Roman Polanski remains a fascinating filmmaker to this day. Alongside Andrej Wajda and Jerzy Skolimowski, Polanski came to the fore in the late 1950’s in Poland. The BFI in London are screening all of Polanski’s films during January and February 2013 and through January, essays on separate films will be released on Flickering Myth in the hope that you too can join us in reflecting on Polanski’s diverse and ever-expanding career. Film essays will include Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, Repulsion, Chinatown and The Tenant.
Repulsion tracks the slow, mounting madness in Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a single beautician who shares a flat with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). From the outset, she is clearly an outcast – often staring into space, losing track of her surroundings and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the advances of Colin (John Fraser) and the confident sexuality of her sisters married-lover Michael (Ian Hendry). Sister Helen and Michael decide to go on holiday to Italy, leaving Carol on her own – whereby her madness begins to take over her life. She is haunted by the prescence of a man in the flat – nightmares whereby he rapes her in bed. Hands stretch out from walls and Carol acts out irrationally, murdering men who attempt to seduce her.
True to a recent article in Sight and Sound by Philip Horne, within the flat, Carol creates an environment that becomes grotesque – a rabbit is left to rot; a razorblade lingers in the background of scenes until the inevitable, shocking use of it. Repulsion doesn’t have the same social-conscience of Knife in the Water (Indeed, there is very little evidence to support such an interpretation) but the role of Carol, our scared-of-sex lead role is open to consideration. From male filmmakers, are they claiming that women who would turn down their advances are crazy? Are women who refrain from sex (Carol is mocked in the pub amongst Colin’s friends as a virgin) clearly missing a few cogs? Having said that, other than Colin, virtually all the other male characters are crude, sexist and sex-obsessed. The women who work alongside Carol additionally attest to the horrid attitudes of men. With this in mind, do we assume that Colin represents the rare occurrence of a man who is good – or is his singularity in the film an example of how unlikely a character truly is.
The use of the eye; of a razorblade; of flies buzzing around a corpse of an animal, all point towards surrealism. The cracking walls and over-grown potatoes show a mind disintegrating throughout the film – but the roots are before the film. Surrealist elements equally hint at something more than what is on screen. Interestingly, after watching Chinatown, the outcome of events is similar and, in another parallel, the ants that lay on the floor in Ida Sessions kitchen in Chinatown precede an outcome that explores Father-daughter child-abuse. Repulsion truly is a milestone in Polanski’s career – and as only the second film in his canon, you cannot help but be astonished at how confident he is in exploring such multi-layered events within such a small space and context. Polanski had truly arrived.