blood in black-and-white cinema. Polanski notes in the commentary that he hated the thick look of chocolate syrup used as movie blood for monochrome pictures, and he and a crew tried various concoctions until they found one that looked enough like the real thing. The shot of Carol placing Colin's corpse in the still-full tub is all the more haunting for the gentle way the blood flows from his mouth and clouds the tub, and I loved the fact that the landlord does not immediately spurt blood when Carol slashes him with the razor, as blood never pours immediately from a razor cut.
The most interesting insight of the accompanying commentary track comes when Polanski dismisses critics who label his work as pessimistic and cynical as lazy, stating that no-one who'd survived as many setbacks and horrors as him couldn't have at least some optimism. That opinion is indirectly supported by Deneuve (who recorded her input separately) when she offers her take on Michael picking up Carol and taking her out of the apartment at the end: to her, this shot shows Carol taking comfort in a man, too tired and destroyed to recoil and attack him, thus allowing her to experience a male's gentle side (Colin, too, was kind, but she never let him close enough to see it).
Repulsion continues to exert an influence upon horror filmmakers today, though few appear to have learned from its example. Psychological thrillers these days ruin their plots through over-explication or cheap scares. Repulsion has its share of jump scares, but they're filmed with New Wave-inspired inventiveness and buoyed by a disorienting audio track that utilizes more than mere instrument starts to make your heart skip. Everyone who wishes to make a horror film should pay heed to this enduring classic, and a note Polanski gives over a shot of a slight nick on the primping client's finger played up to maximum effect: "Little things can be as horrific as cutting off heads."