Psychological horror films have a particular haunting ability to leave deep-seeded fears within the souls of all human beings. There isn’t an axe-wielding madman, ghosts, zombies chasing people, or demons possessing children. Instead, the horror lies in the mind, making it an all-to-real possibility of actually happening. The demons lying in wait, deep inside the mind, are the ones we should really be worried about. Roman Polanski (most well-known for Rosemary’s Baby) shows us this type of horror in Repulsion, about a young woman tormented by her own distorted anxieties.
Repulsion gave Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour, The Hunger, Pola X, Dancer in the Dark, 8 Women) the start of her magnificent career as a well-known French actress. In it she plays Carol, an ostensibly tentative and submissive young lady who seems lonely and out of place. Men find her attractive but she could not be more fearful of the idea of sex or having a man touch her in that way. Her sister, Helen, on the other hand, is more abrasive in personality and sexually experienced. Helen ‘mothers’ Carol, so when Helen and her boyfriend go on holiday, Carol is left alone to her own devises and anxiety-driven thoughts.
Alone in the apartment, with time as her worst enemy, Carol is free to indulge in her thoughts and often imagines being raped by an unknown assailant. The tick-tock of a clock almost continually throughout the film makes the audience aware of time as well. It can sometimes seem slow-paced, especially with long stages without dialogue, but Deneuve gives one of her greatest performances as a woman who becomes completely unhinged and losing all touch with reality. Polanski uses experimental filming techniques that give the viewer a hallucinatory experience as seen through the eyes of this crazed woman. The walls crack within the apartment, giving us an obvious metaphor of Carol’s mental cracking. She is unraveling at the seams. No, more than that. She is snapping. Her terrifying fantasies soon turn violent and there is no turning back at this point. Once it’s broken, it can’t be fixed.
It can be open to many interpretations, but disillusioned sexuality is a predominant theme. In fact, Carol opposes men so vehemently she could even be considered a lesbian, which is quite salacious for the 60’s. This era actually ends up having some of the most beautiful and controversial works of sexual repression and sexual awaking with films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Hour of the Wolf and Brian De Palma’s Sisters. (Not to mention the controversy of Roman Polanski himself.) The film is definitely dated and doesn’t have the same effect today as it did back then, but it will always remain an unsettling Freudian nightmare that continues to inspire.
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