Repulsion is a 1965 horror thriller filmed in black and white, written and directed by Roman Polanski, starring Catherine Deneuve as Carole, Ian Hendry as Michael, John Fraser as Colin and Yvonne Furneaux as Helen. The timid Carole is the central character of this film, who with her phobia of men seems to have them always thrust upon her. Carole is very fragile and her phobia takes its toll on her as the film draws to its conclusion, conjuring horrific schizophrenic images of men abusing her in her impressionable mind. Carole lives with her sister Helen in a two bedroom flat in London and works in a beauty salon with an all female staff, surrounding herself with women to ward off her phobia. Although always in female company, Carole’s lunch time is occupied with an admirer who is constantly trying to get a date from her, but to no avail. The beginning of the film is very sharp and clinical, and plays out like a documentary of the two sisters’ lives with an account of Carole’s entire day, from her morning at home to work and lunch, and to her journey home and her settling into bed. The film has an airy light feel to it with natural lighting giving a realistic look to scenes that were calm and refreshing. Behind their flat was a convent and Carole would gaze at the nuns playing catch which would captivate her attention for long periods of time and give her a sense of joy. The nuns mirrored her desire to be secluded from men in their marriage to God, with a yearning expression to be in a similar position. Carole also exhibited slight OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder) in her unconventional behaviour and when carrying out certain tasks.
The first instance of her phobia is displayed with her sister’s boyfriend Michael, who always uses her glass cup in the bathroom to store his toiletries. This infuriates her, forcing her to one day throw his toiletries in the bin. Also, Carole questions her sister about Michael staying over, asking when he will go. The sister replies, ‘it is none of your business ’. The second instance is when Carole’s admirer drops her home and he attempts to kiss her on the lips. This she does not take well, bolting out of the car and rushing to the bathroom in the flat to brush her teeth and cleanse herself of his presence. Nevertheless, the film remains reasonably light-hearted. Carole’s sister Helen planes to take a holiday alone with Michael, leaving her in the flat on her own. Carole pleads with Helen not to go, but it is not entirely clear why she fears being left alone. The inevitable happens and Carole is alone in the flat. At this point, the film changes mood and speed, giving heightened suspense. Rob Vaux talks a little about the film’s qualities, “Roman Polanski's Repulsion has been rightly hailed as a chilling examination of a woman going mad. With unnerving intensity, it places us in the shoes of Catherine Deneuve's fragile beautician, whose unexplained trauma and sexual repression induce bizarre, repression frightening hallucinations that ultimately drive her to murder” (Vaux, 2009). Vaux’s description of the film might appear somewhat unrelated to the storyline as it has developed thus far, however, a change in the film’s direction seems to solidify the genre as a horror. This sharp change is brought about through Carole’s inexplicable behaviour after her sister leaves. Carole’s senses are so heightened she can hear a crack spread in the wall, and she starts to notice her surroundings in uncanny detail. This is expressed when she is in the bedroom looking in the mirror and suddenly notices a man in the corner of the mirror. The sudden appearance of this image frightens the audience and catches them off-guard. The intensity of this image is compounded by loud music and the sheer fright of Carole’s reaction. From here on Vaux’s quote above reflects the true nature of the film.
Carole begins her decline into paranoia, putting her on edge in the mere presence of a man and believing that every man is a threat to her. The stranger in the mirror appears in the flat and rapes her, but not just on one occasion. He appears to have taken up residence in the house since his initial break-in, and continuously rapes her thereafter. This stranger mysteriously appears in her bed from time-to-time and at first Carole struggles, but she becomes more accommodating, prettying-up her appearance for his arrival. Her behaviour is contradictory, not because this phantom of a man appears and takes her, but when other men try to get close to her, a more corporeal man, she fights tooth and nail to get him off, with the struggle always ending with the man’s death. This occurred when the landlord forced himself on her and also to the persistent admirer who wanted only to help her, both dying violently. Why was the phantom stranger allowed to follow through with his intentions, whereas others were stopped dead in their tracks. The convent shown in an earlier scene sheds light on the reason. Carole reflected the attitude of the nuns; instead of cutting herself off physically she cuts herself off psychologically from men. Instead of marrying God, Carole gave herself to this phantom stranger, who appears to be a figment of her imagination that she created to fill the gap of having any real man in her life.
Carole’s outward repulsion of men and her frustrated sexual need for them is the uncanny behaviour which drives this movie along. Her repulsion of men is the first characteristic we see exhibited in her as a shy and simple girl whose only wish is to be left alone. Carole’s schizophrenic persona allows Polanski to recreate a more pronounced atmosphere of decline into insanity and sexual frustration as she materialises an imaginary stranger to have his way with her while defending this desire against all others with murder.
Kendrick, James (2009) Repulsion review, qnetwork.com, 2009, 00:29 http://www.qnetwork.com/index.php?page=review&id=2252
Vaux, Rob (2009) Repulsion review, filmcritic.com, Jan 23 2009, 18:33 http://www.filmcritic.com/reviews/1965/repulsion/