Repulsion was Roman Polanski's followup to Knife in the Water (1962) and is, quite simply, a psychological thriller as only he could have directed it. At the heart of the film is a lucid performance by Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a disturbed, painfully shy manicurist whose sanity is splitting in two, and whose inability to be understood by her peers is not unlike another Polanski heroine: Mia Farrow's pregnant housewife-under-conspiracy in Rosemary's Baby (1968), another story about a woman who stays in all day and, inevitably, lets temptation influence her common sense. If Rosemary's Baby feels like the better film today, that may be because we get to know Rosemary inside out, care about her, cheer for her and fear for her; Deneuve's Carol in Repulsion is a much less sympathetic character, and when she rejects the men who check out her lustful figure on the street, it almost feels as though she's rejecting the rest of us out in the audience. What is her motive? What makes her go so berserk? Polanski wisely refuses to answer such a cop-out question: “You can do what you want- it's a free country- but don't ever ask me to explain any of my pictures.”
Carol is not the kind of woman you would want to know. The men on the street don't realize exactly how batty the chick is. In the film, she will show up to work at the beauty salon and doze off when she's supposed to be staying awake. She will form a habit of crossing the street without looking both ways. At home, she will have fantasies of large cracks opening up in the walls. She will hang up immediately on angry phone calls. She will have nightmares of imaginary men breaking into her bedroom and ravaging her, and every time she will wake up sprawled over naked on the floor. She will find a plate of diced rabbit in the refrigerator and then leave it out to rot and decay until it bears resemblance to a deformed fetus. She will murder two people. She will kill each of them in two very different ways. And she'll do it all without ever knowing what she's doing and what is happening to her. Carol has given up on paying attention.
Consider a peculiar scene that occurs at the 59-minute mark. A depressed Carol is being sent home early, as a result of her sluggish behavior at work. A co-worker (Helen Fraser) tries to lighten things up by talking about a Chaplin movie she saw the other day. Though she never reveals the title, we can tell that it's The Gold Rush, and after she describes the scene where Charlie turns into a chicken, Carol bursts into laughter. It's the first time we have seen her smile in the entire film. But the joke really isn't that funny, and Carol's laughter is more overblown than it is human. She laughs louder (and longer) than her co-worker does, and she hasn't even seen the movie in question. She's laughing only for the sake of laughing. Carol evidently hasn't had a good chuckle in a while. Unfortunately, she's reached the point where even laughter is ineffective medicine.
Not that her misery isn't logical. Carol, a Belgian, shares an apartment with her brunette sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), who speaks with an English dialect. Helen is not nearly as cautious of men as Carol is, and at night she and her married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) have loud sex in the bedroom next door, driving a mad Carol to wrestle with her pillow in a hopeless execution to drown out the noise. One night in particular, Helen has to rub it in by emerging from energetic intercourse with Michael and barging into Carol's bedroom drenched in sweat and wearing nothing but a towel, just so that she can demand, “why did you throw Michael's things away?” Nobody ever cuts Carol a break.
Well, to be sure, there is one person who tries to make things easier for her. This is Colin (John Fraser), the one man in Carol's life who honestly tries to take her seriously as a woman. But Colin can sometimes be just as naive as she is; we sometimes get the impression that he's only chasing after her because of the stories he hears from his friends at the local bar about her alleged virginity. Whenever they go on lunch dates, he does all the talking. After two failed attempts at a relationship, Carol disregards Colin as just another meaningless specter eating away at her peace of mind. And after Helen and Michael go on vacation, leaving Carol to look after the apartment alone (big mistake), her plagued reclusion begins. A distressed Colin breaks into the apartment, approaches Carol, tries to talk to her, and does not get a response. Then, when Carol turns her back on him, Colin turns his back on her, and an elderly lady walking her dog out in the hall observes them at a distance. Polanski captures all three of them astonishingly within the frame, resulting in one of the film's most extraordinary shots. It is memorable for reasons that are vague, but it is nonetheless memorable.
Repulsion is haunting on another level, that which stems from its technical aspects. The music by Chico Hamilton brings in shadowy flute melodies during scenes of silence, and it piles on thunderous drum rolls at excruciating climaxes. The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor photographs the film in beautiful black and white, and it also allows Polanski to take advantage of scene-to-scene transitions. One scene fades to darkness after Carol tips over a couch right on top of the camera. Another scene fades to white after Carol knocks over a lamp, leaving the lightbulb to shine straight into the lens. The murder scenes have their own originality: whether she's whacking with a candlestick or hacking away with a razor, Carol always directs her blows to the camera. Especially jaw-dropping are the dream sequences in which Carol has visions of male hands bursting out from the apartment walls, with one hand feeling for her waist and another hand grabbing at her left breast. One hand tries to reach out for Carol but fails, because it is being resisted by a "rubber" portion of the wall- as if it's attempting to make its way through an oversized condom.
Strangest of all is Polanski's decision to bookend the film with close-ups of Carol's eyeball. The Criterion essay by Bill Horrigan offers a theory: “It's perhaps Deneuve's presence, as a glacial blonde in distress, that has kept critics noting the film's Hitchcockian qualities ever since its release, not to mention its Psycho-like central poetic effect of the camera closing in on a woman's eye”. On the DVD commentary, Catherine Deneuve herself has another theory, which is that “the eye is really the heart of the head- the window in the soul, but the window in the head as well". Indeed, we are reminded of Janet Leigh's frozen eyeball in the earlier film, but that was the eye of a woman dead and destined for burial. Repulsion illuminates on the eye of the killer.
The screenplay by Polanski and Gerard Brach plays around with the impatience of the characters. If there's one thing Carol shares in common with both Helen and Michael, it's that all three of them have a tendency to change the subject on each other. Helen tells a story about the minister of health finding eels in his sink, but Carol would rather ask about why Michael stores his things in the bathroom. Michael would prefer to inquire about Carol's mysterious condition than he would answer Helen's question about whether or not they'll encounter the Leaning Tower of Pisa on vacation. Helen wants to know what Michael meant when he suggested that Carol “needs to see a doctor”, and when Michael starts talking about Pisa, Helen fusses that he changes the subject too much.
Another odd character is introduced by the screenplay in the form of the creepy landlord (Patrick Wymark), whose cold persona is broken down by the sight of a sulking Carol, sitting down on the couch in her transparent white nightgown, and he considers taking advantage of her mopey state. “There's, uh, no need to be alone, you know”, he grins. “Poor little girl. All by herself. All... shaking like a little frightened animal”. The landlord walks into the kitchen, circles around the couch, examines the family photos, and circles around the couch again before finally make a move on her. Polanski secures this sequence in one unbroken take that last for three minutes.
Ironically, the most three-dimensional characters in all of Repulsion do not even have lines, and we don't ever get a good look at their faces. They are a trio of old musicians who shuffle around the town square and use spoons for instruments. They appear in only two scenes. In the first scene, they dare to take their performance out into the middle of the street. In the second scene, as Carol hides up in the apartment, we can hear them on the sidewalk down below, clicking away like the crocodile from Peter Pan. What has Polanski put them there for? He claims on the DVD commentary that he merely thought it would be nice to include them in one of his movies, but he hesitates to go into further detail. Notice that after they make their first entrance, Carol's mood in the film begins changing. Does the racket of the musicians set off the spark that ignites her insanity? It's possible. And after it explodes, what then? We find out.