3. REPULSION (1965)

“I hate doing this to a beautiful woman.” -Attributed to cameraman Gil Taylor during the filming of Repulsion

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Deneuve

PLOT:  At first glance, manicurist Carole (Catherine Deneuve) seems merely to be painfully shy.  The early portions of the film follow her in her daily routine, and we grow to realize that her mental problems go much deeper: she daydreams, she seems to be barely on speaking terms with the outside world, she is dependent on her sister (who wants to have a life of her own) to care for her, and she is repulsed by men.  When her sister goes on a two week vacation, Carole’s fragile condition deteriorates, and we travel inside of her head and witness her terrifying paranoid delusions firsthand.

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Roman Polanski’s first English language movie, after achieving critical success with the Polish language thriller Nóż w wodzie [Knife in the Water] (1962).  The relatively recent success of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) undoubtedly helped the film’s marketability, as it could be billed as a female variation on the same theme.  But despite dealing with insanity and murder, Polanski’s film turned out nothing like Hitchcock’s classic; whereas Psycho was clearly entertainment first, with horrors meant to thrill like a roller-coaster, Repulsion was relentlessly tense, downbeat and disturbing, strictly arthouse fare.
  • Ethereal Star Catherine Denueve (who had been the lover of, and given her first break in films by, roguish director Roger Vadim) was coming off her first major success in the lighthearted 1964 musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg].  Playing a dangerous, asexual, schizophrenic woman in a role that called for little dialogue immediately after her role as the romantic lead in a musical demonstrated her tremendous range and helped establish her as one of the greatest actresses of the late 1960s and 70s.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many enduring images to choose from, including the hare carcass and simple close-ups of Deneuve’s eyeballs, but the iconic image is Carole walking down a narrow corridor, as gray hands reach out from inside the walls to grope at her virginal white nightgown. (The scene is a sinister variation on a similar image from Jean Cocteau’s surrealist classic Le Belle et La Bette [Beauty and the Beast] (1946)).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Although there are several otherwordly, expressionistic dream sequences in the film, Polanski creates a terribly tense and claustrophobic atmosphere even before the nightmares come with odd camera angles and the strategic use of silence broken by invasive ambient noises. As Carole floats around her empty apartment, silent, alone, and ghostlike, ordinary objects and sounds take on an otherworldly quality. The effect is unlike any other.

Original trailer for Repulsion

COMMENTS:  Polanski begins the film with a close-up of a woman’s eyeball, an opening that is reminiscent of the first shot fired in the Surrealist film revolution.  Later on, a straight razor features in the story prominently, strengthening this connection.  And, of course, the famous scene of the hands morphing out of the walls inevitably brings to mind the other iconic Surrealist film image: Cocteau’s candelabras.

But despite the nods to his influences, by nature Polanski isn’t a surrealist, but a Symbolist.  In Repulsion, Polanski weaves images masterfully, but although they may be obscure, they are never incongruous and irrational juxtapositions, like the Surrealists sought.  After opening credits play over the shot of the eye, the next image we see is a close-up of a woman’s cracking facial beauty mask.  Cracks recur throughout Repulsion, and obviously symbolize Carole’s deteriorating mind.  Early on, Carole looks at a developing fissure in the apartment wall and muses, “I must get this crack mended”; much later on, a crack in her bedroom wall breaks open and draws her into a particularly nasty nightmare.  Select symbols, both visual and auditory, reverberate throughout the film in a way that creates a subliminal narrative that, in an important way, is more important to the story than the minimalist plot.  Besides eyes, razors, and cracks, we also catch echoes of the sprouting potatoes and a hare’s corpse, along with the ticking clock, the dripping faucet, the street band with the spoon player (Polanski’s cameo appearance), the doorbell and phone (which sound exactly the same), the tolling bell and the laughter rising from the yard of the nunnery.  That the first shot of the narrative should be a crack appearing on a woman’s face telegraphs Polanski’s story about the crumbling of a woman’s personality.

The imagery and symbolism aren’t the only things that are masterful about Repulsion.  Critics have correctly noted Polanski’s use of sound, which expertly balances silence and atmospheric noise with judicious bursts from the alternately swinging and dissonant jazz score.  The superlative black and white cinematography and can’t be forgotten, either; there are times when a shot of three aging potatoes looks like a grayscale Max Ernst landscape.  The photography often has a way of transforming the ordinary into the strange and unfamiliar, a visual metaphor for the way Carole sees the world.

