Of all his work up until the present, only Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby really stuck with me. A horror film shot in broad daylight in the soft browns and yellows that marked Paramount’s newfound hold on seventies American cinema. That the film works so well, intertwining potentially grand supernatural horror with mundane domesticity, is a tribute to a director of great skill. Of course that film formed the middle section of the so called ‘Apartment Trilogy’ for Polanski, each focusing on dreadful elements bubbling below the surface of the domestic. The first film in that series was Repulsion which also provided Polanski his first foray into English language cinema.
Providing the focal point for the entire film we have Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a young French girl currently living in London with her sister. She’s pretty but delicate, almost a wisp blown through the streets of the city. She works in a beauty salon and, despite her shy nature, all seems well. To a certain degree it’s difficult to provide a full account of the storyline beyond that. The details are apparent but the specific causality is far more difficult to grasp. Seemingly because of her sister’s lover, a married man, spending an increased amount of time at the apartment and perhaps also fuelled by another man’s attempts to court her, Carole begins to slowly lose grip of her sanity as deep-rooted sexual dread begins to surface. When her sister and lover vacation in Italy for a week they leave Carole to mind the apartment and it grants her sanity just the solitude and seclusion it needs to crumble away entirely.
Here it only seems appropriate to pass comment on Deneuve’s performance. She remained astoundingly busy throughout these early years after Jacques Demy’s Les parapluies de Cherbourg launched her but this is surely one of her finest roles. Although she interacts with other characters throughout, the entire project rests entirely on her shoulders and, more so than anything, she must maintain an air of utter vulnerability whilst leading events along. In a sense she plays support to the apartment that becomes her prison but she never misses a beat as she portrays Carole’s descent into the realms of the insane. Marked by her inability to control or even fathom her breakdown, Deneuve never strays into the garrulous. Her motions are usually pleasantly understated aside from one or two tics that become more aggravated with time. She—and we the audience, guided by a camera that often places itself to match her perspective—is merely an observer in an unfolding nightmare over which no one has control (aside, of course, from Polanski).
What marks Repulsion out as a truly superior psychological thriller/drama is the absolute refinement of Polanski’s direction. Not a shot or sequence seems out of place and the film maintains a steady, measured pace as we follow Carole’s nightmare. Polanski’s well known for using the camera as the protagonist’s eyes and, as it moves along the apartment’s surfaces, the sense of claustrophobia and of the unknown quantity that is Carole’s mental state is palpable. Behind the camera was Gilbert Taylor, a man who has worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Stanley Kubrick to George Lucas. The pitch perfect black levels and picture grain throughout lend an almost tactile dimension to the images that enhances both their inherently mundane quality and also the inexplicable air of threat they present to Carole1. Using minimal levels of special effects and, where effects are used, keeping things simple, furthers this sense of surface. The smooth walls turn to malleable clay in one scene, the walls crack violently and a simple cutthroat razor never seemed more loaded with dreadful potential. It seems with the amount of digital manipulation that is inherent in film production these days that a great deal of wonderful art has been lost or muddied in the mix. Adding to the film’s unusual composition is a heavily percussion-based score courtesy of jazz man Chico Hamilton.
In many ways this film seems perched somewhere in the middle of that wonderful ’60s period which divided cinema between the classic and modern. I suppose, what with a 1965 release year, the film could almost be nominated as an honorary marker as the medium branched out into new territory thanks to the increased space afforded to them by various censors around the world. To a certain degree Hitchcock would have to take the bulk of the credit for making a mockery of the Hays Code in Psycho a few years earlier, but Polanski pushes the envelope on the other side of the Atlantic and matches every directorial flourish with his own methods.
The violence here is perfectly measured, made potent by the investment we have in the characters whilst never straying into the obscene. Coupled with the often explosive percussion score, mundane sound effects, such as a ticking clock, form the aural backdrop for some of the film’s other key scenes. Nothing here seems outlandish. It is Carole’s own dysfunction that colours the surrounding apartment with so much venom until we reach that closing shot, a textbook example of the potential cinema holds. It reminds me of the economy and power found in the final shot of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu; a world of suggestion and potential in a single move of the camera and a demonstration of a method of storytelling that only cinema can partake of. As the camera lingers on that photo of Carole it is up to the audience to surmise what may have caused all of this. That is, of course, if you believe the photo offers any cause at all. Perhaps a childhood of sexual abuse poisoned sexuality and led her down this road. Or perhaps the photo simply reinforces one of the film’s core principles; even the most extreme and horrendous of incidents can be found grounded in the mundane and the normal. Home and family is far from being safe, it is fundamentally the breeding ground for everything.
What you may read or not read into Repulsion is of little consequence. In the end it is simply a pitch-perfect psychological thriller and one of cinema’s great stylised portraits of burgeoning madness. If Polanski is to be believed then it was primarily made as a commercial venture to earn confidence and investment for his next film, Cul-de-sac. He’s probably telling the truth because this film is slick and perhaps impersonal in a manner that distinguishes it from more personal works of art. Nonetheless, as cinema has always been a business, there’s much to be said for those who deliver product that treats itself, its audience and its principles with such respect. Oh, if only all money-spinners could be as tightly woven as this. I suppose it’s for the best that there are more lazy and greedy people in the business than serious and capable artists. Otherwise I’d have even less free time than I do now.
1 I should add that Criterion’s Blu-Ray release is an absolute treat. Although higher definition and greater picture clarity is always to be applauded I can think of no better instance where the fidelity of the image plays such an important role. I’ve said it before, but, while high definition is generally a wonderful thing for home cinema, its strengths are never better highlighted than with older material.