Despite the international success of his film Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski had trouble getting financing for his first English-language film. He ended up securing backing from Compton, a company that distributed and exhibited soft-core sex movies. That's not really inappropriate, since Repulsion occasionally reminds me of the the "roughies" that were being made at the same time. Catherine Deneuve never quite loses her clothes, and definitely doesn't reveal anything scandalous, but the atmosphere of borderline madness and her night terrors of rape make the film a kind of art-house/roughie hybrid that wouldn't be out of place on one of those good old Something Weird double feature DVDs.
Polanski makes Deneuve a portrait of profound alienation, someone who can never feel at home in her own home, which she shares with a roommate and sometimes uncomfortably with the roommate's boyfriend. Her character, seems never to have advanced beyond that childhood stage when every inanimate object around her seems capable of coming to malevolent life in the middle of the night. Deneuve was at the beginning of a career that to the present day defines glamour evolving with age, but she earns her cred as an actress by going through the wringer. Her beauty is irrepressible, but her character is someone who ceases to care about appearances as she succumbs to hallucinatory paranoia. Her big head of Sixties hair becomes a hag's mop as her face becomes a gaping mask of cognitive dissonance. She goes quite convincingly mad, at the cost of two men's lives.
Part of the wicked quality of Repulsion is that it gets you questioning whether our heroine has killed anyone or has just fantasized or hallucinated the visitors she's killed. She hallucinates enough stuff, like giant cracks forming on the apartment walls, to make anything that happens to her inside mysterious. The point, after all, is that she's lost her power to distinguish between reality and the imagery spilling from her brain. As we wait for her roommate to return, suspense builds about exactly what the poor woman will find.
In a way, too, Repulsion is a kind of joke -- a joke on cinema itself. The key to the joke, I'll suggest, is the scene just after Deneuve, playing a manicurist, has nearly taken a client's fingernail off in her distracted state. A co-worker suggests that going to a movie might take her mind off her troubles. Without naming the film, she describes highlights from The Gold Rush, particularly the starvation sequences in which Chaplin treats his boot as a multi-course meal and Mack Swain mistakes Chaplin for a giant chicken. She cracks Deneuve up describing the comedy and even throws in a Chaplin walk for illustration. It's a welcome bit of mood-lightening until you realize: Damn, that's kind of like -- more like just like what Deneuve is going through with her hallucinations. In her apartment, she's surrounded by sight gags. Her predicament has often been the stuff of comedy through movie history, and now Polanski subtly suggests that those movies are mirrors of genuine madness. In Repulsion he follows the logic of the joke to its gruesome conclusion.
Over at Goodfella's Movie Blog, Dave named Repulsion his favorite film of 1965, and you can see the film from another angle in his review of it. I was tempted to buy the thing during the Barnes & Noble Criterion sale earlier this summer, but also anticipated the Albany Public Library acquiring it, since it was an English-language Criterion title. It took a while, but the Library came through in its most recent burst of art-house acquisitions, and I can now say that Dave's is an understandable choice. I have an eclectic taste in Polanski, Frantic and Bitter Moon being among my favorites from him, but I don't think Polanski fans will question my adding Repulsion to that list. For the rest of you, I simply recommend the film.
This copy of the British trailer was uploaded by CaledoniaUberAlles: