Repulsion (1965)

The Halloween Countdown Day 25


Repulsion is available to rent or buy now.

Roman Polanski’s first English language film is quite possibly one of the most influential psychological horrors of the 1960s. Opening in London, the plot follows Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a manicurist living with her older sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). It is apparent early on that Carol struggles with daily interactions and seems to be repulsed by men to an extreme extent – when her suitor, Colin (John Fraser), tries to kiss her, she immediately brushes her teeth. At the same time, she almost throws up from the odour of a shirt left lying around by her sister’s boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry). As Helen and Michael leave for a trip abroad, the story moves to the flat’s confines, where we witness Carol’s slow descent into insanity with haunting precision.

Polanski parallels Carol’s fragmenting mental state with the suffocating and slowly deteriorating interior of the flat, in turn creating the first part of his so-called “Apartment trilogy”, which also included Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). There is clearly a basis for Carol’s neurological and mental breakdown, yet, the film does not include a “professional” character (like the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho) to explain or rationalise her psychosis, a key element of similar films of the time. Repulsion’s atmosphere set design and surreal hallucination sequences create a unique and chilling psychological experience. However, the film’s greatest attribute is Catherine Deneuve, an unknown 21-year-old French actress on the film’s release whose performance elevates Repulsion to become an undoubted masterpiece of 60s horror.

At the time of its release, the film’s choice of topic was remarkable and provocative on so many levels as it introduced us to a female killer. One who is strikingly beautiful and outwardly innocent, playing with audience perceptions and beliefs. But when you add to this the film’s revolutionary portrait of human sexuality or rather the repulsion of it, Polanski’s film becomes something new and genre-defining. As a result, Repulsion would revolutionise the horror genre as it took square aim at the sugarcoated, glamour-enriched style of storytelling that had ruled Hollywood in previous decades. Polanski leaves the conflict at the heart of his narrative for the audience to ponder, deviating from classical storytelling norms while lighting the spark of a new style of filmmaking that would define the 1960s, 1970s and beyond.

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