Review Index


One of the most influential horror movies of all time and a key film by Roman Polanski, REPULSION is a justified classic.  It’s a shocking and hallucinatory account that explores an unquiet mind better than nearly any other film I can think of. 

The Package 
     REPULSION (1965) was Roman Polanski’s second feature and his first-ever English language film.  Shot in London, where Polanski was living at the time, it starred the French actress/model Catherine Deneuve.  Now she’s a veritable icon, but at the time Deneuve was an ingénue best known for appearing in the musical THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG.  Polanski made no secret of the fact that he was carrying on an affair with Deneuve while filming REPULSION, making her the first of a long string of Polanski leading lady sex partners who would come to include Sharon Tate, Isabelle Adjani, Nastassja Kinski, Emmanuelle Seigner and Deneuve’s own sister Francoise Dorleac (killed in an auto accident in 1967, shortly after appearing in Polanski’s CUL-DE-SAC).
     REPULSION was a critical and box office success, not to mention one of the most influential genre flicks ever: Polanski’s later films ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE TENANT and THE PIANIST (in which the director recycles REPULSION’S famous sprouting potato imagery) owe more than a little something to it, as do quite a few other films, commercials and music videos, whose directors have ripped off the unforgettable hands-bursting-out-of-the-walls climax many times over. 
     One notable aspect of REPULSION is its US copyright...or possible lack thereof.  Initially released by a short-lived porno company, it became a public domain title due to unresolved rights issues, meaning quite a few VHS versions appeared over the years from a variety of fly-by-night organizations.  Columbia reportedly secured the US distribution rights in the late nineties, but they have yet to release the film on DVD; in the meantime REPULSION has again fallen (illegally?) back into the hands of public domain distributors, the latest being an outfit called Entertainment Programs, who put out a poorly mastered DVD in 2003. 

The Story 
     Carole is a severely repressed young woman who lives with her sister Yvonne in a London flat.  Carole works as a manicurist, where she’s hit on by men who disgust her, seeing as how she’s totally repulsed by all things sexual.  Yvonne begins seeing a married man and having sex with him in the room next to Catherine’s, which causes her mental state to deteriorate.  She becomes fixated by the sight of cracks in a sidewalk and grows increasingly paranoid.  One weekend Yvonne decides to take a trip with her lover and leave Carole alone in the apartment. 
     Yvonne’s timing couldn’t be worse, as Carole is rapidly descending into total schizophrenia; she’s now seeing cracks appear in the walls of her flat and imagining men breaking in to rape her.  At work Carole unthinkingly (or not) slices the finger of a client.  She leaves early and barricades herself in the flat, where things get so bad that when two men do actually break in--a would-be suitor and Carole’s lecherous landlord--she impulsively kills them both.  And her hallucinations increase, with hands bursting out of the walls to grope her and ceiling fixtures descending upon her.  Eventually Yvonne arrives back and is understandably shocked at what she finds...

The Direction
     Directorially you’ll have a difficult time finding a single flaw in REPULSION.  The roving camerawork is spot-on and the visual compositions perfectly arranged (the gritty black and white photography was by the great Gilbert Taylor, whose other credits include DR. STRANGELOVE and STAR WARS).  The hallucinatory scenes are superbly carried off, particularly the deeply unnerving rape fantasies, effectively played in total silence but for the sound of a ticking clock.  The pacing, which will likely aggravate audiences weaned on the music video aesthetic favored by modern moviemakers, is likewise flawless, perfectly delineating the heroine’s slow descent into total insanity.
     Polanski utilizes an almost unbearably claustrophobic setting, as well several key images, most notably the famous sprouting potato, to convey the progress of Carole’s mental deterioration.  He also, as in his other early films, favors voyeurism, with several scenes featuring passerby watching the heroine suspiciously, including a man seen from Carole’s window staring up at her from below, and an old woman viewing a key emotional scene through a doorway.   
     Psychologically the script, by Polanski and his standard collaborator Gerard Brach, is never less than totally convincing (I understand that several psychologists have testified to the film’s astuteness as a case study).  Credit must also go to the stunning performance of Catherine Deneuve.  She’s in nearly every scene and succeeds in creating a beautiful, complex and deeply unhinged individual who’s at once pathetic and profoundly menacing.

Vital Statistics 

Compton Films/Tekli British Productions 

Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: Eugene Gutowski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Gerard Brach
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Editing: Alastair McIntyre
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Renee Houston, Valerie Taylor, James Villiers, Helen Fraser, Hugh Futcher, Monica Merlin, Imogen Graham, Mike Pratt, Roman Polanski

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