June 2015 marks the 50th Anniversary of the UK release of Repulsion, the 1965 psychological horror film. Starring screen goddess Catherine Deneuve and directed by Roman Polanski, Repulsion was an instant classic. It would prove a major influence on the sub genre of psychological horror, taking its place among such greats as Psycho and The Shining.
In honor of the 50th Anniversary of one of the best psychological horror films ever, I re-watched Repulsion the other night. It was as good as I remember, but I had noticed some new things that added to my film-watching experience.
I could write a whole book on this movie. To avoid subjecting my readers to that, I’ll just lay out some points.
Before I do that, here’s the plot of the film, which is more a character study than a progression of events.
The film follows the story of Carole Ledoux (Deneuve), a beautiful young French woman living in London with her older sister. Carole goes through her day in a haze, withdrawn, passive, first walking to her job as a manicurist, then back home, where she begins again. Something is off about her—she lacks confidence, is prone to drifting off into near catatonic states of daydream, and avoids men. Being so beautiful, Carole receives unsolicited attention from the men around her, which only serves to exacerbate her mental instability and inflame her fear of men. When her sister leaves Carole alone in their grimy flat to go on vacation, Carole is unable to hold onto her sanity and experiences a total psychological breakdown.
Premiering 5 years after the seminal psychological horror film, Psycho, Polanski’s film proved one of the more inspired depictions of madness on film, and its doubtful that it will ever be matched. The film is shot beautifully, making clever and inventive use of camera angles and lighting. Every frame is artfully rendered. Even though it was very low-budget, the film looks like great.
It is worth noting that this film, unlike Psycho, depicted the horror story from the viewpoint of the killer and not the victims. Even more noteworthy is that the film does not try to explain Carole’s behavior or why she holds such anxiety towards men and their sexual advances. Instead, we are forced to follow Carole as she spirals downward. We watch her go about her day, we experience her interactions with men from her viewpoint, and we must endure the terrifying hallucinations she is unable to stop. And when Carole feels so threatened that she lashes out and kills, the camera refuses to look away.
If you haven’t seen Repulsion, you should fix that immediately. And if you have seen it, you should watch it again. They don’t make horror films like this anymore, which is a shame. This film was and is incredibly influential, impacting art and movies for years after. The film is not only scary for its action (the jump-scares are perfection), but for what it says about the viewer as well. Why is Carole this way? The limits of our speculations are bound by our willingness to explore the darkness of our imaginations.
Some thoughts upon my re-watch:
Part Psychological Horror, Part Home Invasion Movie
One of my biggest nightmares is a home invasion. Before I watch any home invasion horror flick, I make sure all the doors and windows are locked and that I have a fully charged cell phone within reach. I know that’s weird, but I don’t care. Repulsion confronts themes of space, both bodily and as it concerns living quarters, and how threatening invasions of those spaces can be.
The film takes care to note the various spaces seen in the film. A typical day in Carole’s life involves leaving the safe space of her apartment, to the loud and scary street, to the feminine space of the beauty salon, back through the street, and finally back to her apartment. But even in the safety of her apartment, unsullied by the presence of men (until her sister’s boyfriend lays claim to it), Carole stares longing out the window at the convent nearby, where the nuns congregate behind high walls. The nuns are safe from prying male eyes. One gets a sense that Carole wishes she could retreat into such a world.
While I don’t have a desire to become a nun in order to avoid unwanted attention, I have had to steel myself when passing through certain public spaces. I think all women have had experiences similar to Carole’s–you may be subjected to crass, threatening advances in those public spaces, and while you do what you can to avoid attracting such attention, you cannot control the interaction. You can avoid eye contact, dress “modestly” (whatever that means), and still be the target of crude comments, if not worse behavior. Some days it may not be so bad, some days you might be harassed so badly that its all you can do not to cry in public.
So, for women especially, a private living space is an invaluable refuge.
For anyone, the thought of your home rendered unsafe is terrifying. That’s where you put all your stuff, that’s where you let your guard down, precisely because you think of it as a safe place. You shouldn’t have to worry about anyone stealing your stuff from the safe place. You shouldn’t have to worry about someone leering at you or trying to assault you in your own home.
Watching mentally-unstable Carole wrestle with these fears, and then to watch her breakdown once the apartment fails to protect her from her fears, gets under my skin like nothing else.
Catherine Deneuve is a Screen Goddess
Catherine Deneuve is amazing and talented and perfect and no one is allowed to remake this movie EVER because I don’t think anyone could ever play this role better. She owns this role. It belongs to her.
The Film Handles Tension Wonderfully
This film is a study in tension. The use of every day sounds is so effective at invoking unease and apprehension. Buzzing flies, ticking clocks, ringing phones, knocking footsteps—they all terrify Carole and made me shield my eyes (I still peaked through my fingers). Personally, I was most disturbed by the sounds of the clock marking the seconds in that twisting, cavernous apartment. I was just waiting for something bad to happen to poor Carole. Also, for anyone who has ever gotten a manicure, this film might make you second-guess letting a stranger pick at your fingers with sharp tools.
