Roman Polanski, 1965
For Roman Polanski the home, usually representative of safety and security, has often been the setting for his own brand of psychological horror. By subverting this idea of the dwelling being sanctimonious and invading the most personal space of his characters, Polanski creates something truly disturbing as there is no escape available from the nightmares tormenting his protagonists. Preceding both of his other ‘apartment’ films, The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby, is his first English-language film, Repulsion.
Starring Catherine Deneuve (also making her English-language debut) Repulsion is the story of Carol, a beautician who resides in London with her older sister Helen. Whilst Helen appears a well adjusted young woman, Carol is altogether more disturbed possessing an intense paranoid fear of men. This manifests itself in intense hallucinations- in one scene a workman leers at her as she walks past him in the street, that night she envisions him breaking into her room and raping her. As the film progresses Carol’s mental state becomes more and more fractured, with the crumbling walls of her apartment reflecting this mental anxiety, until ultimately her hatred of men leads to her expressing it through violence.
The film was pitched to the studio by Polanski as a way to cash in on the success of the recently released Psycho with which it shares a number of similarities. There is it’s punchy singular word title, it’s blonde female lead in trouble and it’s themes of voyeurism, however whereas Hitchcock used the first person view to show Norman Bates spying on people in their most intimate moments, here Polanski uses it to show Carol looking out of her own personal space at a world of which she is afraid. Another loose Hitchcock connection lies in that the Cinematography was provided by Gilbert Taylor, who would later go on to collaborate with Hitchcock when he made his own return to London with what would become his last great film Frenzy.
What Taylor is most renowned for however is his work on Dr. Strangelove. With Repulsion his camerawork is equally great, with extensive use of light and shadow making Carol’s apartment look as divided as her mindset, this is also portrayed through the constant use of reflections, often distorted or obscured. The set design itself is excellent too, as giant cracks suddenly appear and hands burst through the wall and enclose Carol (a scene George Romero would pay homage too in the opening nightmare of Day of the Dead). Deneuve gives what is possibly the performance of her career too, managing to play Carol in a manner which makes her to mistakenly appear shy, as the character she encounters believe she is, whilst giving the viewer an insight into the onset of her madness.
With it’s star power, New York setting, as well as being in colour, Rosemary’s Baby remains Polanski’s most celebrated horror. However a film as it may be, for a significantly more taught and tense film regarding a woman struggling to keep hold of her sanity, Repulsion is the early Polanski film worth watching. Along with aforementioned it rates amongst the directors best, and would serve as interesting watch for anyone who has been impressed by this years big psychological horror, Black Swan.
words by pete bond.