Dir. Roman Polanski, UK, 1965, 104 mins
Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux, Ian Hendry, Patrick Wymark
Repulsion opens with one of the longest and closest close-ups ever committed to film: for two highly-charged minutes the camera is fixed upon the left eye of Catherine Deneuve. It is a very unsettling opening. Deneuve's eye twitches grotesquely in its socket; the nervous focus of both the camera and the subject is slightly unsteady; the primitive music (two repeated timpani notes) is menacingly stark and hypnotic. Like the drama that follows, this opening visual pun is ambiguous: are we, the viewers, being eyed by the piercing gaze of a hawk about to strike? Or are we eyeing the eye of the terrified prey? Victim or victimiser? This ambiguity permeates much of Roman Polanski's oeuvre.
The eye belongs to Carol Ledoux (Deneuve), an arrestingly beautiful French blonde renting a flat in South Kensington with her sister (Furneaux). She is by nature shy and prone to daydreaming. She shows no interest in her job at a beauty parlour, and still less in the advances of a stricken admirer, Colin (Hendry). She finds the constant presence of her sister's bumptious boyfriend very invasive and she lies awake every night listening to the noisy lovemaking emanating from the adjoining room. When her sister, who is apparently unaware that there is anything wrong with Carol ("she's just sensitive, that's all"), goes on holiday and leaves her alone, Carol locks herself away in the flat and is overcome by fantasy. She envisions the intrusion of strange men, the cracked walls yield groping hands and she is repeatedly raped in her nightmares. No longer able to distinguish between the male intruders in her mind and the real-life intrusion of poor Colin and the sleazy landlord (Wymark), Carol gives the unwanted visitors more than they bargained for.
Throughout the film, Polanski's camera rarely strays far from Deneuve, stalking her on her aimless walks, uninhibitedly drooling over her scantily-clad body, invading her personal space with tangible close-ups. As the camera lusts after her physical presence, so the viewer is implicated in the act of intrusion - the very obsession with which Carol's psychosis is driven. When it is not assuming a voyeuristic role, the camera assumes Carol's point of view, be it gazing out of the window at the convent over the road, peering through the eyepiece in her apartment door or, most importantly, visualising the increasingly traumatic neuroses which propel her into insanity. The unbearably tense second act is set largely in Carol's mind, and is a real tour de force of filmmaking, filled with shadowy, grotesquely-angled shots and played out in silence save for a clock ticking or the eerie music of a spoons player in the street below. The result of monopolising both points of view (that of the voyeur and of the voyeur's object) is that the film works on two contrapuntal levels: not only is the viewer inescapably drawn into the claustrophobia of a mind violently repulsed by what it sees, but the viewer to some extent actually becomes that which is repulsive.
Carol's apparent sexual repression is countered by her intense sexual allure. Slinking around her flat in her nightdress or traipsing over Hammersmith Bridge in a mini-skirt, Catherine Deneuve embodies the essence of the sexually-liberated London of the 1960s. The men in Repulsion can't take their eyes off her ("Hello, darlin' - how about a bit of the other, then", calls an idle workman in the Carry On English that is typical of this film). Likewise, Carol's thoughts seem to be exclusively dominated by men: our understanding of Carol is based crucially on her violent and sexual male fantasies. While these are essentially horrific, it seems there is a part of this dark fantasy world that Carol finds seductive. When faced with the landlord's sexual proposals in real life, for a moment Carol almost acquiesces: she sits there motionless, legs apart, inviting even, before dispatching him with a bloody violence more explicit than in her dreams. In a film full of shadiness and uncertainty, it is above all the ambiguity between repulsion and compulsion, so enigmatically drawn by Deneuve and Polanski, that makes this terrifying film so utterly fascinating.