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Repulsion (1965)

Courtesy of EuroLondon Films Ltd

Main image of Repulsion (1965)
35mm, black and white, 104 mins
DirectorRoman Polanski
Production CompanyCompton-Tekli Film Productions
ProducerGene Gutowski
ScreenplayRoman Polanski
 Gérard Brach
PhotographyGilbert Taylor
MusicChico Hamilton

Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Carol Ledoux); Ian Hendry (Michael); John Fraser (Colin); Yvonne Furneaux (Helen Ledoux); Patrick Wymark (Landlord); Renée Houston (Miss Balch)

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A young woman, left alone in a Kensington flat, degenerates into homicidal mania as a result of her suspicion and hatred of men.

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It's common for independent production companies to seek to move upmarket after founding a reputation on the back of soft porn, but few made the move quite as dramatically as Compton-Tekli. The cause of this spectacular elevation was their willingness to listen to producer Eugene ('Gene') Gutowski when he approached founders Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser in search of backing for the second feature by Roman Polanski, who had made a number of prize-winning shorts and an Oscar-nominated debut in Knife in the Water (Noz w wodzie, Poland, 1962).

Polanski and French writer Gérard Brach had since developed an absurdist screenplay entitled When Katelbach Comes, but Klinger and Tenser wanted something more obviously commercial. Polanski and Brach quickly wrote a new script about a young woman's discomfort about men developing into full-blown paranoia after she has to fend for herself in a London flat.

The French actress Catherine Deneuve was cast as Carol, creating a situation where neither writers, director nor star spoke more than minimal English. Sensibly, Polanski stripped dialogue down to barest essentials, and any remaining verbal awkwardnesses were amply counterbalanced by the unnerving power of his images. Despite Compton's qualms about his fee, Polanski insisted on hiring veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who had recently shot Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove (1964), and was amply rewarded with some of the best black-and-white cinematography in the entire horror genre.

Carol's mental breakdown is conveyed by sudden cracks appearing in walls and ceiling, her sense of perspective shifting (thanks to a combination of wide-angle lenses and a deliberately enlarged and distorted set), the constant presence of an unpleasantly glistening skinned rabbit and, most memorably, male hands emerging from the walls to clutch at her body. Sound is brilliantly used too, with Chico Hamilton's jazz score giving way to indistinct murmurs and cries, and the almost imperceptible slice of a straight razor through flesh.

Polanski was surprised and flattered to be congratulated by a psychiatrist for the accuracy of his depiction of the symptoms of schizophrenia, as he and Brach had done no prior research. He was equally surprised that the British Board of Film Censors passed the film uncut, though it helped that its Secretary, John Trevelyan, was already an admirer. A huge critical and healthy box-office success, Repulsion reinforced Polanski's reputation and transformed Compton's - and in gratitude Klinger and Tenser agreed to finance When Katelbach Comes, now retitled Cul-de-sac (1966).

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Men (2:47)
2. Murder (5:30)
3. Madness (3:30)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Cul-de-Sac (1966)
Binder, Maurice (1925-1991)
Hendry, Ian (1931-1984)
Klinger, Michael (1921-1989)
Polanski, Roman (1933-)
Priestley, Tom (1932-)
Taylor, Gilbert (1914-)