Again and again Polanski returns to the lives of women, using various genres—horror, noir, costume drama—to explore the forms of suffering and abuse visited upon them; each genre provides a unique world, whose structures and constraints cramp and undermine women in unique kinds of ways. Polanski uses a world and its limits—often so limited as to extend no further than the walls of an apartment—to disclose something about a particular woman, and uses the actions and agitations of a woman to tell us about a world.
His first women’s film, Repulsion, revolves around the psychic disintegration of Carol, played with wild animal terror by Catherine Deneuve. Carol lives in swinging 60’s London, and while her flatmate and salon coworkers seem to relish in the sexually energetic culture, for Carol this world presents a relentless, lascivious threat of invasion and exposure, aggressions made doubly alien thanks to her immigrant status. This threat becomes so literal, so physicalized, that when her roommate leaves her alone for the weekend she barricades herself in their apartment, which, far from providing relief, only serves to provide a new stage on which Carol can elaborate her fantasies
What could have been a parody of Freudian psychoanalysis, a caricature of a sexually repressed, moralizing hysteric, is, thanks to Deneuve and Polanski, an actually sympathetic portrait of a response to an unlivable environment. It’s over the top—Polanski consistently links real sympathy and seriousness with high camp and comedy—yet even while she is going mad, Carol’s authority is not utterly undermined. Her landlord really does force his way into her home, her body really is endlessly commented upon, this world really does make demands that she could not possibly satisfy.