Can you imagine being a young, beautiful immigrant in city full of aggressive men? Can you imagine being leered at and hit on daily?
Can you imagine how much worse it would be if you have no attraction to other people and no interest in sex?
I can’t. I can’t relate to any part of that experience. But Roman Polanski could.
“Repulsion” is miraculous. It is an effective horror/thriller. And it is an insightful exploration of the relationship between the sexes in the secular West.
Catherine Deneuve is brilliant and brave as Carol: a Belgian immigrant in the UK. She moved into her older sister’s apartment. And she got a job doing nails at her sister’s spa.
It’s lucky she has her sister, because she couldn’t have done these things alone. Carol is not a fully functional adult. She’s introverted and aloof, obsessive and disturbed.
Her biggest problem is men. She has zero interest in men and the very thought of sex disgusts her.
Roman Polanski observes that the ideal place for Carol is a convent. But Carol tries to defend herself against men alone. That is not easy in Swinging London.
Sleazy jerks hit on Carol every day, leading her to withdraw further into her shell. But the biggest threat to her sanity and well-being is the one nice guy.
A handsome young Englishman named Colin has a crush on Carol. He stops her every day in the street to try to win a date. He’s a soft-spoken gentleman and he generally cares about her well-being.
If you ask Colin, he’ll tell you with complete conviction that he’s one of the good guys. He isn’t good enough, however, to observe that Carol isn’t into him. He should have respected her feelings and backed off. Polanski argues that “nice guys” can be the most troublesome.
When Carol’s sister leaves town on vacation, her fragile grip on sanity slips away. Carol can’t go out because male attention is too distressing. And she can’t be alone because her paranoid fantasies are getting too vivid.
The final act is a whirlwind of claustrophobia and dread. It isn’t nerve-racking or scary for the audience; we just feel sorry for Carol. There is no way out. And no sense rooting for a happy ending that doesn’t belong.
Some 21st Century critics chastise Roman Polanski for his chauvinism. The film does make it clear that one of Carol’s main problems is that she dislikes men and is disgusted by sex. This isn’t Polanski’s focus, though.
Also, it is objectively true that Carol would have had a better life if she were comfortable with intimacy. This world can be lonely, maddening, and miserable. Our saving grace is the companionship and love that we find. Without it, poor Carol is doomed.