Horror movies don’t always have to be loud to be effective. In fact, sometimes the quietist of the genre turn out to be the most effective. Just take a look at Roman Polanski’s first English language feature, Repulsion, from 1965. What Polanski has created is a rhythmic descent into madness with a ticking clock working as chisel breaking into the protagonist’s fractured mind, and a soundtrack of piano scales that end in a discordant finale. Repulsion has a lot to say, and tries to accomplish this with as little dialogue as possible, and the result is a surreal trip down the rabbit hole and into the protagonist’s tortured head.
Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman who earns her living at a beauty salon and lives with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) is a London flat. Carol is frustrated by Colin (John Fraser), a persistent suitor who won’t leave her alone, and Helen’s married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) who is acting like a monkey wrench in Carol’s life. Already a quiet and unstable person, Carol is concerned with being left alone while Helen and Michael go on holiday to Italy, but Helen insists that Carol will be fine. Carol is anything but fine, however, and soon she quits her job, barricades herself in the apartment, and begins being tortured by demon’s of the past that are real and unreal, which ultimately draws her to violence as a last resort.
I’ve seen this movie be called “slow” and “boring” but I don’t think those are appropriate. Sure, this isn’t a movie where there is a lot of exciting things happening, and I will say that it is slow but it’s for building suspense and character. There seems to be a whole lot of nothing going on for a good portion of the movie, but everything is important for building the character of Carol. This entire movie is one giant character study for her and her psyche, so if it wasn’t built on enough or didn’t have enough time dedicated to it, Repulsion would be a pretty pointless movie.
While Repulsion does feel very surreal, it has a firm grounding in reality. Carol and Helen’s flat looks exactly how you would expect it to if it was inhabited by two younger women in the 1960s. There are even nice tracking shots following Carol around the city where we get a very distinct idea of where we are in relation to the real world. That just makes the hallucinations and experiences we have with Carol seem all the more weird, knowing that life goes on around her just outside her apartment. What really makes this work is the way Polanski and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor handle the visuals. Polanski creates strange, distorted visions while Taylor lights the apartment very harshly when Carol is experiencing her mind play devilish tricks.
As much time as I can praising Roman Polanski and Gilbert Taylor on their work with this film, I got to give a special nod to Catherine Deneuve, who accomplished acting in such a strange and difficult role at just the age of 22. She doesn’t have too much dialogue to say, and when she does have dialogue, the lines are very short. Sometimes just one word. What really is great about her performance is her facial expressions and reactions. There are different scenes, including the very opening shot, where Polanski focuses on her eyes, which are usually wide and full of paranoia. It’s and excellent performance and still amazing that she accomplished it at such a young age.
Repulsion is an interesting exercise in psychological horror. The way Polanski frames certain scenes and deals with the sound design makes the internal struggle of the protagonist feel so concrete and perceptible. Catherine Deneuve gives a memorable performance, and she really is the only one onscreen for a good portion of the time. The pace may be slow and it may seem tame by today’s standards, but Repulsion is a must see for any fan of the horror genre.