But the single most important element that makes the film a success is the magically glacial performance of Catherine Deneuve.  She is in the screen almost all the time, and says almost nothing.  In fact, except when she is terrified, she is frequently emotionless, staring off into space in her own dream world, totally blank faced and inscrutable.  And yet, watching her, it seems impossible to believe that other actress could have captured Carole’s insanity and made it seem plausible.  Deneuve must have known and observed a schizophrenic during her youth; she perfectly captures the subtle tics, the chewing on the lip, the spastic scratching (so unselfconscious and unfeminine), the swiping about her face as if swatting away invisible insects.

It doesn’t hurt that the face is classically beautiful, of course; casting an ugly actress in the role would have made the movie unbearably repulsive.  The tension between Deneuve’s exterior beauty and the grotesqueness of the world behind those eyeballs is the contrast that compels our interest.

In the beginning of the movie, we observe Carole entirely from the outside.  We are given no clue why she is detached.  We simply study her as a beautiful curiosity.  We see her the way her co-workers and her would-be beau does: she seems shy, distracted, perhaps even dull and flighty, but at the same time mysterious and vulnerable.  But when her sister leaves on vacation and Carole is left alone in the creaky, haunted apartment, our focus suddenly shifts from looking at Carole to seeing the world through her eyes.  Our first hint that we have entered a new world is when, along with her, we catch a glimpse of a man’s figure in the mirror–a man who couldn’t possibly be there (and in fact isn’t, when she turns to look).  Soon after, we are thrust into her (literal) dreams and nightmares.  And things grow increasingly worse from there, until we the viewers struggle to tell whether what is happening to her is real or imaginary.  We find ourselves traveling with her down that long dark corridor with the grasping hands.

There are a few things to criticize about the film, although none are serious enough to keep Repulsion from earning its five star rating.  Polanski lingers a bit too much over the setup.  Things don’t become really interesting until the sister leaves on vacation at about the 40 minute mark.  This is artistically justifiable, as the perfectly innocent items Polanski introduces in the early reels–the cracks in the wall, the rabbit, the dripping faucet, the foolishly misguided suitor–will recur with a sinister cast once Carole’s break comes.  But the slowness of the opening scenes will unfortunately keep many from actually experiencing the film.

Another frequent criticism is that, true to its name, Repulsion is relentlessly unpleasant.  It creates a tension that is never pleasantly relieved by the triumph over evil; Norman Bates is never defeated, Carole never escapes herself, the audience is never rewarded for allowing their nerves to be grated.  This is true; Repulsion isn’t entertaining.  But what it does, in taking us unflinchingly inside the unpleasant world of madness, it does better than any other movie.  Catharsis would have rung untrue in Repulsion, and blunted its impact.  If there had been a single artistic slip, the film would have sunk from being an unforgettable classic into being just an interesting but disturbing experiment.  We don’t want every film to be like Repulsion, but we can be glad that at least one exists.

The last criticism is my own, and it goes to the heart of the film.  The objection is there in the very title: Repulsion.  Too much is made of the idea that Carole’s illness is related to her fear of men, her sexual repression, and her possible history of childhood sexual abuse.  The audience is beat over the head with this idea, from Carole’s dreams of rape to her obsessive tooth-brushing after her suitor manages to steal a kiss to the fact that she only seems briefly normal when she interacts with either her sister or her lone friend, a female coworker, outside the presence of men.  Many interpret the final shot–a camera pan to a family photograph that lingers on the face and eyes of Carole as a young girl, sporting the same dead-eyed, distant stare as she does as a young woman–as a hint that it is childhood sexual abuse has caused Carole’s repulsion, leading eventually to obsession and madness.  The idea that Carole’s current repulsion towards reality stems from her “repulsion” to a past rapist seems offered as a sop to those who lust for a solution to the puzzle of her madness, as well as an excuse for Polanski to explore the dark side of human sexuality that has always fascinated him (sadly, in real life as well as in art).

Repulsion is, in fact, the most accurate depiction of schizophrenia ever put on film (there wasn’t really much competition in this field, until 1993’s Clean, Shaven).   This is true whether Polanski and Deneuve knew the name of the disease they were recreating or not. It is unfortunate that Polanski chose to suggest a psychosexual solution to the mystery of Carole’s mind, because the idea that sexual dysfunction was the root cause of every psychiatric disease known to man or woman–from frigidity to nymphomania, from fear of heights to schizophrenia–is a now-discredited relic of then-trendy Freudian psychology.  (Many psychiatrists now doubt that there is much link between schizophrenia and childhood sexual abuse).  Sex is central to human existence, but it doesn’t hold quite the monopoly on the unconscious that Freud, and certain 1960s movie directors, believed.

