Repulsion (1965, dir. Roman Polanski)
I find it difficult to talk about Roman Polanski as a director without first prefacing some of my personal feelings about his life and crimes and how those things play into my appreciation of his work. I wholeheartedly endorse those people who avoid his films in an effort to refuse supporting someone who has done some incredibly despicable things and then hidden from the consequences—this is America, after all, and a capitalist society to boot: we vote with our dollars. I also firmly believe that it doesn’t matter how much of a genius someone is, genius does not give someone carte blanche to do whatever they want and get away from it scot free (something that I think happens all too frequently within our celebrity-obsessed culture). There are other geniuses—ones who haven’t committed reprehensible crimes—who we should be nurturing instead.
I also find that these Polanski-generated feelings seriously impact my appreciation of his work. I can no longer separate the work from the man, and so any viewings of his films (which, by the way, I have never paid to watch…) are always read within the context of my knowledge of his rape of 13-year old Samantha Geimer. And for me, that is part of what makes the horror situated at the heart of Polanski’s films even that much more real, and that much more terrifying: of the three Polanski movies I have seen, rape is a prominent feature of the plot. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me.
I’m doing a great job recommending this one, aren’t I?
The thing is, I feel that I’d be hard pressed to talk about horror films or even consider myself something of an expert if I wasn’t able and willing to talk about two of the most famous and widely regarded horror films in the canon. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and it’s older and less wildly famous sister Repulsion (1965) make up, with The Tenant (La Locataire, 1976, starring Polanski in the lead role), the “Apartment Trilogy,” all exploring the issues of isolation and mental tumult. And they are all quite good. But just because they are important to the horror canon, doesn’t mean they have to be important to you. If this is the one recommendation from the Graveyard that you skip, I’ll totally understand. But if you want to see it, just know that there are ways to do so without supporting Polanski financially.
All of that being said, I chose Repulsion for this particular outing because it is not really as famous as Rosemary’s Baby but I think it has just as much—if not more—to offer a horror viewer. The film follows Carol Ledoux (the smashingly gorgeous Catherine Deneuve), a manicurist who is herself a bit of a slob—the film frequently focuses on her own bitten and bleeding nails. She is also intensely sexually repressed; Carol finds herself beset by the advances of almost every man she meets and assaulted by the sounds of her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) cavorting in the night with her married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry). She is, as the title tells us, incredibly repulsed by the idea of sex and its constant presence in her life, to the point that she begins to withdraw from society entirely—a move that, based on her stilted interactions at work and with her would-be suitor Colin (John Fraser), seems to be a long time coming.
When Michael and Helen vacation for the weekend, Carol retreats to the isolation of their apartment, secluding herself, and quickly unraveling in the process. She leaves a rabbit on the counter to decay, she begins to hallucinate that the walls themselves are assaulting her—and worse, she is attacked, rather graphically, in her own home. And when Colin visits to profess his undying love, her repulsion leads her to do some pretty disturbing things.
One of the things that makes this film so affecting is Deneuve’s performance; Carol is detached, wandering through the streets of London as if in a daze, so when she begins to untether, the blind and trammeled way that Carol reacts to her assaults—from both the apartment, her attacker, and even her landlord—is entirely captivating and explosive. She seems at points to be utterly passive, and at others bursting with withheld emotion, and Deneuve plays her disaffection dangerously.
But beyond the utterly incredible bravura performance, Polanski’s use of special effects is so dreamlike and devastatingly terrifying, it becomes difficult to tell (at many, many points) if Carol is not actually in a haunted house, one which is doing its best to quite literally tear her to pieces, rather than just losing her mind. There is one scene down a hallway which is so brilliantly done that I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it before or since that had me quite a bit afraid of walking too close to my own walls.
I’m not lying that gorgeous design, music, and performance aside, there are other movies that you could be supporting, and other ones that don’t put their lone female protagonist in so much peril. It is next to impossible for me to see Carol’s many, frequently graphic, assaults as some sort of sordid, grotesque wish fulfillment (something that I, to be honest, struggle with frequently as a horror watcher and enthusiast) on the part of its designer Polanski. It is a very affecting movie—one that should probably come with a trigger warning, and one that always, because of the mind behind it, makes me need a shower almost immediately after viewing. It is an exceptional, and quite brilliant film, to be sure. But I don’t think that any piece of art is so good that it would excuse its maker from behaving like a decent human being. Watch it or don’t, but I think it is important for us all to at least acknowledge the relationship between commerce and art when thinking about a director like Polanski. I feel like my endorsement of this film is also an endorsement of Polanski, and that makes me sad—I truly wish I could separate the maker from the art.