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In 1965, Repulsion was greeted as a brilliant, grisly potboiler that gave the thirty-two-year-old Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski commercial entree to the West. Some viewed it as Polanski’s riposte to Hitchcock’s Psycho. Three decades later, it’s evident that Polanski was always drawn to existential horror, and that his lucid moviemaking owes as much to Hollywood’s master writer-directors as to visual maestros like Hitchcock. After Repulsion premiered, Polanski told Cahiers du Cinéma, “I like to shut myself up. I remember: when I was twelve, fourteen, I liked atmospheres that came from . . . what do I know? Ultimately enclosed atmospheres, stifling . . . and [I] liked films like [Billy Wilder’s] The Lost Weekend . . .”
Repulsion could be subtitled The Lost Fortnight. Centered on a beautiful schizophrenic instead of a dapper alcoholic, with a backdrop of swinging London instead of wartime New York, it’s a horror movie, not a“problem” movie. But it has the same suspense hook as Wilder’s Oscar-winner: a sick but deceptively presentable person (Catherine Deneuve) is left alone in an apartment usually shared with a sibling (Yvonne Furneaux). Deneuve in Repulsion, like Ray Milland in Weekend, scrapes psychic bottom in isolation; she, like him, has scary hallucinations that emanate from the cracks in walls. And Polanski’s observant style owes a debt to Wilder’s. These directors rely on concrete detail to convey characters’ fluctuating senses. Their ultra-conscious technique puts audiences into the movie equivalent of a headlock.
In Weekend, Milland maneuvers his way into solitude so he can slake his thirst; his brother and girlfriend are on to him. But in Repulsion, Deneuve alone intuits how loony she’ll get—in vain, she begs her sister to stay with her. Even the sister’s shrewd married boyfriend (Ian Hendry), who suggests that Deneuve should “see a doctor,” thinks she’s merely “a bit strung up.” Unchecked and unnoticed, Deneuve’s illness transforms the apartment into nightmare-land.
In his autobiography, Roman by Polanski, the director treats Repulsion rather harshly, his memory colored by his constant fight for more time and money. “Of all my films,” he wrote, “Repulsion is the shoddiest—technically well below the standard I try to achieve.” He knew he could finance a horror movie and gain some box-office clout; that’s why he and his cowriter, Gerard Brach, “included bloodcurdling scenes that verged on horror film clichés. Any originality we achieved would have to come through in our telling of the story.” But Polanski and his team (especially cinematographer Gilbert Taylor) did come through. Only a confessed claustro-phile like Polanski could have created this skin-crawling claustrophobic thriller. Only a man of his violent and erotic imagination could have arrived at its queasy incarnations of sexual disgust.
From the opening moments, when the camera emerges from one of Deneuve’s eyeballs, Polanski alternately shows the world as it is and the world according to his psycho. As in his other “evil apartment” movies, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976), he depicts everyday callousness scarring vulnerable protagonists. Deneuve works as a manicurist in an antiseptic beauty parlor. The job underscores her own blank prettiness, which blinds people to her weirdness. A thread of deadpan feminist satire runs through Polanski’s narrative. John Fraser plays the polite, romantic “smooth boy” who fancies this most anti of anti-heroines and never figures out why she won’t return his kiss. When he declares that he’s “miserable” without her, his passion seems ludicrous, since it’s based only on her blonde dreaminess. (She puts him out of his misery.) Later, when Deneuve drops even deeper into dementia, the landlord (Patrick Wymark) comes to collect overdue rent. He chalks up the chaos and clutter (including a moldering skinned rabbit) to feckless youth. He proposes swapping rent for personal services--before she takes care of him for good.
Deneuve’s bad dreams of rape and entrapment, and the panicky murders she commits, are less graphic than similar episodes in (say) the Nightmare on Elm Street series. What gives them an undiminished fright quotient is Polanski’s straight-razor intelligence. Repulsion is an inspired textbook on the use of performance, sound and image to convey bizarre mental states. Deneuve does the best acting of her career. She invests this pale manicurist with an underlying tautness that jumps out in gestures like busted springs.
Polanski poses her in an expressive frame. When Deneuve lies awake listening to her sister come to orgasm, Polanski pulls the camera back slowly; visually as well as aurally, her moans fill Deneuve’s room. Throughout, Gil Taylor adapts his gliding yet hyper-realistic photographic style to Deneuve’s manias; in a split second, buskers in the street or lines in the pavement turn portentous. Even the dated special effects retain their emotional potency—when hands burst out of the apartment walls and grab Deneuve’s body, Polanski anticipates the dehumanization of sex in half a dozen current magazine covers.
Polanski’s tough-mindedness escalates the terror. He and Deneuve bring out the tinge of arrogance in her craziness. In the final shot, he closes in on a family portrait that captures her as a girl. The last line of the script refers to “her beautiful and proud, implacably vague child’s eye, where madness had already gained the day.”