Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Nineteen

#19 — Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Repulsion is the first film in what is loosely termed as director Roman Polanski’s “apartment trilogy,” a series that continued with 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and culminated with The Tenant, release in 1976. Connecting the film to the sort of dwelling in question couldn’t be more fitting in the case of Repulsion, as the bulk of the film takes place within the enveloping horror of the small apartment manicurist Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) shares with her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). When her sister leaves for a vacation, Carol is left alone, and her already troubled behavior escalates to new levels. She essentially barricades herself within the apartment, and director Roman Polanski accentuates the wretchedness that invades the space, both the fictional misery conjured up by Carol’s damaged mind and the very real detritus that accumulates because of her neglect of the space and she grows ever more insular, the latter exemplified by a skinned rabbit that she leaves to rot on a plate in the middle of the living room. Part of the brilliance of Polanski’s film is the way that the most twisted imaginings of Carol are arguably less frightening–more supernatural and shocking, perhaps, but not necessary more unsettling–than the grungy gloom that settles into the apartment from little more than her no longer paying any attention whatsoever to upkeep, both of her surroundings and herself.

Of all the modern directors who can reasonably be discussed with occasional use of the word “great,” Polanski may be the only one who seems to have a fundamental lack of empathy. A skilled craftsman and a perpetrator of great style, even in his best work, Polanski demonstrates very little understanding in how people work, or at least only the most meager curiosity over what might drive them. Arguably, the films that work best are those that actually benefit from that detachment, led by enduringly brilliant Chinatown, where a mind-boggled steeliness is among its many virtues. In the case of Repulsion, Polanski’s distance from Carol’s dilemma–there are hints as to what dark secrets she might carry that have sent her on this spiral, but there’s no real investment in exploring the possibilities–makes the horror all the more affecting and poignant. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, as Carol is obviously has a ruptured soul, but the determined lack of clear cause gives the lingering impression that this collapse of being could happen to anyone, including the hapless viewer.

Just as Repulsion plays to Polanski’s natural tendencies, helping him respond with work that is sharp to an almost unsettling degree, so to is a gift to Deneuve. Perhaps it’s heresy to allow for any level of unkind commentary towards the revered goddess of French film, but I’ve often found her chilly to a fault, even in some of her signature roles. That naturally works wonders in Repulsion, lending Carol a sense of intense oddity. The few people around her treat her as utterly unreachable, suggesting a long frustrating history. It’s truly the slender awkwardness of Deneuve in the role, holding herself with the carriage of someone taking a stab at normalcy, that conveys the entirety of her lost being. Well before Polanski hurls a bevy of disturbing imagery at her, Deneuve has already shown how frayed Carol has become, sometimes with little more than the echoes in her eyes. Polanski builds the film brilliantly, keeping it tight and riveting throughout, but Deneuve proves to be the necessary partner, making the film devastating rather that simply horrific.