What was shocking and new in 1965 is not necessarily so much anymore, as we are reminded by this early, terribly influential film by Roman Polanski. It’s billed as a thriller and is about a woman riven by violent sexual fantasies until her mind slowly falls apart and… well, you might not think that could be quite so dull. Yeah, yeah, classic, etc.
The credits drift by a young Catherine Deneuve’s eye. She is Carol, a young woman living in Paris with her sister, who has a boyfriend that Carol does not like ONE BIT. Mostly because he’s a man, and Carol is terrified of men, having heard nothing but bad things about them. She finds the boyfriend’s toothbrush in the bathroom, and throws it in the garbage. The sister and boyfriend are going away on a trip, and Carol doesn’t want her to go. The sister affects an angry silence whenever Carol brings any of this up and tells her it’s none of her concern, and doesn’t understand why she’s so wigged out over the boyfriend.
Carol works at a spa, where she gives women facials and does their nails, etc. You’ll notice that even here the focus is on sex and men, since in most cases the women are there to make themselves more attractive and sexy. The majority of her clients are women, and a great deal of their conversation centers around men, and often how crappy men are, how they can’t be relied upon, how one should stay away from all of them, because they’re all pigs. Even the young workers her age are often found crying over a man who has dumped them or whatnot.
SPOILERS > > >
So the sister finally leaves, and Carol is left alone. She gets the raw, skinned rabbit out of the fridge, then just leaves it out. We hear someone in a nearby apartment practicing the piano [a trick Polanski used again in Rosemary’s Baby]. Carol sees cracks in the wall that may or may not be there.
Eventually she starts seeing men in the apartment. She first catches a glimpse of one in a mirror, then pulls the covers back and there’s one in bed, and he tries to rape her. Soon there are hands coming out of the wall, grabbing at her, and more and more men coming out of nowhere trying to rape her. The raw rabbit rots. The landlord is calling for the rent. Things just keep getting worse and worse. Eventually the sister comes back and finds the apartment a wreck and Carol catatonic under the bed. The last image is a close-up of a childhood family photo, Carol looking quite off.
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There’s no question that it’s good and there’s no question that it’s very influential. The question is whether you’d really want to watch it. I would say unless you’re really interested in seeing the influential films of cinema, probably not. Everything [and I do mean everything] from this movie has been fully absorbed into popular film technique, which is likely to leave viewers under 40 with the feeling that they’ve seen everything here before, and bewildered as to what’s so great about it. The story also has a fairly straight A to B trajectory, with no complications, barely any real events, and barely more than one character. You get the idea at 45 minutes in and then there’s 45 minutes, at steadily increasing intensity, left to go.
Nevertheless, there are several good effects and creepy moments. Polanski keeps things tense and knows how to frame a shot and edit the things to keep the tone unsettling. Yay. But what was an achievement, and strikingly new, in 1965 is not something you necessarily want to sit through now. If you’re a film student, sure, anyone else might want to take it under advisement.
If you’re a huge Polanski fan or you want to see the major works of cinema.