I've struggled a lot with what to think of Roman Polanski, a great director without question, but also a man who has done some awful, criminal things. I believe that art can be considered separate from the artist, but this is a "great directors" post, and the entire point is to talk about the directors via their movies. Can I make the argument that Polanski the artist should be considered separate from Polanski the perp? I suppose I'm going to have to, because I do enjoy Polanski's movies and he's primarily responsible for them. However, I will point out that my favorite Polanski film, "Repulsion," was made twelve years prior to the assault of Samantha Geimer, and several years prior to him even meeting Sharon Tate. It was only Polanski's second film, a black and white psychological thriller.
A young immigrant woman named Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) lives with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a London apartment. Carol works as a manicurist, but doesn't socialize with others, is emotionally remote, and has a particular aversion to men. When Helen goes on a holiday with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry), Carol is left alone in the apartment, where her neuroses and paranoias become much more severe. She begins to hallucinate cracks in the walls and lurking invaders. The apartment grows increasingly inhospitable as Carol neglects it, and unannounced visits by a would-be suitor (John Fraser) and the sinister landlord (Patrick Wymark) only make the situation worse. As her mental state deteriorates, Carol decides to take drastic measures to protect herself.
It's hard to believe that "Repulsion" is fifty years old at the time of writing. It's still an immensely effective thriller today, particularly in the way it creates an atmosphere of increasing dread and disorientation, and the way it mirrors the psychological state of the main character with her environment. The visual and audio motifs here are so simple, but so wonderfully deployed. The escalation of small, simple annoyances into grandiose horrors is slow and hypnotic. Polanski manages to tease out lasting moments of terror from the mundane, and to get across the panic-inducing feeling of suffering from a phobia in a very palpable way. You can trace elements of so many subsequent cinema chillers back to "Repulsion." I'm convinced that the rotting rabbit carcass is the progenitor of both the "Eraserhead" baby and the wilted salad in "Queen of Earth." The cracks in the walls, accompanied by that awful, heavy sound of impending doom, showed up in a recent season of "Doctor Who." And then there's the corridor of grasping hands, still a breathtaking moment of Surrealist horror, which has been reproduced in too many zombie movies to list.
"Repulsion" was probably as important to Catherine Deneauve's career as "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" was, as it was her first major international film, and the first that allowed her to play such a complex leading role. Her aloof, ice queen demeanor here would become a major part of her screen persona, particularly in her films with Luis Buñuel. I find the performance and the portrayal of Carol fascinating because the audience isn't really told what to think of her. We're never told what the source of Carol's phobia is, though it's strongly hinted that an event in her past is responsible. She isn't passive against her affliction, and it's easy to sympathize and identify with her, but the way that she chooses to take action makes her monstrous. There's also the distinctly feminist undertones when we consider that Carol's rejection of unwanted male attention and victimhood only seem possible for her because of her insanity. The androphobia is clearly abnormal, but the movie suggests that there is some justification for her fears.
Polanski would go on to explore many of the same themes in the other two films of his "Apartment Trilogy," "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Tenant," which were far more elaborate productions. I prefer the small scale intimacy of "Repulsion," though, as it helps the unfolding nightmare to feel more personal and immediate. The simpler approach helps "Repulsion" to feel more timeless and universal. The film's unhurried, sinister final shot has stayed with me longer than anything else the director has done.
What I've Seen - Roman Polanski
Knife in the Water (1962)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
The Tenant (1976)
The Ninth Gate (1999)
The Pianist (2002)
The Ghost Writer (2010)