Ranking: #94/111

Director: Roman Polanski (Poland)           

Genre: Surrealistic Horror/ Psychological Drama

From the opening shots of Polanski’s masterpiece of cinematic surrealism, which shows a close-up of the main character’s left eye, followed by one of the mud-pack on a female customer at the beautician’s salon where she works, the audience knows this is going to be a very unusual psychological drama. The focus, as the close-up of the eye indicates, is going to be on a study of the interior of her mind. Catherine Deneuve is superbly understated as a Belgian manicurist, Carol Ledoux, who lives and works in London, maintaining the expressionless face of a schizoid character throughout, struggling to deal with both her “repulsion” for sex and for men and with her deeper alienation from society. She always seems completely disconnected from the real world.

The film adopts a third-person narrative point of view, so that everything is seen through Ledoux’s eyes. This enables the viewer to enter into, and understand, her twisted mind better.

Repulsion is a sophisticated reinvention of the horror genre, integrating surrealist techniques, reminiscent of German Expressionism, as well as existentialist themes of alienation. Yet these distortions of reality are all subtly embedded in lots of realistic details and shots, so that there’s a clear divide between how she sees the world and what it’s really, objectively, like. It’s all a very believable psychological study. This is no average horror story!

In addition, the movie is filled with cinematic metaphors and symbols which highlight aspects of her disintegrating mind. The magnified image of her face in the kettle reflects her distorted perception of the world, while the crack in the pavement as she walks by exteriorises her fractured mind. The shots of the nuns in a nearby convent, which is overlooked by her apartment, are a reminder of her celibacy arising from her phobias about sex.  

As she deteriorates, Ledoux starts seeing things that aren’t there, such as the cracks appearing in the apartment, and then she hallucinates, imagining footsteps and even imagining being raped in her bed. The disconnected iron which she uses to iron the vest of her sister’s boyfriend is a classic surrealist juxtaposition of unreality and the real world. Another, more shocking, surrealist image is of the head of an uncooked rabbit which she later keeps in her handbag.

Deneuve is supported by fine performances from the rest of the cast and Polanski moves effortlessly between presenting a textured picture of life in London in the 1960s and the nightmarish world of a schizoid person losing the last connections to the real world. Use of a fish-eye lens and well-placed distorted images convey the extent of Ledoux’s alienation. When the disturbed manicurist cuts the finger of a rich old lady at the saloon, her fate is sealed and the audience senses things will soon come to a head in some sort of violence.

Terrified by her hallucinations and nightmares, she barricades herself into her apartment, but her suitor, Colin, who has fallen in love with her, breaks in, whereupon she bludgeons him to death with a candlestick. She places the body into the bathtub. Later, when the landlord comes by to collect the outstanding rent and offers to waive the money in return for sex, she kills him, too.

Repulsion is a macabre story of a descent into psychosis and insanity. Due to the deft balance between realism and surrealism, the narrative never loses its believability, keeping the viewer involved in the drama.

The film comes full circle when the camera zooms into her eye on a family photo, suggesting that her horrible fate was always somehow predestined.