Contemporary Reviews of Repulsion
In preparation for this blog post, I found some contemporary reviews of the film from its 1965 release. I found their sexism fascinating, in a bad way. Get a load of this review from New York Times, where Mr. Bosley Crowther wonders “why a girl of such fascinating beauty should be as hostile as she is toward men.”
Um, I don’t know, maybe she doesn’t want attention? Girls, even beautiful ones, don’t have to be nice to anyone, let alone the creeps in this movie. This is, apparently, an unfathomable thought for this critic in 1965.
And check out what he says about Colin: he’s an “innocent suitor” who “unwittingly invade[s]” Carole’s space and is “rewarded with a clout on the head.”
You mean, this guy?
I don’t know about Mr. Crowther, and I’m not one to tout gun violence, but I don’t care how “unwittingly” an asshole is when he breaks down my door after I’ve asked him to leave, he’s going to get himself shot.
This film put me off eating rabbit when I first saw it. That sentiment has been renewed upon this re-watch.
I feel like a lot of the consensus surrounding Carole’s “sexual repression” assumes a lot about Carole’s sexuality that I would argue isn’t actually presented. For example, we never see Carole express any kind of sexuality. Her interactions with men largely involve her looking down at the ground and maintaining a passive and polite demeanor. She is not the cunning temptress Colin groans about to his friends. I could speculate wildly and say that maybe Carole is gay or asexual or maybe straight after all, but it would be only speculation. The film doesn’t give us much to go on because it chooses not to. We are not meant to diagnose Carole.
However, that hasn’t stopped scores of viewers of assuming that Carole was sexually abused, due to the infamous Ledoux family photograph depicting Carole as a sullen, tight-lipped child. That photograph could mean anything and nothing. We are not supposed to know. We are only meant to observe.
The Matter of the Film’s Director, Roman Polanski
I typically try to adhere to the approach of separating “art” from “the artist”, but this is never something I’ve been able to do with Polanski’s work. Many of his films—like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and Tess—explore the ways in which men mistreat and demean women, and oftentimes these men use sexual violence to injure women. Consequently, it’s hard for me to ignore Roman Polanski’s crime against a thirteen-year old girl, especially when he seems intent on shedding light on how destructive such behavior is.
Take Rosemary’s Baby—Rosemary’s husband makes a deal with the devil to further his acting career, but instead of bargaining with his own soul, he sells Rosemary’s body. And then he keeps her in the dark, effectively gas-lighting her despite the fact that her fears and suspicions are correct. Like, what an asshole. I can’t comprehend the sheer motherfuckery necessary to do that to your spouse. And the film does not make him sympathetic at all.
So too in Repulsion, the men around Carole refuse to respect her personal space, when it comes to both the apartment and her own body. Her sister’s married boyfriend refuses to respect the shared spaces in the apartment, particularly where it concerns the bathroom. When Carole objects, he laughs at her and pinches her cheek as if she was a child. Colin, a young man who cannot accept that Carole is not interested in him, takes every opportunity to touch her and cajole her into doing what he wants. Even though Carole gives him no cause to think she wants to continue a romantic relationship with him, he gets himself so worked up over his desire to “be with her” that he shows up at her apartment, unannounced, and breaks down the door because she won’t let him in. You might think, oh, he was concerned for her wellbeing, but I would argue no, that’s the entirely wrong way to read that scene. He couldn’t stand that she rebuffed him again, so he destroyed the obstacle keeping them apart. And then because he realized he was being awful, he apologizes by professing his love for her, as if that excuses his behavior.
And then there’s the landlord, who attempts to rape Carole not once but twice.
As a modern viewer watching these scenes, I felt so sorry for Carole. She lacks confidence and can’t handle the situations that make her feel uncomfortable. She’s also mentally unstable, and the film presents her ongoing psychological deterioration as the result of these boorish, invasive male actions agitating this instability. I never felt that the film was scolding Carole for feeling the way she did. If anything, it was very sympathetic to her character, admitting that something was very wrong with her, but that she was in no way responsible for what happened to her and didn’t possess the wherewithal to stop it.
And because the man who directed this nuanced rendering of a woman’s mental breakdown also raped a thirteen-year old girl, I cannot separate art from the artist.
It adds a disconcerting level to this film. One we shouldn’t ignore.
The film resonates with me due to of its depiction of the interactions between men and women. Even in this day in age, when we’re supposed to have moved away from such contentious interactions, cat-calling is still a thing. Women still experience invasions of their personal space. They still deal with guys who refuse to accept rejection. There still exists this idea that women should be flattered by the attention of men.
For sure, there are more and more people who reject this kind of behavior and call it out whenever they see it. But the fact that this film still resonates fifty years later says a lot about how far we have to go until such harmful interactions become relics.