Repulsion Movie Review
Roman Polanski's Repulsion has been rightly hailed as a chilling examination of a woman going mad. With unnerving intensity, it places us in the shoes of Catherine Deneuve's fragile beautician, whose unexplained trauma and sexual repression induce bizarre, frightening hallucinations that ultimately drive her to murder. But just as powerful is its notion of an outside world incapable of aiding her. Polanski's penchant for exploring helplessness and indifference has seen more overt expression in other films, but here it forms a haunting counterpoint to the central drama, a statement both on insanity and the banal monstrosities which enable it.
Certainly, its ability to conjure monsters from its heroine's id remains unparalleled. Deneuve's Carole Ledoux lives life as a frightened mouse, despite the fact that she has nothing truly to fear. Her world is marked by strange grotesqueries: the bloated middle-aged women whom she treats at the boutique, the swinging London men who leer in her direction, her sister's (Yvonn Furneax) passive affair with a married man in the room next to hers. Slowly, but with terrible certainty, those external threats blend with internal imaginings until it becomes impossible to differentiate the two. When her sister goes on holiday for a week, the apartment they share transforms into a chamber of horrors: Faceless men appear in the mirrors, arms extend from disturbingly organic walls, food rots in the corners, and cracks grow wider at a frightening pace. So effectively does Polanski orchestrate this dissolution that it has become the blueprint by which scores of future filmmakers based their visions of insanity. (The similarities to Ellen Burstyn's breakdown in Requiem for a Dream are no coincidence.)
But Repulsion truly cements Ledoux's tragedy with the baffled and benignly ignorant responses of the people surrounding her. As a Belgian immigrant, she's a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by people who can't understand or communicate effectively with her. Signs of her condition become readily apparent to them and yet they seem too confused to act, which only augments her isolation and further hastens her doom. None of the other characters are evil and with the exception of her skeevy landlord (Patrick Wymark), all of them wish her well. But their good intentions prove utterly powerless in the face of her demons, unable to overcome their self-absorbed passivity in time to throw her a lifeline.
The thread echoes Polanski's later nihilism: the notion that decency and morality cannot hope to prevail in a world so compromised as ours. He declines to elaborate on Ledoux's past here (beyond a picture of her family, which implies some manner of incestuous abuse, but never definitively states anything). While the madness is hers, Polanski suggests it was inflicted upon her as casually and irreparably as the twisted fantasies blossoming in her head. Whatever forces govern such apparitions have no interest in compassion, and the ostensible decency of a city of millions is turned on its ear when one of their number succumbs to the void frightened and alone... with good people just a single tenement wall away.
Repulsion draws favorable comparisons to Psycho, a better-known film which documents the solitude of insanity from those outside looking in. By approaching it from the opposite perspective, Polanski provides an ideal dovetail: matching Hitchcock's unique vision with one equally compelling, and marking the complicity of those who bear witness to lunacy as much as the nightmare of those who succumb. The languid pace with which Repulsion builds can be difficult to swallow in this day and age. Despite that, it actually should be seen on a movie screen, for only by absorbing it in totem does its true power come to light.
It doesn't help that Repulsion has languished on the DVD market, while Psycho has received attention befitting one of cinema's great masterpieces. With the release of the new Criterion edition, those scales may finally be balanced.
Should not be shaving.