Perfect, Placid, Mad: Deneuve’s Unraveling, 50 years Later


The first film in English for both director Roman Polanski and star Catherine Deneuve, the still-terrifying Repulsion renders language and explanation nearly superfluous. As Carol, a beautician sinking into glacial, homicidal schizophrenia, the actress speaks just a few lines, most barely above a whisper. Only his second movie, after the taut love-triangle drama Knife in the Water (1962), Polanski’s gripping study of a ravaged mind hints at, without excessively analyzing, the origins of its beautiful blond heroine’s unraveling.

That plunge into madness marks the beginning of a roughly decade-long period in which Deneuve would cultivate one of the most enduring aspects of her persona: the exquisite blank slate, often defiled, onto whom viewers could assign all sorts of psychosexual perversions—a type further explored in her films with Luis Buñuel and Marco Ferreri. Deneuve (who turned 69 last week) was not quite 22 when Repulsion opened in the U.S. in October 1965; only a year earlier, the actress had become an international star playing a jeune fille in pastel cardigans and hair ribbons in Jacques Demy’s somber, all-sung musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Those lollipop-hued ensembles would be shucked for the blood-smeared nightie Carol wears in Polanski’s monochrome nightmare.

Repulsion, which Polanski co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, opens with an extreme close-up of an eyeball, the screen filled with sclera. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal the placid, flawless, yet slightly deranged visage of Carol; it is through her unhinged point of view that the spectator identifies. Of Carol’s biography, we learn little: She lives with her older sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), in a two-bedroom apartment in London, though the siblings were raised in Brussels. Near a pile of Francophone pop culture—an Édith Piaf LP, a copy of Marie Claire—sits a framed family portrait. First lingered on about 30 minutes into the film and then again as its final image, the snapshot depicts Carol as a pubescent, angrily looking to the left in three-quarters profile.

Despite this freighted photo, the etiology of Carol’s mental illness—did she suffer sexual or other forms of unspeakable abuse at the hands of a relative as a child? Were the early signs of her dissociative tendencies simply ignored?—is never laid out,
contra the Freud-heavy epilogue of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). What makes Repulsion still so potent nearly 50 years later is its unremitting focus on the grotesqueries of the present, no matter how seemingly banal, like the sights and sounds that will make Carol’s surface porcelain perfection shatter into millions of jagged shards.

For Carol, the horror begins at home: Repulsion is the inaugural installment of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy,” a rich corpus that mines the pathologies inherent in big-city dwellings, no matter how posh. Manhattan’s Dakota doubles as the perfect Upper West Side branch of Satan’s church in Rosemary’s Baby (1968 ); the titular new leaseholder of the Paris flat in The Tenant (1976), played by Polanski himself, finds a human tooth in the walls. (This threesome could be extended to a tetralogy if you count last year’s Brooklyn Heights–brownstone–set Carnage.)

The Kensington rental that Carol shares with Helen, at first a cocoon where the former kicks off her heels after a trying day of applying Revlon products and cutting cuticles, quickly becomes center stage for her proliferating delusions. Disgusted after finding the straight-edge razor of her sister’s boyfriend—a leering married man named Michael (Ian Hendry)—in her water glass on the shelf above the bathroom sink, Carol later lies frozen in bed after being awakened by Helen’s orgasmic moans on the other side of the wall.

Left alone in the apartment after Helen and Michael take off for a holiday in Italy, Carol becomes more deeply estranged from reality; cinematographer Gilbert Taylor’s frequent use of a wide-angle lens emphasizes just how isolated she is in her own home. Her sex panic manifests itself in hallucinations of nightly rapes, her screams muted by the cacophony of menacing sounds within and without: constantly ticking clocks, ringing phones, and clanging convent bells. (One can’t help but think of the carriage bells in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour from 1967, cues that signal the Byzantine, masochistic sexual fantasies of Deneuve’s cosseted Parisian housewife Séverine.) Carol is powerless to fend off the phantom attacker, but not the real men who enter her lodging, sometimes by force: She bludgeons a pathetic suitor and slashes the wolfish landlord. Discovering the corpses after returning home from vacation, Helen will make noises nearly identical to her cries while climaxing. Our exit from the film, echoing our entrance, lands us in an abyss as boundless as the one that has swallowed Carol whole.