Roman Polanski stands as a filmmaker that is growing on me immensely. Up until the start of this year I’d only ever seen two of his films, Frantic and The Ghost Writer. Both are great and I’d classify The Ghost Writer as one of the best films this millennium.
With Repulsion my Polanski count is now up to five and I’ve now watched my first Polanski horror. Given his thrillers and dramas, I was expecting Repulsion to be more of a psychological drama than an actual horror film. Instead I got a huge surprise, Repulsion is a perfectly delivered horror that extraordinarily balances both the psychological side of horror and the brash, loud and overbearing scares.
Repulsion tells the story of Carol, a young Belgian girl living in London with her sister. She is fractured and struggles through her day to day life. She is unable to mingle or communicate, even unable to properly converse with her sister. Carol is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to sex, which leads to strange relationship with all the men in her life. They frustrate her sexually but she is also disgusted by them, keeping them at an arms distance. When her sister goes on holiday, Carol finds herself trapped in her apartment, battling demons that come from within.
It is early days Polanski and you can easily see he was still refining his technique. He gets the slow build down with ease, with the film playing out like a lost girl frustrated with herself and world, she is just trying to find her feet. It is mostly a family drama meets coming-of-age story, with a little dash of romance. Unlike most slow-burn horrors, Polanski drops no clues as to what the second half holds. From the music to the performances, everything feels fine and dandy, there is no sign of horror on the horizon.
Nothing can prepare you for the horror. Even me saying that can’t prepare you. Once you hit the hour mark you better buckle in, the rollercoaster is about to depart. Repulsion goes to places you weren’t expecting and you wouldn’t want to go if you knew better. It is unsettling and genuinely frightening. You’ll hit mute, you’ll pause for a breather, you’ll look away. It may seem like I’m overacting, but these are all things I did. Repulsion put this hardcore horror fan through the ringer because everything in the second half is uncomfortable viewing, everything feels real.
Despite all my praise, Repulsion does have faults. The character development is weak and the film holds back almost all its secrets. Too much is left up to assumption and audience opinions. Also, the film sadly looks and feels like 1965. I don’t often pick on old films for this, but this hasn’t aged well. The cinematography is gorgeous, but the editing, sound design and effects are all bland and show no creativity.
Dealing with themes like sexual repression, changing attitudes to sex and the mistreatment of women make Repulsion more of a time capsule than a timeless classic. However, there is still plenty here to admire. Polanski directs with an abundance youthful energy but with the intelligence of an older man. Catherine Denevue delivers an outstanding performance, with this film launching her long and deep career. With Denevue giving Repulsion everything she had, she has helped Polanski craft a truly terrifying film.