Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema masterpiece is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Polanski followed up his international breakthrough Knife in the Water with this controversial, chilling tale of psychosis.
It is one of Roman Polanski’s most brilliant films: a deeply disturbing, horribly convincing psychological thriller that is also that rarest of things: a scary movie in which a woman is permitted to do the killing. Catherine Deneuve’s glassy stare of anxiety dominates the movie: it is like Janet Leigh’s empty gaze at the end of the Psycho shower scene. Polanski clearly took something from that movie, as well as from the chaos, squalor and mania in Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963).
A peerless Freudian nightmare, frequently revisited but seldom matched in its desire and terror, its visual-aural flow, and its queasy voyeuristic pleasure in seeing a frosty princess picking at her own skin. (Fernando Croce)
This is one of the rare exceptions to NY Times Bosley Crowther’s usual jaundiced eye. He is wowed. It is jarring to read Crowther in love with a film. He is such a sour pickle.
By Bosley Crowther
Published: October 4, 1965
An absolute knockout of a movie in the psychological horror line has been accomplished by Roman Polanski in his first English-language film. It is the British-made, French-played Repulsion and it opened here Saturday.
Prepare yourself to be demolished when you go to see it—and go you must, because it’s one of those films everybody will soon be buzzing about. It’s the David and Lisa—only better—of this newspaper strike. To miss it would be worse than missing Psycho, if you’ve a taste for this sort of thing.
For it is more than just a tale of mounting horrors that moves its heroine—a beautiful, sex-repressed French girl living in London—from a state of mental woe into a stage of dithering madness and then to the dark extremity of murdering a brace of fellows who happen into the lonely apartment in which she is hidden.
It is also a haunting adumbration of a small but piercing human tragedy, and it is almost a perfect specimen of a very special cinema-sound technique.
Mr. Polanski, you’ll remember, is the young director who made the Polish film Knife in the Water. In that one, he proved his ability to penetrate and expose the alien and angry impulses of the subconscious mind. Here he goes even further into the dank and murky chambers of the brain to discover the hideous demons that sometimes take possession there.
The brain of which the demons take possession in this progressively more horrendous film is that of a young manicurist, played by Catherine Deneuve, the slim girl whose radiant blond beauty is crucial, for the weird and agitating mystery here is why a girl of such fascinating beauty should be as hostile as she is toward men.
Creepingly, Mr. Polanski exposes this mystery by showing us first the tortured nature of his heroine—how she holds off an ardent young suitor, how she fiercely resents and hates the lustful lover of her older sister with whom she shares a London flat; and then he continues the exposure with a detailed and gruesome account of the crumbling of her mind while she is staying in the apartment alone and how she murders, first, her innocent suitor and then the lecherous landlord when they unwittingly invade the fetid place.
But the final, poignant revelation is in an old family photograph, which shows the two sisters when they were children, that is picked up by the camera at the end.
This subtlety is characteristic of the structure and realization throughout. Mr. Polanski builds a towering drama with a skillful mesh of incidental stimuli. The dressed carcass of a rabbit on a platter becomes a monstrous symbol as the picture goes along. Small cracks in the walls of the apartment flow into crunching indicators of the heroine’s crumbling mind.
Distortions in the rooms of the apartment tacitly reveal her mental state. Phantom arms that punch through the walls and seize her visualize her nightmare insanity.
And with sound, too, Mr. Polanski weaves a fabric of tremendous effects.
Miss Deneuve is simply splendid in the central role—secretive in nursing her obsession, and starkly sad in her insanity. Yvonne Furneaux, who played the mistress of the hero in La Dolce Vita, also does a splendid job as the subtly contentious older sister, and Ian Hendry is properly crude as the latter’s lover. Patrick Wymark plays the landlord vulgarly, and John Fraser is sugary as the suitor who is rewarded with a clout on the head.
Within the maelstrom of violence and horror in this film, Mr. Polanski has achieved a haunting concept of the pain and pathos of the mentally deranged. He has delivered undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.