A sex-repulsed woman slowly sinks into madness.
Before I begin this review proper, I just want to make note that the first review I ever wrote for this site was for Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant”, which is the final film in his Apartment Trilogy. Now, more than a year and a half later, I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the first film in that trilogy, and in doing so, I’ve reviewed all three films in that trilogy (the other film is “Rosemary’s Baby”).
Polanski is one of my favorite directors (his art, not the person- if you’ve got qualms with his art, I suggest you check out my review for “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”). I think Polanski has a way of weaving tales with deftness few directors posses. Whether that story be one of suspense and intrigue (“Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Ghost Writer”), or if that story is one of inspired by literature or real life events (“Tess”, “The Pianist”), Polanski seems to give every film his best; I’ve rarely seen a film from the man in which I was completely disappointed.
With all that out of the way, “Repulsion” was the film that first convinced me I needed to get into Polanski. I think I’ve seen this film more than any of his other movies. It’s a stark, trippy, and meticulously crafted thriller with some surprisingly disturbing twists.
“We must get this crack mended.”
Carol (Deneuve), a young manicurist at a department store, lives in London with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux, “La Dolce Vita”). After Helen and her married lover Michael (Ian Hendry, “The Passenger”) take a vacation to Italy, and leave Carol alone in their apartment, Carol begins to have sexually themed delusions.
I think one of the reasons I’ve watched this film far more than any of Polanski’s other films is partially due to the presence of the unmatched screen presence of Catherine Deneuve (“Belle De Jour”, “Tristana”). Just like Polanski with his direction, Deneuve tends to give everything she has in her performances, and I, for one, have fallen in love with her onscreen characters more than once. Catherine had her breakout role a year earlier in Jaques Demy’s delightful “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, but I believe this was Deneuve’s first starring role in English. This role is also much different than many of the roles I’ve seen her in. This role she abandons her dreamy sly persona for a distracted, paranoid persona. Most of the film is from Deneuve’s perspective, though we get a few scenes from the perspective of Colin (John Fraser, “El Cid”) the man who has an interest in dating her.
From a directing and story standpoint, telling the story primarily from Catherine’s perspective is a wonderful choice, as we really get to see her sink slowly into madness. The brilliance of this film lies in its ability to make Deneuve simultaneously frightening and frightened. Deneuve seems to be caught in a web of her own delusions, and the more she struggles, the further entangled she becomes in that web. To a point, Deneuve’s acting plays a major part in getting that descent into madness across to the viewer, but Polanski uses the whole apartment and the surroundings in London to mess with Carol’s character.
Carol’s madness really starts to sink in the longer Helen and her lover are gone. At first, we just hear noises, but then it escalates when Carol begins having delusions of men breaking into her apartment and raping her. When you are watching these scenes, pay close attention to the sound design, which focuses not on the sounds of rape, but on the ticking of a clock. We can surmise that Polanski is letting us know through the lack of sound design that these delusions are not happening because Deneuve does not hear the rapist breaking in. It’s a brilliant, yet subtle way to convey Carol’s dissociative state to the viewer and it’s also a pretty frightening sequence. Polanski really starts to ramp up the tensions when he begins messing with the apartment itself.
There are a few scenes in this film that mess with the perspective of the apartment, for example there are a few scenes where the apartment seems to increase in size making it feel as if Carol is much smaller. As Carol wanders through the halls from one room to another, the lights in those larger rooms seem a touch harsher than they were before, and her character feels far more alien in the room. Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a moment when Carol looks off screen at a wall and says to her sister that they “must get that crack mended”. We never see the crack that she is talking about, but cracks become a huge recurring image, whether it be the cracks that appear in the walls in their apartments or the cracks in the sidewalk. The cracks that appear in the walls of the apartment provide some of the most surprising moments in the film, and it also speaks to the length Polanski was willing to go to in order to achieve a feeling. In order to film just one of those cracks appearing on the wall, I’m guessing Polanski would’ve had to have built the entire apartment on a soundstage and rigged the walls so that they could crack the way he wanted them too. It’s a pretty elaborate set up for a pretty grounded effect, but it’s incredibly effective. There are other parts in this movie where hands reach out from the walls (that image is probably the most famous one from this film), and that scene reminded me heavily of Cocteau’s version of “Beauty and the Beast”, though it leaned for more towards horror instead of feeling fantastical.
This is an absolutely incredible film, one that I think probably is a great place to start if you’re looking to get into Polanski’s films. Yes, this movie has some dark themes, but compared to some of Polanski’s other films, this movie is actually pretty tame. Though the themes of this film revolve heavily around sex, there is very little actual sex onscreen; most of the sex-related stuff is implied. All three of the films in the Apartment Trilogy are worth watching, and even though this was Polanski’s second film, to this day it stands as one of his best entries.
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