• Ravi Swami

"Repulsion", Dir: Roman Polanski, 1965



Looking back to early lockdown in March /April, my viewing choices tended to be informed by films that could be described either as required viewing if you follow cinema, or that defined or were defined by, a particular decade, rather in the way that, for example "Back To The Future" or "Ferris Buehler's Day Off" define the 1980's and if you lived through that decade how you could have possibly missed them ?


At school film-society screenings and later at art college, I missed quite a few films that could be described as "Art House", ie they received limited distribution and certainly didn't crop up at the suburban cinemas that I frequented and rarely if at all on TV, though I knew of them via film review programmes, so the combination of lockdown, access to several streaming services via a smart TV and a Christmas gift of membership of the British Film Institute and access to their catalogue suddenly presented the opportunity to check them out.


I'd started a list of films, more as an "aide memoire" than with the idea of a blog in mind, with brief summaries of each film soon after I watched them, but as the number of films increased I soon put this aside as my attention shifted pretty much on a daily basis to each new film.


What started out as watching "Jean De Florette" and "Manon de Source", both iconic '80's films that I missed - actually purposefully avoided - first time around, soon developed into an exploration of Marcel Pagnol's films and then shifted abruptly to three films with curiously prescient themes of social isolation, given the circumstances, though this only became apparent afterwards since they were more or less random choices.


Given my stated interest in Jacques Demy's films, any film featuring Catherine Deneuve was an obvious draw and all I knew (or thought I knew) about "Repulsion" was that it was some kind of psychological horror film, and as such I would have normally avoided it.


As I've mentioned before, very often film publicists and distributors will often frame a film in a certain way in order to capture the attention, and this is usually by broadly categorizing films to fit within certain genres, and rightly or wrongly, this is how they are perceived forever afterwards - "Repulsion" is one such film where it's reputation almost overshadows what the film is actually about, or at least implies, beyond being just a "Psycho" style "shocker".


Carol Ledoux (Deneuve) is a manicurist living with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a small London, Kensington flat - a somewhat detached personality in comparison to her sister who is outgoing and has a boyfriend, she struggles with social interactions and strenuously avoids the attentions of a young man who is attracted to her, besides being suspicious of her sisters' boyfriend.


When Helen and her boyfriend leave for a short holiday and she is left alone to cope by herself, she is gradually overwhelmed by her fears, which center on being pursued by men, to such a level of neurosis that she begins to hallucinate and locks herself in the flat.


The "horror" comes in the way in which her vague fears are depicted - hands claw through walls in the festering flat, at night she is molested by men she has seen in the street and we are never sure if this is real or imagined - in short she starts to unravel and her reality comes apart at the seams.


Without spoiling the conclusion, a hint of what is behind her mental state is left in the film's closing shots, which is that she is the victim of some sort of abuse, possibly via her father, though it is never made explicit.


After watching the film I checked some online analysis of the film and what was interesting is that contemporary accounts hardly ever settled on the above suggestion, instead choosing to focus on the effects of social isolation in contemporary society, and perhaps tellingly, avoiding any suggestion that men in the 60's tended to view women a certain way, something that is highlighted in the film, or at least is heightened, perhaps to convey Carol's state of mind.


The damage wrought by abuse of one sort or another and the resulting psychological damage that can lead to mental illness wasn't a particularly new subject in films by then and it could be argued that Hitchcock's "Marnie" was a template for "Repulsion", without the benefit of an "intermediary" character, played by Sean Connery in the film, to explain both to Marnie and the audience, what is going on, which could explain the bafflement with which "Repulsion" was viewed on its release and resulted it being sidelined as a "horror" film.


You do wonder if, given the subsequent reputation of the film's director, he was working through some personal issues in the film, since a recurring element in his films of the period is that of the ambiguity and possible social stigma of older men with younger women.


"Repulsion" marked an abrupt change of gear for Deneuve, fresh off the success of Jacques Demy's joyous Technicolor homage to Hollywood musicals, "Les Demoiselles De Rochefort", and likewise, her sister and co-star in that film, Francoise Dorleac, appeared soon after in Polanksi's black comedy, "Cul De Sac", allowing them the opportunity to show greater range in films with darker and more complex themes.


"Repulsion" is considered the first part part of a trilogy of films by Polanski featuring apartments that included "Rosemary's Baby" and ended with "The Tenant", with psychological horror being a unifying theme.