Carole’s repulsion towards men is more interesting as a symptom of her condition then it is as a cause.  Her disorder goes deeper than a mere fear of men.  When she literally barricades herself inside her apartment-inside her own crumbling mind-she is not merely hiding from an outside world where every construction worker on the corner is a potential rapist.  She is hiding away from humanity, from reality, from existence itself.  Schizophrenia–literally, “splitting (or ‘cracking’?) of the mind”–is terrifying because it is a pathology that arises spontaneously, mysteriously, without pat explanation.  Our desire to find a “cause” for it, to understand and master our own fears about our sanity, is a sign of our own mental infirmity.

Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to embrace this psychoanalytic interpretation of the film to praise it.  Polanski has left the root of Carole’s illness ambiguous enough to allow us freedom to ignore his Freudian blunders.  It is possible to see the final image of the dreamy waif merely as evidence that Carole has always been this way: that she was singled out by random lot to live out a brief life of torment.  In the end, the source of Carole’s irrational terrors isn’t crucial to the movie’s impact.  It’s the stark document of what happens in her during those seemingly endless nightmare days and nights, locked away from the world, that sticks with us, and makes us afraid.  The possibility that our own minds may betray us and drag us down to Hell is a far more frightening than any psycho-slasher in a hockey mask ever could be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s clinical Grand Guignol, and the camera fondles the horrors… Undeniably skillful and effective, all right-excruciatingly tense and frightening. But is it entertaining? You have to be a hard-core horror-movie lover to enjoy this one.” -Pauline Kael (contemporaneous)

“…a game of movieness, a masquerade of Grand Guignol-as-psyche, virtually a parody of the surrealist’s notion of consciousness bagged and tagged on celluloid.” -Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (DVD)

“Polanski’s triumph is a weird, tense depolarization of space, a chipping away at psychological walls so that fear and desire become synonymous…” -Ed Gonzalez, Slant (DVD)

IMDB ENTRY: Repulsion

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Trailers from Hell: Micheal Lehmann on ‘Repulsion’ – The director of Heathers and Meet the Applegates gives his thoughts on the Repulsion trailer

DVD INFO (UPDATED 8/1/09):  After years of shamefully subpar editions, Repulsion has finally been rescued by the ever-reliable Criterion Collection and given a 2-disc special release (buy). The set features a new director-approved transfer of the film, commentary by Polanski and Deneuve, two documentary features, trailers, and a booklet of essays. Also available on Blu-ray (buy).

The previous releases of the film are now obsolete, except for bargain hunters who want a single disc release. The original information on past releases is included below for those who still may be interested.

The Anchor Bay release (which appears to be out of print) is the superior version, and contains commentary by both Polanski and Deneuve as well as a featurette on the British horror film.  Barring a used copy of that release, the Latin American import version (which is in English, and plays on US and Canadain Region 1 DVD players) (buy) is the next best bet. Many have complained of poor picture quality (and an unforgiveable pan-and-scan aspect ratio) on the Entertainment Programs release (buy), but sadly it may often be the best and cheapest version available.

4 thoughts on “3. REPULSION (1965)”

  1. “… a family photograph that lingers on the face and eyes of Carole as a young girl, sporting the same dead-eyed, distant stare as she does as a young woman…”

    Your observation is incorrect. Her “stare” in the photograph is accusatory.
    Look again – and see.

  2. Polankski’s “Apartment trilogy” is really something else. Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby are masterpieces without a doubt. I watched The Tenant for the first time last night and was amazed at how crazy it was. Admittedly, a slow first hour with some rather poor acting and pointless scenes, but the second hour really takes off (and I mean off)! Roman Polanski going nuts and performing most of his scenes in full drag…well, ’nuff said. Not on the level of the previous apartment films, but certainly all three are worthy of the List.

  3. Freud’s so-called seduction theory that you’re referring to in this review was not actually Freudian, it was cooked up by his mentor Josef Breuer in his 1896 “On the aetiology of hysteria” that he had his assistant Freud also put his name on. It did cause a minor scandal, but not (as modern followers of Recovered Memory Theory based not on Freud but on Breuer’s seduction theory would have you believe) because it described putatively or factually deviant sexuality as inherently pathological, harmful and damaging to the individual and society as a whole by begetting a host of mental and physical illnesses, and a ubiquitious menace hiding out of sight in secrecy (which was pretty much the standard view not only in the 19th century), but because the paper applied the term hysteria (Greek for “womb”) also to men. Shortly, Freud would rename hysteria into neurosis, and his colleagues at the Vienesse Medical Society calmed down.

