Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Ian Hendry, John Fraser Club, IFI, Dublin, 105 min ifi.ie
Shot in 1965, Roman Polanski’s first feature made outside Poland presents a tawdry, queasy portrait of a very patriarchal sexual revolution.The horror of Repulsion is merely an echo of the heroine’s fear of sex. Long before a late lingering shot of a family photo provides the viewer with a neat etymology of her psychoses, Catherine Deneuve’s Carol is, as the title goes, repulsed.
For the young French beautician, hell is other people and, more specifically, the other sex. Polanski maps Carol’s psychological decline with small, dirty details: the skinned rabbit in the fridge, the filthy potatoes, someone else’s toothbrush in the glass.
Deneuve’s transformation from ditzy and daydreaming to dangerous and delusional starts small. She stares for unnecessarily long durations at cracks in the pavement, she is halted by the snap of a rubber glove against her own skin, she gazes meaningfully out the window of the flat she shares with her sister at the convent across the road. Tellingly, a contingent of period cleaning products obscures her view.
The underbelly of swinging London’s blossoming liberation is picked away. The gap in circumstance and expectation between a new underpaid underclass of young women and the men who prey on them leaves Carol with an unending series of leering male “prospects”. Walk past the building site and its “’Ello darlin’, how about a bit of the other then?”
Elsewhere, the boys in more polite society exchange details about a girlfight: “They went for each other like those lady wrestlers in Hamburg,” exclaims one young suit. “I wouldn’t have minded seeing it just the same,” ’fnars his companion.
No woman is safe: “Bloody men promise you the earth and then. oh, I could cut my throat,” sobs Carol’s co-worker Bridget at work. At home, her sister’s married fancy man is a real charmer: “Put your best bib and tucker on, I feel like a spree,” he orders, shortly before chastising her for taking too long.
When Carol finally cracks, her apartment, in turn, takes on nightmarish Freudian dimensions. Its surreal sexual topography makes Repulsion one of cinema’s most memorably unhinged horrors. Discombobulating cuts, Gilbert Taylor’s woozy cinematography and Chico Hamilton’s odd score add to the distressing grotesquery.