Cast & Crew
Carol Ledoux, a beautiful, reserved Belgian woman, works in London as a manicurist and lives in an apartment with her sister Helen. Although she has an admiring boyfriend, Colin, Carol is repulsed by sexuality, and particularly by Michael, her sister's married lover. Carol is repelled by his razor and toothbrush in their bathroom and especially by the sounds of their lovemaking at night. Helen and Michael leave for a vacation in Italy, and left alone, Carol falls into a tortured state of mind. She leaves her job at the beauty salon and barricades herself in the apartment. Her mind becomes further unhinged when she receives an abusive telephone call, intended for her sister, from Michael's wife. She tears out the telephone, shutting herself in totally. She imagines a rapist coming through the door and sees arms reaching out of the walls to ravish her. The slight cracks in the apartment walls appear to enlarge and the walls to crumble. An uncooked rabbit in a dish decays and appears grotesque and hideous. Colin, concerned about Carol's condition, breaks down the door; when he turns his back, she bludgeons him with a candlestick and places his lifeless body in the bathtub. The landlord comes to collect the rent, and when he interprets Carol's scanty dress as a sexual invitation, she slashes him to death with Michael's razor. Returning from their vacation, Helen and Michael find Carol in a trance on the floor and telephone the police.
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
Repulsion - Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's REPULSION on DVD
Polanski was perfectly primed to advance the horror genre, which had becomes mired in repetitive Hammer efforts. The classic era of Eurohorror was coming to an end as continental filmmakers ran out of ideas for Barbara Steele films. Polanski's direct competition were American psycho-thrillers derived from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho: Guignol efforts like William Castle's Strait-Jacket and Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Made on a low budget but delivering more than its share of pure fright, Polanski's 1965 Repulsion is a marriage of horror and art film aesthetics. As if announcing his arrival, Polanski superimposes his credit over an enormous eye, as Hitchcock had done in Vertigo. The difference is that Polanski's name slides horizontally across the pupil, evoking surreal memories of Luis Buñuel's Un chien Andalou.
Repulsion centers on the mental breakdown of a beautiful but disturbed Belgian woman newly arrived in London. Unlike the other psycho thrillers that explain insanity through Freudian back-stories, Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach's script looks at madness from the madwoman's own subjective viewpoint. Catherine Deneuve is the introverted and confused Carole Ledoux, whose psychological isolation (a prime Polanski theme) reaches crisis proportions when her older and more worldly sister Hélène (Furneaux) leaves on a romantic holiday with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry). Neither Hélène nor anyone else is aware that Carole is severely disturbed. The girl holes up in her Kensington apartment, terrified of most everything outside. Unfortunately, Carole's shyness is misinterpreted by Colin (John Fraser), an admirer who'd like to get to know her better.
Polanski's adept handling of progressive techniques advances Repulsion into the front ranks of horror. A nervous hand-held camera tracks with Carole as she walks the same pathways through her neighborhood, trying to ignore the jeers of sweaty workmen. Polanski puts all of his tools to use in the search of original ways to express Carole's mania. Extreme close-ups of the wrinkled faces of the customers in the beauty salon evoke the cruel effects of aging, which seems a horror in itself. Distorting fisheye lenses express Carole's paranoia -- the world seems to literally be retreating from her. When Carole's fears take over completely, Polanski makes use of specially constructed distorted sets to transform her modest apartment into a mind-bending haunted mansion.
Without psychology lectures or other explanations, Polanski makes it clear that Carole's mania is rooted in sexual anxiety. She's repulsed by Michael, and covers her ears when she hears him making love to her sister in the next room. But her hallucinations include what might be a wish-fulfillment scenario of Michael smashing through a barricaded door to rape her. Carole becomes obsessed with a telltale crack in the ceiling, which she imagines making horrible cracking noises. She sees the same exact crack in the sidewalk down in the square, proving that for her, reality is a subjective illusion. The film only occasionally breaks from this one-on-one identification scheme. For most of the picture we experience madness from inside the brain of a psychotic: what's the difference between the rotting carcass of a rabbit, and that of a human being?
Polanski has total command of the audio track as well, a dimension that couldn't be appreciated on old 16mm non-theatrical prints of Repulsion. He understands the way that ticking clocks and dripping taps become louder when one is in a certain psychological state. Carole's psychotic "fever" is sometimes indicated by uncanny silences. But just when we think that the director's tricks will all be of the subtle variety, the film will hit us with a jolting shock image, accompanied by a blast of music guaranteed to startle. Repulsion synthesizes elegant visions from Cocteau fantasy and Val Lewton horror to chart Carole's headlong fall into the pit. By the time Polanski resorts to overt Guignol, we're locked in a horror landscape with rotting corpses and murders by straight razor.
