Classic Movies

Region 2 Cinema: Repulsion (1965)


Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) is a shy, reserved manicurist who’s concerned about her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux)’s upcoming trip to Italy with the boorish Michael (Ian Hendry), a married man with which Helen is having an affair. You see, unaware to Helen or any of her salon co-workers, Carole is slowly descending into madness—brought about by a longtime history of sexual repression. She finds little comfort holed up in her apartment—cracks begin to appear in walls, she loses track of time, hallucinatory figures attack and have their way with her—and a young man named Colin (John Fraser), sincerely concerned about her well-being, makes the terrible mistake of looking in on her and getting bludgeoned to death by a candlestick for his trouble. Carole also manages to do away with a lascivious landlord (Patrick Wymark) before Helen and Michael return to find her underneath a bed and in a complete catatonic state. The only answer as to why Carole went insane resides in a family photograph that the camera zooms in at the film’s close, showing a younger and most unhappy Carole as a little girl.

Roman Polanski’s first English language film, released in 1965, still packs a wallop as one of the all-time great psychological terror films. (I figured this being October, with Halloween and all, it would be a good time to revisit the movie.) The best thing about Repulsion is that much of its creepiness emanates from audio sources: Carole, terrified of being alone, hears footsteps in the corridor outside her bedroom and simple everyday sounds like the dripping of a faucet or the ticking of a clock are magnified to almost ear-shattering levels. But the movie doesn’t skimp on visual scares, either—the famous scene in which Carole closes a closet door only to glimpse a mysterious figure in the reflection of a mirror never fails to make me jump.

John Fraser and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)

Deneuve is sensational as the repressed Carole; her voice barely reaches above a whisper and throughout the film she goes through the motions at her job, prompting her co-workers to tell her to stop “day dreaming.” (I’ve always been amused by the fact that Carole works in “cloistered” surroundings—a beauty salon where few men are ever seen—and lives across the street from a convent.) Repulsion wasn’t the first feature Deneuve appeared in, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable in her incredible career. Polanski also excels (in both directing and co-writing the screenplay) here with the film that would kick off a “trilogy” about the horrors of apartment/city dwelling (the other two being Rosemary’s Baby [1968] and La Locataire [1976; aka The Tenant]).

You’re going to find this a bit hard to believe, but the first time I saw Repulsion was on Bravo—at a time when no one cared about what list Kathy Griffin happened to be on or how rich housewives from Atlanta spent their copious free time. A Region 1 DVD has been available since 2005 (which means I’m sort of cheating here, marking this as a Region 2 exclusive when it isn’t) but I haven’t heard too many good things about that version whereas the overseas release is just what the doctor ordered. (Unfortunately, both the single release and the box set The Roman Polanski Collection—which is where my copy of Repulsion is from, along with Nóż w wodzie [1962, aka Knife in the Water] and Cul-de-sac [1966]—have recently been discontinued.) There’s a nice little doc on the making of the film included, as well as a stills gallery and audio commentary from Polanski and Deneuve. You might have to scrounge around for a used copy but you certainly won’t regret the decision.

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