When I was a child, my mum was a horror fan. The films were kept in plain sight on VHS tapes that went into the top-loader, but I was always warned, “Don’t ever watch that; it’ll upset you and give you bad dreams. It’s very scary.” So I never did, but I was intrigued. We’d go to the video rental store and I’d stand for as long as I could get away with it staring at the shelves that held the horror films. Predictably, I grew into quite the horror fan. One of the films I was never allowed to watch was Polanski’s Repulsion. Still now, my mum (who these days refuses to watch anything beyond a 12 certificate, and blames herself entirely for my errant viewing habits – rightly so, let’s face it) talks of Repulsion in a way that fascinates me. (Here’s the trailer.) So today I watched it, and this is what I thought.
Unsettling from the outset, albeit grainy, muffled and technically dated, it’s clear that Repulsion was ahead of its time. Controversial though Polanski’s private life might be (please don’t think that’s all the thought I’ve given to this aspect of the man), he is nonetheless a mesmeric film maker. Be it Rosemary’s Baby, Tess, Macbeth or Repulsion, it feels impossible not to be compelled by something really quite repellent.
The epitome of innocence, beauty and sexuality, Catherine Deneuve as Carol is hypnotic to watch. Consequently, the viewer accompanies her on her tortured descent into murderous madness.
By the time Carol’s claustrophobia is shown in the now infamous hallucination scene where hands seep from the apartment’s cracked walls to molest her body, I’d reached the point of wanting to see Carol wreak bloody revenge.
It’s impossible to feel sympathetic towards any of the male characters who form the ride through which Deneuve effortlessly guides us – a feat not easily achieved in 1965 when leers at women from strangers were far more the accepted norm. The builder who harasses Carol on the street in the film’s opening shots appears later as the rapist of her nightmare. Then there are the vile, misogyny-spouting men in the bar, Carol’s sister’s abusive boyfriend, the frustrated suitor, and the gropey awfulness of the sweaty landlord (“poor little girl all by herself…all shaking like a little frightened animal”). By the time Carol’s claustrophobia is shown in the now infamous hallucination scene where hands seep from the apartment’s cracked walls to molest her body, I’d reached the point of wanting to see her wreak bloody revenge. And so she does, horribly.
Like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Deneuve makes Repulsion gripping viewing. I can even forgive Polanski the obligatory “you can tell she’s bonkers because she’s putting on her lipstick all wobbly” scene. I’m prepared to believe he was the first to do it.
Arguably a pre-cursor to films such as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1978), Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011) and so many other “woman’s descent into madness” movies, use Repulsion as the yardstick against which to measure all others – there are a lot of them out there. This one is on her side.
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