Roman Polanski's scabrous dreamworld shocker from 1965 is still a technical and emotional triumph.
That title Repulsion could refer to two things: Either it's the story of Belgian nymphet Carol (Catherine Deneuve) working as a manicurist in London and who spends much of her down time loping around her revolting maisonette in a frilly satin gown and playing out sick revenge fantasies against the various braying Johns who pray on her flesh.
Or it could point to the revulsion experienced by the film's acerbic co-creators, director Roman Polanski and his great writer/collaborator, Gérard Brach. The pair despise London, their camera is magnetised to grubby shop fronts, hell hole boozers, tacky beauty salons and gag-making greasy spoon cafes. It's a place of death, destruction and unfettered vice, where proles gather around to gawp at car wreckages in between plotting their foul sexual escapades and wolf-whistling from the cracked pavements.
They also despise people, every character in the film being some minor variation on a self-serving, recalcitrant grotesque or unhinged pervert. They're obsessed with sex and money, and they wallow in their own collected filth. When a disturbed young damsel is clearly in need of psychological tending, they're too busy with the dictates of business or their own selfish schemes to offer her any meaningful help.
It's tough to deduce whether this drama on the theme of revulsion is enhanced or hindered by its all-encompassing animosity for everyone and everything. Certainly it makes the film appear more conceptually water tight, but it also gives it the feel of pointed allegory, that what we're watching is not about what it's about. It's most likely that the film takes place in the world of nightmares, which would explain why Carol is seen nodding off in the film's opening scene.
A microscopic membrane between dreams and reality remains in play throughout, with Polanski and Brach sticking hard and fast to cruel, apparently subjective torture rather than offering pat explanations for Carol's swelling mania. The famous set piece where groping hands protrude through cracks in the wall is clearly fantasy, but how much of the rest of it really happening? Tragic events remain either unexplained or unconfirmed, and what feels like a generic, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel explanation scene at the end of the film only ends up obfuscating matters further.
Repulsion was Polanski's second feature, his first in English, and his first made in collaboration with Brach. More so than his outstanding, Oscar-winning 1962 debut Knife In The Water, this film feels indebted to his highly symbolist short films in which expressionistic sound design and surreal visual signifiers feed into an atmosphere of high-alert neurosis and societal cataclysm.
Yet the symbols and the ironies are often a little too on the nose, especially the sub-theme of rotting food, plus the various bizarre religious overtones. A church bell handily rings whenever Carol's virginal sanctity is being invaded, plus you can only really giggle at the fact that she lives virtually next door to a nunnery.
Chico Hamilton's clattering, occasionally overpowering free jazz score is, again, a neat conceptual fit, even while it at times comes on a little too strong. As in most 'dream' films, its harder to empathise with a hero/heroine if we're aware that what we're seeing is quite possibly a fantasy, and that's perhaps where Repulsion falls down as a humane investigation of a genuine psychological malady.
So while this clammy quasi-horror rape-revenge psycho drama amalgam occasionally smacks of a formative work, it's still a staggering technical and emotional triumph with ambiguities and cryptic insights tightly sewn in to its disgusting base fabric. With its strange, picture postcard final shot, one might even see it as the batty older sister to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining? And let's not even go into the film's potential biographical readings...
Will be nice to see how Polanski's much-loved second feature holds up.
This is some nasty stuff. Everything and everyone is evil. Got it.
A film that expertly shows without ever telling, even while the symbolism is a mite heavy handed.