I know someone will send me a comment (or at least I hope) that I didn’t like this movie because I didn’t “get it” and sure having only seen this once, for the first time, I probably didn’t get a great deal of it…but I don’t have an interest in rewatching it because of how much I didn’t like the message. I’ve only seen two films from director Roman Polanski before this: Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, both of which I enjoyed. Repulsion is a film with a multitude of meanings as evidenced by the divisive comments on IMDB. I can understand a few of the arguments which helped me to better understand the movie, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Polanski was saying something about women and their sexual desire…which I didn’t like.
Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is a shy, lonely manicurist living with her promiscuous sister. When her sister goes on holiday Carole is left all alone and cannot seem to cope with the outside world. When a persistent suitor named Colin (John Fraser) calls on her, Carole’s mental illness turns to homicidal rage.
This is part of a loose trilogy of Polanski’s work centered on city life and the apartment. I haven’t seen The Tenant but Rosemary’s Baby tells a similar tale, and is similar to Repulsion in that both focus on fragile women having to cope with some type of major change and failing miserably. While Rosemary’s Baby played on the fear of motherhood, Repulsion plays on the theme of connection with the opposite sex making this a prequel of sorts to RB.
Carole is sweet and innocent in contrast with her sister. Both of them have some issue with men although while Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) picks a married man, Carole finds all men disgusting to her. When Colin tries to give her a kiss, Carole bursts out of the car to brush her teeth. The fact the movie is presented in black and white heightens Carole’s sense of right and wrong that she starts out with, saying to Helen that her boyfriend is married, and presents the gray pallor that is Carole’s emotional state by the end of the film.
You really are Carole herself in this movie, as emphasized by the camera angles that are slanted or a fish-eye lens. With that comes a questioning of everything presented in the film because you are dealing with a character who is mentally ill and therefore everything falls into real or imagined. Deneuve herself is fantastic as Carole. She’s beautiful but obviously damaged with her soft-spokeness and tendency to fall asleep. She is really the only character you come to understand and respect and with that you see how tortured and insane she ultimately becomes.
The problem to me came in what Polanski was trying to say with the movie itself. I’m currently taking a Women in Film class so I’m seeing every movie in terms of how it personifies women. Some mention this movie as representing feminine repression in terms of sexual desire and coming out in 1965 with the rise of the feminist movement you could make the argument that Carole’s repression and compulsion for sex forces her to shy away from it in drastic ways but I just couldn’t see that. Instead I saw this as a mixed bag. In one breath Polanski condemns sexual harassment/abuse while in another indulging in the technique of the “rape-fantasy” and the idea of men dominating women. All the men in this movie are despicable, sexist, assholes for the most part. Colin, who in any other movie would be a romantic lead so I give Polanski kudos for perverting that notion, is a stalker who only seems to want Carole because he finds her “odd” and unpredictable. His friends are constantly asking and prodding him into screwing her so you have the added element of wondering if this is to just to appease his friends. Carole’s landlord shows up and almost immediately tries to rape her, and of course there’s Carole’s hallucination of being raped repeatedly by a mysterious man and at the end welcoming it by putting on lipstick and laying down smiling.
I didn’t understand that at all. Is he saying that women are repressed, not allowed to indulge in sexual fantasies and therefore their pleas of “no” can’t be taken seriously? I won’t get into how this could be connected to Polanski himself, but one could make the argument as numerous essays attest. Is he saying that women’s rage is towards men because they don’t respect women? I’m not sure but I just kept thinking there’s a message here I’m not agreeing with and the constant scenes of Carole being raped were just too much.
Repulsion is a film that emphasizes the word in many ways. Carole is repulsed by men and the outside world yet the scenes of rape are repulsive to the viewer.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.