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. Meanwhile, 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 confines of the flat while portraying Carol’s slow descent into insanity with haunting precision. Here Polanski parallels Carol’s fragmenting mental state with the suffocating and slowly deteriorating interior of the flat – creating the first part of his so-called “Apartment trilogy”, which 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.
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Repulsion’s atmosphere set design and surreal hallucination sequences make for a brilliant horror that shocks us with its deep psychological insight over any blood or gore. However, the film’s greatest attribute is Catherine Deneuve, an unknown 21-year-old French actress on the film’s release. Her fantastic and eerily believable performance elevates Repulsion to an undoubted masterpiece of 60s psychological horror.
At the time of its release, the film’s choice of topic was remarkable and provocative on many levels. Here we have a female killer as the main character, which was unheard of at the time. She is strikingly beautiful and innocent-looking, playing with the audience’s perceptions and beliefs. But when you add to this a revolutionary portrait of human sexuality, or rather the repulsion of it, Polanski’s film becomes something utterly new in the landscape of 60s horror. Here its female lead refuses to conform to the standard path of femininity and sexuality portrayed in cinema up to this point.
Repulsion revolutionised the horror genre while subverting audience expectations on many different levels. Meanwhile, it took square aim at the sugarcoated, glamour-enriched style of storytelling that had ruled Hollywood in previous decades. Here, Polanski leaves the conflict at the heart of his narrative for the audience to ponder, deviating from classical storytelling norms. Polanski’s British debut would light the spark of a new style of filmmaking, one that would come to define the 1960s, 1970s and beyond.
READ MORE: POSSESSION