THE QUESTION people most often ask each other about the movies is: “How did you enjoy it?” Perfectly natural, of course, but in the case of Repulsion, practically unanswerable. As one who believes there are other things to be said about movies than “I did or didn’t like it,” I’ve been taking a slightly perverse pleasure in watching people who’ve seen this shattering modern tragedy struggle to find an answer.
It’s hardly appropriate, after all, to say: “I loved every minute of it—it was so horrible I could hardly sit through it.” Most people don’t like to admit they enjoy watching gruesome
murders. Besides, Repulsion is not one of the pictures like Hitchcock’s Psycho that deal in madness for shock’s sake. Repulsion is far more shocking, in fact, than anything Hitchcock ever made, because it can produce in the spectator the added shock of self-recognition, the hallmark of a real artwork.
The heroine of this British movie, directed, through some fluke of the international film world, by the brilliant young Franco-Pole, Roman Polanski, is at once quite exceptional and truly universal.
Carol is a young Belgian girl of exquisitely fragile beauty (Catherine Deneuve is perfect in the part) who lives with her sister in London and works in a posh beauty shop. There, daily, she sees rich older women pay through the nose (among other things) to repair their crumbling features with a grotesque mask of makeup, all the while complaining about the base and lustful desires of men.
“There’s only one thing men are interested in,” whines one old gargoyle through her mud pack, “and why they make such a fuss about it I’ll never know.” Carol’s apprehensions about the opposite sex are further excited when she is awakened in the middle of the night by the prayer bells of a neighboring nunnery to hear her sister and her lover panting down the hall.
This far Polanski has given us the picture of a girl who is disturbed, lonely, and alienated from her surroundings, but still capable of functioning in the outside world. He doesn’t try to reconstruct her case history as would Hitchcock, or even to explain. Instead, he shows us what it feels like to be a girl who in spite of herself, attracts the kind of lusts she most fears. To be both beautiful and French in London is to be a walking mantrap and, inevitably, Carol’s aloofness is mistaken for mere feminine caprice by the inexperienced young man who tries to date her.
When the sister (Yvonne Furneaux) goes away with her lover for a short holiday, Carol soon loses touch with the outside world and falls prey to her own frightening fantasies. At night when the prayer bells ring, she is visited by rapists. Even in the day, hands reach through the walls to caress her and cracks in the wall suddenly split open, breaking the security of her sanctuary. By the time her boyfriend and the landlord reach her, she has been so abused and frightened that she can only respond by summoning up all the demented cunning and strength of total insanity to murder them. As in riots, it is a case of the victim turning into oppressor.
There is no more enjoyment or titillation in this spectacle than there is in the progressive madness of King Lear, though Polanski relieves the oppressiveness with a certain grim humour.
And there are other compensations. With fantastic insight, Polanski manages to suggest even the touch
and smell of objects perceived through the distorting screen of insanity. His observations are also eloquent about the damage caused by some of the common Western sexual myths. For these qualities, Repulsion has to be seen, disturbing or not. It is one of the very few movies I’ve seen that imposes itself instantly as one of the
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