Catherine Deneuve gives a chilling performance as a mentally unstable woman slowly coming apart over a weekend spent alone in her sister’s apartment in Roman Polanski’s haunting second feature, Repulsion. Right from the start, this is a film that shows a confidence that is shocking for a director so early in his career. The title credit sequence truly sets the tone for the picture that follows with our young protagonist’s eyes darting back and forth as the credits scroll awkwardly across the screen. This is a woman that is not mentally together and Polanski never pulls back the curtain on that. He slowly reveals bits and pieces as we see a woman completely withdrawn from the world around her.
Once she is left finally alone in the apartment, the violent oppression that resides in her mind is finally allowed to burst through and the ensuing hour and a half is truly one of the most startling sections in film history and Deneuve delivers a truly disturbing performance as a woman who finally succumbs to something that Polanski refuses to share with his audience.
Polanski leaves it to the audience but leaves subtle clues and hints as if the film was a deep puzzle of the woman’s mind. Pieces shattered left and right are strewn across the screen. Is it a film about sexual repression? Has she suffered sexual abuse? What demons haunt this woman that rockets into an ultimately tragic conclusion? These are questions that Polanski wants you to ask because the people in her life never seem to. Treated as just an inward person, the people around her constantly baby and protect her, never probing for any deeper meaning despite her obvious mental anguish.
Polanski’s use of space and structure inside the sister’s apartment is astounding. The filmmaker uses the set design and a claustrophobic shooting style to enclose the audience around our central character and to keep not just her disoriented but the audience as well. Polanski wants the audience to feel that encroaching invisible menace that Deneuve perfectly encapsulates in her performance. That fear is what drives the pictures most sinister moments such as when her “boyfriend” decides to drop by. His love gets mistaken for aggression in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film because in her mind, she truly can’t tell the difference.
Repulsion is the probably one of the greatest cinematic representations of mental illness. Polanski delightfully puts his audience in the mind space of someone whose repressions of deep, dark secrets slowly unravel her until it’s too late for anyone to do anything. It’s a disturbing picture because Polanski gives us no real world character to hang on to that isn’t completely disposed of one way or another. So when the film takes its dark turn and the character we have been following truly collapses and becomes her own villain, we as an audience can’t turn away and end up losing ourselves within the film. It’s an ultimately upsetting picture that isn’t so much a thriller as it is a deeply disturbing horror film of the mind but Catherine Deneuve’s performance is so outstanding and engrossing, it’s difficult to look away.