I must get this crack mended
I saw Rosemary’s Baby two years ago around Halloween time because it was a horror film I hadn’t seen before and it came highly recommended. I liked it fine, but I didn’t get many scares out of it. In fact, there are only two scenes I remember from the film, the rape scene and the final scene. So I was kind of hesitant to seek out more Roman Polanski directed horror films, believing that they’d be similarly, well, unscary. Turns out I’m a huge idiot. Repulsion is one of the scariest films I have ever seen. It’s intense and paranoid, like the rest of Polanski’s films, and it’s got that little bit extra to make it super great.
Catherine Deneuve is a young Parisian woman who lives with her sister. When her sister goes away for the weekend she slowly goes insane. That’s it. There’s a murder or two and a gross rotting rabbit and some interesting architecture. And what must be the scariest thing I’ve seen in a while, a man that appears mysteriously and rapes Deneuve. The guy is just there. The idea is, I think, that her attractiveness makes her daily life a trial. She keeps it all bottled up and relies on her relationship with her sister to keep sane but when she leaves Deneuve just can’t handle the attention. She walks around the city staring blankly ahead, not taking in any external stimuli. She has too much going on inside of her to take any notice of the outside world. When we finally start to experience her delusions alongside her halfway through the film it is both jarring and unsurprising. There’s clearly something wrong with her. The last hour or so of the film is a masterpiece of increasing tension.
Recently the podcast Battleship Pretension had a show about the difference between horror and suspense. Repulsion was the final film in my Shocktober month and, along with Martyrs and The Wicker Man, one of a few films that were actually good. BP defined suspense as the building of tension and horror as the release of that tension. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of their points and you should really listen to that show to get a full understanding, but I think Repulsion is a perfect example of a movie that does both the suspense and the horror aspect perfectly. There’s nothing horrifying about the first hour of the film. It is, however, very suspenseful. We keep getting hints that she’s not quite right. We’re waiting for her to break. When she does break the film shifts into pure horror mode. There’re shocking images and ideas all over the place. What makes this movie masterful, though, is the way the horrors tie into her personal problems. She manifests a rapists that enters her apartment each night (Martyrs takes a bit of this), her walls literally crack around her, and hands reach out from the wall to grope at her. It’s all so terrifying.
The movie is a predecessor to a few of my favorite films. It does the woman having a nervous breakdown thing that Black Swan does. That film also borrows the close-following camera while the character walks around the streets. I already mentioned the way that Martyrs takes an aspect of the characters personality and makes them bodily real. The final aspect I noticed was the couple of times Deneuve scratched at her face, a move that William Friedkin gave to Ashley Judd in his under-seen gem Bug. It’s telling that all of these films have the same basic idea going on at their core. Repulsion is the best of them because it does all of these things so well. It’s a perfectly crafted film. It does everything right. You can’t ask for much more.