Cult Cinema: Repulsion (1965) - Reviewed

Lee takes a stab at the Polanski classic, Repulsion. 

From the opening close up shot of a woman’s eye, there is an element of confinement conveyed in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. As the credits begin to scroll up in overlapping crisscross patterns over the pupil, it seduces with an uncomfortable intimacy, an up close and personal look into the window of the mind. The repetitive one-two beat of bass drums develops an even deeper primal theme as the eye looks about. From the very beginning, as the camera pulls away to reveal a daydreaming Carol Ledoux (Cathrine Deneuve), Repulsion establishes one of its many metaphoric themes.

Written by Polanski and French screenwriter Gerard Brach, the film had trouble finding financing, and Polanski eventually signed a contract with Compton Pictures, a studio know for its array of soft-core pornography. Given the private nature of personal exposure expressed in the film, signing with a pornographic studio proved to be the perfect (and equally metaphoric) choice for this film. When Carol’s sister leaves to go on a holiday with her boyfriend, Carol becomes reclusive as the oppressive chauvinistic weight of male dominance becomes too heavy for her to bare. There is a social awkwardness displayed early on between Carol and all male characters in the film. Mirroring the title of the film, Carol interacts with men with puissant dislike. Seeking the safety of self solitude only furthers her detachment, as her neurotic behavior manifests into a complete breakdown.

Borrowing from the graphic metaphors of classic surrealist cinema, the apartment becomes a visual canvas of the distorted hallucinations of Carol’s mind. With the bulk of the film happening in the confides of an apartment, Polanski makes great use of natural elements to establish a timeline. There are many close up shots in the film, creating a stuffy setting, as if the four corners of the screen are not big enough to contain the story. Repulsion makes great use of unconventional camera angles. Many shots pan up/ down from the floor and ceiling, distorting Carol’s orientation. The constant abstractions of appearance work well with the story, giving Carol the illusion of looking small and detached one moment, then filling the screen with an overly large presence the next. It plays to Carol’s erratic behaviors of the film. The cinematography works wonders in creating a claustrophobic setting for viewers. Many special effects are also put to good use, helping to create a parallel institution that highlights the suffocating actions of male aggression and affection. The majority of the soundtrack can best be describes as a kaleidoscope of noise. Many mental episodes Carol experiences have their own noise theme, repetitive chimes, bells, and clock ticks act as triggers that intensify as the downward spiral of Carol’s psychotic breakdown descends beyond the depths of reality. 

One of the most interesting aspect of Repulsion is the audience is never given the origin of Carol’s mental illness or even what her diagnosis is. The original poster does hint at the weight women bear, and the struggle to hold steady a feminist ideology beneath the shadow of men. Repulsion leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and this gives the film an allure of mystery that ultimately helps pave the horrific elements of the film. Often classified as a horror film, the movie does incorporate a Hitchcock-like sense of suspense. The film ends with the same mystique developed in the opening shot, and offers a clue to Carol’s vexatious relationship with men. Overall it is a stunning, and often frightening film that exposes the fragile nature of a woman trapped between the burdens of a male dominance, and society’s expectations of female sexuality.


-Lee L. Lind