Wednesday, September 2, 2009


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:


Dave said...

Thanks for the link to my own review -- I think our two reviews go together nicely. You touch on the key part of the film for me in that you're never quite sure if you're watching reality or if it is some kind of nightmare or hallucination. There is certainly a surreal quality to everything that happens. That first murder she commits was shocking to me just because in all honesty I didn't expect it to happen right then, with no provocation.

You also point out something that I neglected in my own piece and that is how tongue-in-cheek a lot of this could be seen.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Great review. REPULSION is such a fantastic film. As you know, Polanski once claimed this was part of a loose "urban horror" trilogy along with THE TENANT and ROSEMARY'S BABY, though whether he planned it that way or categorized it as such in retrospect I'm unsure. It's hard to pick a favorite among those three (I lean toward THE TENANT, which is also amazing, and Polanski gives a pretty great acting performance there as well), but luckily, I don't really have to pick one.

The sight-gag connection is one I hadn't thought of before, but absolutely true. It's interesting to think about how close horror and comedy can be--though probably not germane to this discussion, I'm thinking of the way Sam Raimi took things that were (for me) genuinely scary in EVIL DEAD and made them pretty hilarious in EVIL DEAD II. Comedy and horror "sight gags" both often take a normal situation and introduce something either outrageously out of place ("broad") or just a little skewed ("dry") and then follow it to its conclusion. I've not enough coffee in my system to go further with that idea, but it is fascinating.

Rev. Phantom said...

I agree with the Vicar about the sight-gag connection--good damn call! In reflecting on the movie, not sure why I never made that connection myself. I was a teen when I saw it last, that may be why. A keen eye comes with age, I suppose.

Anyways, great flick and great review.

Keith said...

I love this film. It's an amazing piece of work. It's definitely one of my favorite Polanski films.

Sebina said...

What a great review - just watched this the other day!

Mykal said...

Mr. Wilson: Great post. I haven't seen this film, but I want to now. Love the bit comparing the character's state of mind to the Chaplin film. Polanski seemed to love teetering the viewer between the real and what might be real - like in The Tenant.

You (and Sebina's latest post) have made me want to see this film. -- Mykal

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, everyone. I guess all the discussion going on about Tarantino's movie references made me sensitive to the potential significance of any movie-reference within a movie. In Repulsion itself, it's probably telling that Deneuve responds to the Chaplin narrative not with empathy but with raucous laughter. The character may not have drawn the connection herself, or the scene may signal a failure of empathy that would warn us about the violence to come.

Mykal, since I credit fellow bloggers with steering me to Repulsion, I can only return the favor by repeating my strong recommendation.

John said...

Excellent review Samuel. Replusion is one of my all time favorites and Polanski is one of my top five film directors.
The film is still shocking today, if audiences give it a chance. The film plays slower than movies do today and I think many younger filmgoers may not have the patience to watch it.