There is something off about Carole. You can see that from the first shot of her daydreaming instead of manicuring a client. However what you think is wrong with her evolves and changes as the story evolves and changes. At first you think she is just a distracted young girl who doesn’t fancy men. Then you come to realize that she actually has a very strong aversion to men and various other things that invade her life. You watch this progression on a very young and beautiful Catherine Deneuve evolve from slightly off to incredibly crazy.
In fact this portrayal of evolving craziness is one of the most moving I have seen on-screen. It starts small. She bites her nails, stares at cracks, rejects interactions with a man she knows, and is extremely attached to her sister. She then hears her sister coming in the other room with a man she knows is not right for her. This seems to set off more compulsions. When her sister leaves for Italy, she is all alone in her mind and it goes haywire. She leaves a rabbit out to rot, sees the apartment fall apart in cracks, has dreams about getting raped, forgets to go to work, and barricades herself in her apartment. This is not helped along with the men that enter her life. They force themselves on this glacial beauty to the point where she decides to kill them.
In a usual film like this, you given the history of this woman. You are given a reason why she is going slowly mad in this apartment. But Polanski refuses you this kind of relief, this kind of solution. The only hint of a past is a photograph that we see on a mantle. It seems to be a picture of her and her family from when she was younger. She stands off to one side staring at something, like she does throughout the whole film while everyone else looks at the camera. You also don’t know what is going on in her head and what is actually happening. The wall falling cracking at the slight provocation is mirrored with actual cracks in the foundation. The raping of her (shown in an expressive manner and with the sound creating the most dominant image) is first brought on by a light turning on in the next room and footsteps. Then without explanation there is a man on top of her and there is the act. We never meet the rapist, but it seems to come from a place rooted in some kind of reality.
Her aversion to men is evident as soon as a “boyfriend” appears on-screen and chides her for eating fish and chips. She barely acknowledges his presence. She fights with her sister’s boyfriend, looks away from the catcalls and sees the landlord as an unseemly man. And yet when the construction workers are not at the spot they were the day before, she seems disappointed. She puts on lipstick and a nice camisole to await her rapist when he comes for the third time. She is a woman who is struggling with her sexuality in a ways that all women go through, but her reactions are just more extreme. Every woman wants acknowledgement of their hotness from the opposite sex (or same-sex), but finds catcalls degrading. Every woman (and I assume man) feels guilty for having sexual urges at least once in their life time. There are even women who have rape fantasies like she does in the film. Her life is a common experience amped up to a degree that becomes fascinating and scary.
The cinematography is striking without diverting from the character study. The jarring soundtrack adds to paranoia of the character. Catherine Deneuve plays this repression to such a convincing degree that it you might think that she actually exhibits some of these qualities in real life. The title sequence alone is something to behold. It is a great film that stays with you for days afterward.