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Film Review: 'Repulsion'

Back in cinemas as part of a major 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 audio and visual prestidigitation. Polanski weaves the Freudian undertones onto this canvas of technical mastery, creating not only an effective portrait of everyday madness, but also a chilly yet obfuscated indictment of the permissiveness of 1960s London.

French actress 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 of imaginary attackers and physical decay.

The surrealist technical embellishments are dexterously integrated into the narrative. Whether it's hands reaching through a wall or a rotting rabbit corpse on a table, the imagery brilliantly captures the bracing terror of Carol's mental fragmentation and suffering as well as alluding to the broader themes permeating through the film. There is a temptation to use this form of skewed expressionism to search for meaning in Carol's fear of sexual contact, but Polanski uses is as yet another form of obstruction; the reasons are secondary to the claustrophobic horror of the madness itself.

Repulsion's genius lies in the way Polanski masterfully obscures the cause and effect of Carol's illness, to the extent that he manages to create a perverse synonymy between fear and desire. We see her doing things like applying make-up in anticipation of an imaginary rapist or fantasising about a builder who shouted at her in the street days previously. 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.

Polanski's English capital city, rich in observational detail and dramatic incident, is populated by misogynists and unreconstructed men threatening any progress. While the extremities of Carol's state may be worrying, the director presents her initial repulsion with something approaching pathos. An undisputed classic.

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

Craig Williams

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