[13 August 2009]

By Matt Mazur

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Director Roman Polanski opens Repulsion with a tight close-up of star Catherine Deneuve’s eye, immediately recalling the film collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un chien andalou, in which a man slashes a woman’s eye open with a straight razor. But rest easy, this particular eye will be left alone, but a razor will nonetheless ultimately figure, in a major way, into Repulsion’s fever-dream plot.

Surrealist horror is on Polanski’s menu and the nod to the experimental 1929 landmark, which is rooted in dream logic, seems entirely purposeful in this Freudian nightmare, though, in the commentary, Polanski laughs off any comparison and refutes this notion, decidedly announcing that any intentional references are simply coincidental. Like his protagonist in Repulsion, the great director seems cagy.

White credits float across Carol’s (Catherine Deneuve) iris in zig-zagging, unpredictable patterns, perhaps echoing her fractured stream of consciousness and her unstable psyche. Some of the words are slanted, while others pass by diagonally. Just as Bunuel claimed he once had a dream where a cloud sliced through the moon “like a razor blade slicing through an eye”, the credit “directed by Roman Polanski” cuts directly through the center of the screen, through Carol’s “eye”.

Gilbert Taylor’s (who shot Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) black and white camera pans from the corneal gaze backwards, slowly, to reveal the doll-like, expressionless face of a pristine young Deneuve. All pouting, mannequin splendor, the actress, not yet an international star, handed herself over to the great Polanski, body and soul while playing Carol. Repulsion is the culmination of two artists upping their personal antes to produce greatness, two burgeoning legends of cinema testing their seemingly-limitless powers.

The lack of emotion, the flatness of her direct stare into the camera also recalls another famous “eye” shot: that of the murdered Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), staring up with dead-eyed horror from the floor of the shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (in fact, Carol’s “slashing” motions seem to be directly influenced by Norman Bates’).

Polanski has had many “Hitchcock” moments throughout his career, constructing stylish, economical pot-boilers such as Knife on the Water, Cul-de-sac and even to an extent, Rosemary’s Baby. Of course, now we see Polanski’s style and his directorial abilities as much more versatile, grander in scale. Gone are these tight little studies of madness, replaced by epics such as The Pianist and his brilliant vision of Thomas Hardy’s Tess.

His versatility as an artist and master craftsman has long been proven, but Repulsion, the claustrophobic chamber play that will get inside your head and mess with you for days (particularly if you a) live alone, b) are a woman, or c) both) might actually be his most pure filmmaking hour. Polanski’s barebones, terrifying blueprint of a woman’s unraveling mind is something that many directors – from Lars von Trier to David Lynch have heavily borrowed from in their own peculiar explorations of dreamy women in peril.

Carol is daydreaming in the beauty parlor she works in as a manicurist, and what we don’t know about what’s going on in her head as she is sits transfixed in a fugue-like stare, is scary. She lives with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a messy flat in London where Helen entertains her married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry), much to Carol’s dismay. The mere presence of this man brings out some very bad feelings in the otherwise sedate, vacant Carol (who only relaxes in the presence of other women).

Sexual repression, sexual panic, frigidity, and paranoia are all themes that Polanski coolly examines with an almost clinical detachment. Watch for Deneuve’s guarded, rigid body language as she nearly jumps out of her skin when Michael touches her cheek. She is downright revolted when she hears him making love with his sister upstairs, chewing on her hair like a little girl.

Later, after her beau kisses her, she disgustedly wipes her mouth raw, and then vigorously brushes her teeth, throwing out the toothbrush when she finishes for good measure. She actually vomits when she has to touch a soiled t-shirt he leaves in the bathroom.

It is suggested that Carol’s behavior may have been brought on by childhood abuse, possibly an incestuous relationship with her father. Polanski twice presents a shot of an old family photograph, presumably of Helen and Carol with their mother and father. The first is a lingering shot of a seemingly “normal” family, but the way in which the shot is held is extremely effective.

When the photo is shown later in the film, Polanski uses a more definite focus on the little blonde girl (Carol) and the father, bringing out details using light and shadow that were hidden in the first (seemingly clear) shot. Both takes on the family portrait glimmer with intensity. The way he highlights and segments the picture the second time mirrors his use of “cracks” throughout Repulsion—“cracks” in the wall, “cracks” on the street confirm that Carol is going to eventually lose it during the course of the film, the only question is “when”?

Polanski and Deneuve, who provide a full-length, expert commentary track, take the viewer to the extremes of human loneliness, to the place where you are so damaged that you can’t even stand your own company. Polanski uses everything from insects to absurdity in his quest to uncover a chilling unconscious truth and Deneuve’s largely non-verbal performance is an important precursor to the actresses’ own work with Bunuel, in the luscious, studied Belle de jour.

When she starts seeing and hearing things in her apartment, you know that Carol will end up a tragic Ophelia, eventually drowning in the horrors of her troubled past and cracked present. For a girl like Carol, there is not a future. The viewer is put into a place of intimate contact with the disturbed Carol and it is like being put in a cage with a rabid animal that uses a straight razor as a substitute for claws.

We are now privy to her hallucinations and nightmares and this is a scary position for the audience to have to get into. Polanski’s use of sound is particularly great in the scenes of madness, where the use of the ambient noise in the building, music and clatter, is used to keep the viewer on edge.

Repulsion is a masterpiece of horror that is not to be missed and can be open to many interpretations. “You can do what you want, it’s a free country,” snaps Polanski to an interviewer who asks him for an answer to the question of Carol’s abuse, on A British Horror Film (a documentary included with the extras). “But don’t ever ask me to explain any of my pictures.” Bunuel and Dali would approve, even if it wasn’t Polanski’s intent to involve them.

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