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Sunday, June 5, 2022

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #45: Repulsion, 1965

"The nightmare world of a virgin's dreams becomes the screen's shocking reality!"
-Tagline for Repulsion

Repulsion, 1965

Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach 
Cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor
Music: Chico Hamilton
Producer: Gene Gutowski for Compton Films
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Patrick Wymark, Yvonne Furneaux

Why I chose it
 When this film popped up on "Best Film" lists for 1965, it intrigued me because I haven't seen many films from star Deneuve, and it had been a while since I saw Polanski's film Knife in the Water (1962), his first feature.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
A pretty young Belgian woman (Carol) lives with her sister in London and struggles with antisocial tendencies. She is especially wary of men, for reasons that aren't revealed. She holds down a job at a beauty parlor but rebuffs the advances of a young man, Colin, who is beyond interested in her. She also is jealous and wary of her sister's married lover, who occasionally stays the night at the apartment. When her sister Helen and her lover leave for a week's holiday, Carol is alone and retreats into fear and inaction, and begins to have scary hallucinations. Her descent into mental illness has tragic consequences.

John Fraser as Colin trying to get Carol's attention.

Production Background
Roman Polanski had just finished his first feature film in his native Poland, and now moved to Paris as his first marriage had broken up and he was looking for new challenges. There he met Gérard Brach, a struggling screenwriter. The two became friends and began working together on writing scenes. Soon after, he leveraged his connection with Polish producer Gene Gutowski, who was working in London, to meet the heads of the Compton Group, a maker of mostly soft-corn porn interested in branching into horror. The collaboration was built and the film was to be produced in London, allowing Polanski significant creative control. When Deneuve was set to star, she was fresh off the lead in the delightful but melancholy French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and being far from the fearful Carol, Deneuve delighted in sparring with Polanski and asserting her own view of how to play scenes.

Because of Polanski's perfectionist tendencies, the film went over budget, yet the film earned critics' raves and went on to win the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival, and Best Actress and Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle. Polanski was on the road to international stardom. 

Polanski working with Deneuve on the set of Repulsion

Some other notable film-related events in 1965 (from Filmsite.org):

  • The blonde teen star and the original Gidget character, Sandra Dee, was the last major star still under exclusive contract to a studio (Universal).
  • Shelley Winters became the first actress to win two Oscars in the category of Best Supporting Actress, with her win for A Patch of Blue (1965) - presented in 1966. She was the only actress to be twice honored in the "supporting" category, a record that she held until 1994 when Dianne Wiest won her second "supporting" award.
  • A small-time TV comedy writer Woody Allen wrote his first feature-length screenplay for director Richard Donner's unexpectedly successful sex farce What's New Pussycat? (1965), with Allen in his first major screen role. Because the writer/star disliked the film, he would proceed to his directorial debut for What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966).
  • The film version of the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1965) premiered. At its release, it surpassed Gone With the Wind (1939) as the number one box office hit of all time. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, it came away with five major wins including Best Picture and Best Director (Robert Wise).
My Random Observations
Warning: disturbing images from the film are included below.
  • My dominant emotional reaction the first time I watched this (yes, I watched it twice) was anxiety and frustration related to how no one in Carol's life recognized the obvious signs of severe emotional and mental illness that were interfering with Carol's basic functioning. A friend might say "oh, you look like you're not feeling well. Have a cup of tea and you'll be fine again soon" before turning to her own concerns. In the meantime, she refuses to eat, stares off into space, and cannot answer basic questions. Her sister, who lives with her, ignores her distress to tend to her lover, Carol's love interest overlooks her issues in his need to establish a romantic connection, and her boss just wants her to get to work on time. Perhaps the interpretation here is criticism of a society prizing self-centeredness over others needs. It's sad and shocking.
What is behind those eyes?
  • What is it with dead rabbits and disturbed women? Everyone knows Fatal Attraction (1987), but maybe that film had a precursor here: a skinned rabbit is ready to be cooked for dinner, but when that dinner's canceled, Carol allows the rabbit to sit out in her flat over several days, and it decays along with her mental state. If this was a real rabbit (and it sure looked like it), I can imagine those poor actors dealing with a noxious smell!
A decaying rabbit corpse gets no relief (and neither do viewers).

  • There is a family photo including Carol and her sister as children shown early and again late in the film, which seems to impart a meaning, as the child Carol is looking away from the camera with a serious look on her face, while everyone else is smiling toward the camera. Is this a hint that Carol's emotional issues were present from an early age, or that perhaps some nefarious actions were going on in the family that hurt Carol, or both? Regardless, again it implies that Carol needed help for many years and didn't get it.
The family photo in the film - the girl in the center, presumably
Carol as a child, looks somberly away from the camera.

  • The film does a fantastic job of giving us horror - with brutal murder, blood splatters, and jump scares of strange men attacking Carol, which we know to be her hallucinations. Even though Polanski uses a subjective camera to illustrate Carol's fragile mental state, it's perfectly fine that we know what is real and what isn't. Kudos to Deneuve for her believable incarnation of this character.
Helen (Yvette Furneux) is seen in the kitchen from Carol's (foreground)
point of view.
  • "Repulsion" may be just the emotion that many film fans feel when pondering the career of Polanski, as a result of his conviction on statutory rape charges in the 1970s and flight to Paris to avoid his sentence. Of course he continued his career, still turning out acclaimed films, and may be the most controversial filmmaker alive today.
A distorted reflection of Carol (Deneuve) in Repulsion

Where to Watch
Criterion has released the film on DVD. It can also be streamed for a small fee on many platforms, and for free with ads here.

Further Reading
A good place to start is with the Criterion essays on the film -- check this one out. Another fascinating take is this one that discusses Polanski's use of surrealistic images in Repulsion.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your post, but I think I won't be discovering Replusion for myself. It sounds as creepy as the poster looks!

    ReplyDelete