Re-released as part of the Roman Polanski retrospective at BFI Southbank in London, Repulsion (1965) ranks among the director’s best work. It’s an expertly crafted masterpiece, finding a genuine sense of horror in the domestic and the mundane. Time has not dulled its impact, it remains a deeply terrifying vision of mental disintegration propelled by a highly inventive collage of celluloid trickery. Polanski weaves the Freudian undertones onto this canvas of technical mastery, creating not only an effective portrait of everyday madness, but also an ambiguously chilly indictment of the permissiveness of 60s London. That it is the urtext of the modern cinema’s complex thesis the synonymy of fear and desire makes its position in the Polanski canon troublingly relevant.
Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a young Belgian girl working in a London beauty parlour and living in a flat with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in South Kensington. Visibly uncomfortable in the company of men, Carol is painfully shy, spurning the advances of would-be-suitor Colin (John Fraser) and resenting Helen’s boorish boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry). When her sister leaves her to go on holiday with Michael, Carol becomes increasingly reclusive and retreats into a horrific fantasy world. Polanski bombards us with a cornucopia of nightmarish embellishments; from hands reaching through a wall or a rotting rabbit corpse on a table, the imagery is a surrealist vision of proximate decay.
Is Carol mad or are these expressionist horrors simply manifestations of a fear that is integrated with the times? As London swings, Carol cowers, exiled into her own hysteria. The visions are pronounced enough to operate as tools of obfuscation, with Polanski casting us down the psycho-sexual gauntlet, only to come out the other side dazed and shambling. The hallucinations carry a queasy sexual dimension, with fear and desire becoming so intertwined that they become a unified force. At one stage, Carol applies make-up in anticipation of an imaginary rapist; Polanski subverts the misogyny of a medium and mines the uncertainty of the times for its darkest hang-ups.
Much like Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970), Repulsion treats the 60s cultural revolution as a paradox; while sexual freedom may have become more prominent, London society was still rooted in the past, creating a tension between the certainty of the old and heady excitement of the new. The men of Polanski’s London are terrifying brutes who trade in cat-calls and aggression. Carol is a victim of both a moment in history that’s theoretically hers for the taking and the collective masculine id that lies dormant in the director’s urban purgatory. If this is where she stands in 1965, then repulsion may well be the only response.
Repulsion screens as part of the BFI's Roman Polanski season, which runs throughout January and February 2013. For more info and to buy tickets, visit http://bit.ly/VvLmNw.