The central character in Repulsion is a young woman named Carole, played by Catherine Deneuve, who works in an unhip London beauty salon catering to older women. Carole lives in an unfashionable part of town, sharing a flat with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), who is having an affair with a married man, Michael (Ian Hendry). Carole is stunning to look at, but she seems barely aware of her own cool beauty or, for that matter, of the energy around her on the street as she goes to and from work. She is perhaps least at home in her own home: She's disgusted by Michael's very presence, and recoils when she sees that his toothbrush and razor have taken up residence in the bathroom. He and his personal objects are intruders, in her home and in her life, and Carole feels both sickened and perhaps vaguely excited by whatever sexual energy he's throwing off. Similarly, she suffers the attentions of Colin (John Fraser), the polite, good-looking fellow who has a crush on her -- she can barely bring herself to do anything so active as reject him. Her eyes are always passive and blank, perhaps because behind that dull gaze, one very bad trip is already beginning to unspool.
When Helen and Michael set off on a jaunt to Italy, Carole is left alone in the apartment, where she suffers hallucinatory episodes in which men grope and grab at her. Before long, the horrors unraveling inside her head and those taking place outside of it have merged. Her sister has left a whole rabbit, prepared for cooking, on a plate, and the rabbit's gradual deterioration over the next few days becomes a grimly funny metaphor for Carole's own state.
You'd hardly call Repulsion a comedy. But there is something wickedly comical, and brashly perverse, about the tricks it plays on us, and in the way Polanski delights in using skewed camera angles and "Now you see it, now you don't" mirror images to tell this unnerving little story. Polanski himself saw the dark, glittering humor in the material, probably because he put it there. (He cowrote the script with his friend and collaborator Gérard Brach.) At one point John Fraser asked Polanski if he'd ever seen a shrink, because "the film is sick." "But John," Polanski replied, "it's meant to be funny."
It is and it isn't. At the time Repulsion was conceived, Polanski had already received an Academy Award nomination for his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962), and was hoping to make a thriller he'd already written, to be called If Katelbach Comes. He couldn't attract financing for that idea, which involved a young Frenchwoman and her middle-aged transvestite husband living in a French castle. (It would be made later, in 1966, as Cul-de-sac.) As Polanski was trying to figure out his next move, 20th Century Fox had come around with a rather bizarre offer: They wanted him to remake Knife in the Water with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Warren Beatty. Polanski didn't even entertain the idea. As John Parker put it in his book Polanski, "In his mind, it was like asking van Gogh to repaint the sunflowers, using a different variety of flower."
Fortunately for Polanski, opportunity came knocking in the unlikely form of a two-man soft-core porn outfit based in London called the Compton Group, which offered to give him the money to make Repulsion. One of Compton's principals was a fellow named Michael Klinger, a former sausage salesman. To make the movie, he gave Polanski the hilariously optimistic budget of £40,000. He was also expecting a rather straight-up horror picture.
Not only did Polanski overspend, bringing Repulsion in at a cost of some £95,000; he also delivered a strange little picture that was neither an art film nor a straightforward horror exercise, but something in between. And in the process of doing so, he nearly pushed his actors to the brink, particularly Deneuve. Because he wanted Carole's exaggerated sexual repression to seem real, he prevented Deneuve from having any contact with men, including her lover at the time, Roger Vadim, who was back in France. Klinger saw what was going on and took pity on Deneuve, persuading Polanski to let her take a few days off to visit Vadim, but it's unlikely Polanski would have softened on his own.
Polanski also had specific ideas about the kind of costuming he wanted, specifically as a way of sexualizing this otherwise meek and repressed-looking character. Though he'd originally wanted Deneuve to be completely nude under the nightgown she wears in the film, he settled on putting her in a body stocking. He did persuade her, however, to pose nude for Playboy as a way of promoting the film. Deneuve bitterly regretted doing so. "It was a terrible mistake," she has said. "I'd never do anything like it again." Still, she did get a husband out of the deal: She ended up marrying the photographer on the shoot, David Bailey.
Polanski would be the last person to admit publicly that he "tortured" any of his performers. In fact, his memory in that regard is rather revisionist. In 1966 he told interviewer Philippe Haudiquet, "As for Catherine Deneuve, she is very good in the film even though she was nervous and tired. Being constantly on screen gave her no time to relax."
But whatever cruel magic Polanski exercised on the set of Repulsion, it appears to have worked: Deneuve's performance is superb. Her character may be detached from reality, but she's hardly hollow -- there's a deeply human vulnerability in her that's touching to watch. And the film overall won its share of accolades, taking the Silver Bear in Berlin in 1965. (Klinger claimed the statue for himself, never giving it to Polanski.) This artful and innovative psychological horror picture, a story about feeling the utmost isolation even in the midst of a vibrant, energetic city, struck a nerve with audiences. As Polanski told Haudiquet, "The film could never have been set in a town like Warsaw where there aren't very many neurotics and where the isolation isn't too hard to handle. The story could only have worked in a city like Paris or London." In other words, loneliness may be most likely to hit hard in a place where great things are happening right outside your doorstep.
Producer: Gene Gutowski
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach; David Stone (adaptation and additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Chico Hamilton
Film Editing: Alastair McIntyre
Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Carole), Ian Hendry (Michael), Yvonne Furneaux (Helen), John Fraser (Colin), Patrick Wymark (landlord).
by Stephanie Zacharek (Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
Polanski: A Biography, by Christopher Sandford, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
Polanski, by John Parker, Victor Gollancz, 1995
Roman Polanski: Interviews, Ed. Paul Cronin, University Press of Mississippi, 2005