Polanski avoids horror clichés while revealing his personal visual obsessions. Carole Ledoux is both beautiful and murderous, yet Repulsion does not reinforce the conservative genre notion that sexually aware women are evil by definition. The large chest of drawers blocking the door is a motif that repeats in various forms in four or five Polanski films. It is easily traced to the director's short film Two Men and a Wardrobe, but its personal significance for the director remains obscure.
When all is said and done, Polanski offers a clue to the mystery of the catatonic Carole with the use of an extreme zoom into a family photo. This compromise for viewers in need of closure is a major improvement on Hitchcock's epilogue with the psychiatrist. The big mystery is why Stanley Kubrick would copy it so lazily for his later The Shining.
Smaller roles in Repulsion go to capable players. Helen Fraser (Billy Liar) performs a Charlie Chaplin imitation, the only thing in Carole's life that makes her smile. James Villiers (These Are the Damned) is a pub friend who unhelpfully encourages Colin to press his affections on Carole. And unlucky landlord Patrick Wymark has the misfortune to interpret Carole's behavior as a sexual tease. One of Repulsion's subtle psychic scars is its image of a baby-doll nightie spattered with flecks of blood.
Roman Polanski moved on to The Fearless Vampire Killers, an affectionate spoof of Hammer pictures. He then conquered Hollywood in a single bound with the superior Rosemary's Baby, mainstream horror's next major milestone. Only much later did he stumble with The Tenant, a far too similar replay of Repulsion with Polanski himself in the starring role.
Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray of Repulsion is a terrific transfer of this carefully filmed widescreen horror / art attraction. As with George Franju's Eyes without a Face, visual texture is everything. Gilbert Taylor's B&W cinematography is particularly fascinating when dwelling on the wrinkled faces of Carole's clients, and finding reflections in shiny objects.
Producer Karen Stetler organizes a satisfying set of extras, all of which center on the exceedingly talented director. The new disk reuses the excellent Polanski - Catherine Deneuve commentary track from Criterion's 1994 laserdisc release. David Gregory's 2003 docu A British Horror Film is an illuminating, professional interview piece with Polanski, Taylor and producer Gene Gutowski, first seen on a Region 2 Blue Underground release.
Interesting snippets of behind-the-scenes footage from Repulsion are featured in a fine French TV show directed by Claude Chabrol. Showing a fully developed instinct for promotion, Polanski offers intelligent comments while making certain that his two beautiful actresses are showcased "for the TV people". Topping off the extras is a pair of original exploitation trailers that nevertheless reveal the film as quality goods. The insert essay by Bill Horrigan Repulsion is understandingly admiring of one of the best horror pictures ever made.
Critic Ivan Butler long ago offered an acute analysis of Repulsion * that illuminates the psychological significance of a bit of business with Ian Hendry at the film's conclusion. Stunned by the horrors he finds in Carole's apartment, Michael encounters a particularly intolerable sight in her bathtub. He recoils in disgust and is about to beat a hasty retreat. But he changes his mind, steels himself and turns back, leaning in close to get a better look. It's a mature horror film moment. Some things must be faced and understood, to prevent them from becoming unending nightmares.
For more information about Repulsion, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Repulsion, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
* Butler, Ivan The Cinema of Roman Polanski, The International Film Guide Series, A.S. Barnes and Company, NY 1970.
Repulsion - Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski's REPULSION on DVD
Why did you throw Michael's things away?- Helene
I don't like them.- Carole
This film, along with Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Locataire, Le (1976), forms a loose trilogy by Roman Polanski about the horrors of apartment/city dwelling.
The scene where Catherine Deneuve stumbles across the bridge and down the street was filmed at Hammersmith Bridge, London.
Filmed on location in London. Opened in London in June 1965.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films for 1965 by the New York Times Film Critics.
Released in United States Fall October 2, 1965
Released in United States February 1965
Released in United States February 1998
Re-released in United States April 14, 2006
Shown at Berlin Film Festival February 1965.
Shown at Berlin International Film Festival (Hommage to Catherine Deneuve) February 11-22, 1998.
English-language debut for French actress Catherine Deneuve.
Released in United States February 1965 (Shown at Berlin Film Festival February 1965.)
Re-released in United States April 14, 2006 (New York City)
Released in United States Fall October 2, 1965
Released in United States February 1998 (Shown at Berlin International Film Festival (Hommage to Catherine Deneuve) February 11-22, 1998.)