Roman Polanski’s second feature film (and his first English language) has been called by one critic Psycho turned inside-out. I’m not sure that’s the best concise description of the film, but it’s certainly better than how the trailers summed it up. The star, and the titular repulsed woman, is played by the gorgeous, blonde Catherine Deneuve. She speaks in a broken English, lives in a messy flat in London with her brunette sister and works as a nail technician in a salon. This is all Polanski wants his audience to know, and the rest is up to the viewer to process and identify with as they like.
As noted in the above-mentioned critic’s review, in stark contrast to the 1960 Hitchcock film, Polanski is more concerned with exploring the dark recesses of the mind of the psycho, rather than keeping the psycho solely in the shadows. However, the trailer would have you believe that the director takes us into the mind of Denueve’s paranoia, but that’s never really the case. Instead we get to see a couple of her dark nightmares (possibly indicating a sexually traumatic event in her past?), and a couple seemingly benign delusions. In the nightmares she’s stalked by men, later attacked by men and ultimately raped by men. Consequently, in reality she’s repulsed by men, the touch of men and the general presence of men.
Similar to the New York Mad Men universe, Repulsion is set in a ’60s London where Deneuve can’t walk down a city street (and she walks down many of them), without getting whistled at, groped or chased down by men desperate to be her boyfriend. It’s actually interesting to compare these on-location city-walking scenes with those of (pretty much) any ’60s French New Wave film (e.g. Breathless, Cleo, etc.), and notice how the similarities in style of filmmaking are almost identical, except when coupled with the performance of Denueve and the disjointed score, Polanski is able to fashionably pull off an overwhelming sense of dread in such a modern, un-staged, cinematic style – unlike most anything Hitchcock would ever do.
While Denueve’s nightmares are obvious and rather digestible for audience interpretation, the visions she has of her apartment (her prison) cracking around her, are much more cinematic and questionable. In fact, the visions seem almost in direct opposition to her rapidly developing fear of leaving the apartment and venturing out to where the staring and whistling men are. Yet, it’s when she retreats in her home, (later, even barricading herself there), that she has these visions of the walls splitting apart when she touches them. Is it the passage of time becoming exponential in her mind? Is it the frailty of the world around her that she fears? Or is it even darker fears that no matter where she hides, the men (the world, even) will always break through to find her in between the cracks?
I like the subtle inexplicabilities in a Polanski film. There’s even some question at the end whether or not she is a victim of her own illness. I’ve read in multiple reviews on the film that she’s in fact dead at the end of the film, the third casualty, as it were; but, I have watched the ending a few times now and I would argue she is alive – catatonic, maybe – but alive.
Like Hitchcock, Polanski uses well-developed cinematic scenes to lure a viewer into the light of a scary moment and then – bludgeon them (sometimes literally) with a surprise. Unlike many lazy directors of late, Polanski always ensures motive for his supporting characters’ actions. In a wonderfully crafted scene involving Deneuve’s first murder, her pushy boyfriend barges into her apartment – her slowly cracking sanctuary – to work on reversing the cold shoulder she’s been giving him.
While the character leaves the front door open after coming in, Polanski develops the scene from a two-shot into a three-shot with the nosey next door neighbor and her nosey dog appearing, framed up right in the center of the open doorway, eavesdropping (rather openly). When the boyfriend notices, he storms to the door, shuts it and without a second thought Denueve walks up behind him, candlestick raised over her head, brought down swiftly on the back of his skull. The moments of her insanity reaching their peak like this, are so expertly crafted, it’s hard to adjust to it momentarily. I hesitate to say this, for fear I even give someone the unborn idea, but a remake of this film would be destroyed by many genre directors of today. Subtly, pacing, drama, build-up and atmosphere are not in many of the new Hollywood elite’s repertoires (save, Fincher or Romanek).
While Hitchcock was pure Hollywood and genre, Polanski for a long while remained on the outskirts, coupling the fresh, bold European filmmaking styles of the ’60s with his own brand of calculated suspense via avant garde cinematics. I would never dare to call Repulsion an inside-out version of Psycho, for I feel that is actually a slight against Repulsion, with a point in favor for Psycho. No, instead, these are two films which should remain separate and apart, and whether the 1960 “shocker” was identified as some sort of inspiration for Repulsion or not – Roman Polanski was cinematically and stylistically years ahead of Hitch in ’65.