Monday Movie: Repulsion, by David Bax
In the more than 50 years since the release of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, some things have changed a lot and some things seemingly not at all. Just in the past couple years alone, many of us men have finally begun to acknowledge and reckon with the near-constant harassment and even downright threats to which women are subjected (and hopefully more women have realized they at least aren’t alone). Repulsion reminds us that this is not new; in fact, it’s one of the few horror movies that asks us to sympathize with the killer. At least, that how it plays now. It’s impossible to know for sure Polanski’s intentions but one need only look at Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review from the time to know that not everyone identified with the poor young woman, Carol (Catherine Deneuve), going crazy in her apartment while the unwanted attentions of men threaten to tear through the walls. For instance, Crowther describes Colin (John Fraser)–the initial antagonist of the movie who constantly hounds Carol, increasingly angry with her for not returning his affections–as an “innocent suitor” who “unwittingly invades” the apartment (he literally breaks down the front door). Crowther loved the movie but his 1965 eyes obviously saw it differently than mine do today.
It’s hard to imagine that Polanski saw Carol the same way Crowther did, though. Repulsion is acutely aware of the necessity of female spaces, sanctuaries from entitled male interference. The salon where Carol works is one. The convent across the street, which she stares at longingly, is another. And, of course, there’s her home. Or there ought to be. By the time we meet Carol, her roommate and sister has allowed her boyfriend to take up some semi-permanent psychic real estate in the apartment. The resultant dismantling of Carol’s spiritual refuge kicks off her downward psychological spiral.
Of course, there’s one other thing to consider here and that’s Polanski himself. Lest I risk painting him as some proto-woke ally, let’s remember (as if we could ever forget) that he raped a thirteen year old girl. Repulsion, like so many other Polanski movies, is about a person alone, surrounded by oppressive forces. Whatever that says about his personal demons can never excuse the fact that he became one of those forces himself.