    But not for long, because he began renouncing Breuer’s seduction theory (as evidenced in his letters to Wilhelm Fließ as early as 1897) and replaced it in his fundamental, first truly Freudian work “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905) with a view where sexuality was not the enemy, but that all of the symptoms he and Breuer had encountered, as well as all known mental dysfuntionality, were due to repression of (especially so-called deviant) sexuality because of moral values, societal views, etc., which are drummed into us early on in life. This was the real Freudian scandal, even though Freud insisted upon the tragic necessity of most repressions in order to uphold and maintain society and civilization which would otherwise fall to barbarism.

    Freud’s relationship with his mentor Breuer and his final disagreement with him on the seduction theory (that Freud would first publicly disclose in his 1938 auto-biographical “An Outline of Psycho-Analysis”) are laid out pretty well in John Huston’s film “Freud” (1962), the script to which was partly co-authered by Jean-Paul Sartre, albeit Huston heavily compresses twenty years in Freud’s life in order to get them on the screen. Incidentally, the film may be a minor candidate for weird movies, because Huston, who had been wanting to make the film since Freud’s death in 1939, shot it not only as a post-classical film noir very much like Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1980) in style, but “weirdly” intersparsed dreams and visions during hypnosis perfectly in the style of 1920s German Expressionism, complete with (hardly) no livesound, harsh, grainy contrasts, and at 12fps. As an afternote, Ridley Scott would later steal “Freud”‘s Oscar-nominated disturbing atonal soundtrack for his “Alien” (1979) without asking Huston nor his composer Jerry Goldsmith.

    Now, while child rape was certainly illegal then as it is now, and even though according to Adorno (other scholars, scientists and philosophers expressing similar ideas would include Foucault or Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg) since 1945 the main fiendish folk devil image to project all of society’s ailments and evils upon and thus uphold the Authoritation personality type of the hegemonic majority in-group had already shifted from homosexuality to paedophilia (Adorno doesn’t spell this out, but it could be due to his related theory that the underlying social dynamic had changed since 1945 from fostering social-Darwinistic sado-masochism to social-Darwinistic narcissism, as can be seen especially in our candy-colored consumerist neo-liberalist ideology today, which says no longer that we must “sacrifice” ourselves to Captalism but that it supposedly gives us so many pleasures and freedoms), yes, in spite of all that, I doubt that any 1962 viewer of “Repulsion” would have immediately thought they’d seen a madness due to child rape, as Breuer’s seduction theory was all but forgotten by the early 1960s.

    1962 viewers would have agreed with you that it could be a possibility if you’d have suggested it to them, but it wouldn’t immediately spring to their minds by itself. Which is because there was no detailled, spelled-out ideology behind the societal shift yet as would appear with Recovered Memory Therapy (which was, in fact, an occult sect akin to Scientology masking as legitimate medico-psychological science) fraudulently pointing to Freud as a reference and sparking also the satanist rape scare especially since the 1980s, and that is so ingrained in our consciousness today that we can’t help but look at Polanski’s “Repulsion” and not see the RMT’s concepts and ideas, not least of all because of events in Polanski’s own biography roughly two decades after the film came out. But the fact remains, RMT was never Freudian, it was Breuerian, and the eventual downfall of RMT as a method of “therapy” did not prevent its underlying themes and views on sexuality, its terminology, the mental diseases and “symptoms” it has constructed aka made up as social identities and self-fulfilling prophecies from still marching on stronger than ever, as evident in how we today see the film and immediately think of child rape.

    It was, in fact, Polanski himself who has delegitimized all psychological interpretations (be they Freudian or RMT, as such of illnesses due to social interactions) of his “Repulsion” by essentializing Carol’s ordeal as congenital. Unfortunately, you’ve not quoted the most critical part from his relevant quote here that he’s been giving ever since the film first came out. In the final shot (where a photo reveals the true nature of everything that has come before, very much like in Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) or Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000)), we see Carol as a child, with an uncanny expression on her face. Polanski explains that this was to express his actual theme to the film, which was that “She’s always been like this, she was *BORN EVIL*.” She’s never been a victim, she’s always been a victimizer, and what we see her looking at in the photo were probably some of her earlier, maybe even her first, soon-to-be victims.

    Thus, “Repulsion” is not a psychological thriller but a supernatural horror film, and Carol with her tormenting perception of reality driving her to homicide is an early progenitor to “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), maybe “The Exorcist” (1973), and other films where people and children are portrayed as non-human, essentially evil demons from the first moment they appear on this earth, whether they were born through demonic intervention or just shifted into a fake human appearance by themselves. Like it or not, but that was Polanski’s expressly intended message.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *