On the 51st anniversary of Polanski’s schizophrenic masterpiece, we unpack why this heady horror still works so well
“We must get this crack mended.”
There are a lot of horror films that knock me back and just floor me, but I’ve been obsessed with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion ever since the first time I watched it. That film has laid eggs in my brain that continue to grow and hatch with each new viewing and every new wandering thought on the picture. Bottle episodes and single-location movies do it for me in general. I love when minimalism is indulged in and played with in an exciting way and that sort of experiment is almost always more explosive when horror is thrown into a mix. If being stuck somewhere can somehow be infinitely engaging, then wouldn’t being stuck in there due to some sort of monster be even better? But what if you’re the monster? Or you can’t get away from it because it lives inside your head? That very basic premise offers up just a glimpse of why Repulsion is such a satisfying, powerful, surprising piece of horror that still very much holds up 51 years after its initial release.
Repulsion is honestly the film that should come to mind when “psychological thrillers and horror” are brought up. It’s the picture-in-the-dictionary answer on the topic. It sets the standard so perfectly and achieves what it needs to so elegantly and without overdoing it or dipping into needlessness. Seeing release on October 2, 1965, Repulsion would act as the first of Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” which continues on with Rosemary’s Baby and concludes with The Tenant. While all of these are remarkable pictures, Repulsion, is arguably the best of the lot and came to be as its own entity as opposed to the other pictures that were fitting into this “Apartment Trilogy” construct.
It’s more than a little remarkable that Repulsion is only Polanski’s second feature film at the time (after Knife in the Water, which earned him an Oscar nom), and his first picture in English, at that. It’s interesting to note that financing for the film was refused by Paramount Pictures and British Lion Films, causing Polanski and producer, Gene Gutowski, to eventually secure a deal with Compton Pictures for financing, a company that was primarily known for the distribution of softcore porn! It also seems like neither Polanski nor his co-writer, Gerard Brach, realized the real importance of Repulsion at the time, with this instead being a film they were making simply because eh knew that it would be the commercial success that would allow them to make Cul-De-Sac, a film that held much more personal significance to them. And yet, I can’t recall the last time that anyone has brought up Cul-De-Sac, so…
Repulsion functions with a remarkably minimalistic plot that gains monstrous depth upon the realization of how damaged Carol is. The film simply sees Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a woman who’s a little off (presumably schizophrenic, in fact), spending a weekend on her own, and the limits and pressures of that freedom getting the better of her. Frequent scenes are from Carol’s erratic perspective, with you being inside of her head being a necessary evil to truly understand how damaged she is. Yet realize, this vantage point does not help you understand Carol herself, merely that things are not right with her. It’s a technique that’s also expertly done in Mickey Keating’s Darling, but the whole idea is for you to feel as uncomfortable and broken as the protagonist. It’s one thing to show you these protagonists’ frailty, but to actually make you feel it makes the film connect on a whole other level. Repulsion’s dream sequences are also especially vivid (as are the ones within Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, but these feel particularly gripping) and work in a whole other way towards showing you Carol’s fractured self. They’re powerful sequences that show that even in sleep Carol is not safe.
Even the opening credits of the film play across the interior of Carol’s pupil and iris, becoming literally trapped within her perspective. The film wants you lost inside of her head as immediately as the opening credits. But in spite of this proximity “inside” Carol or the way that the film seemingly throws us into the middle of her story when the film begins, we barely have a better grasp of who she is by the time that the end credits roll. We might spend the entire film with Carol and through her broken perspective, but that doesn’t mean that we actually get to be close with her. If anything this distance acts as evidence towards how hard it can be to actually connect and understand someone who has as many mental issues as Carol.
What’s kind of wonderful about all of this is that at first glance Carol doesn’t seem damaged, just listless and uninteresting. The film’s first few scenes show her coasting through her life and barely displaying a personality. This reads as disinterest, not danger. That is until Michael, the husband of Helen, Carol’s sister, comments upon Carol’s peculiar demeanor and that she would maybe benefit from seeing a doctor. Suddenly it clicks in that Carol isn’t just in a funk–this is who she is –and it’s beginning to alarm those that are closest to her.
Polanski’s filmography is full of examples of him warping the audience’s expectations and exploding the preconception of what’s to be taken at face value. However Repulsion might be one of his finest distillations of this theme since the film literally pushes the idea of a damsel in distress that is simultaneously a bitchin’ femme fatale. You might be numb to this fascination of Polanski’s career by the end of his filmography, but in 1965 this was still very flashy and new. In fact, you only might be susceptible to the film’s inevitable direction if you had seen the movie’s alarming poster (with glistening razor blade front and center) or read its sensationalistic tagline: “The nightmare world of a Virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!!” The marketing materials at least attempt to prepare you for a surreal trip that keeps the boundaries of fantasy and reality lucid.
Just a film that decides to depict a female killer is a concept that’s fairly different and unconventional for the times. This reveal packs a huge impact and is an obvious inspiration for female killer-led material like Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and this whole sub-genre of psychosexual thrillers. The film is also seen as a trailblazer towards breaking boundaries due to Carol also acting as a symbol that goes against conformed femininity. It’s almost as if Carol’s break is from the pressures of an internalized society weighing down on her and not being able to take it any longer. Maybe that’s even why she needs to rebel as a figure that lashes out and murders. It’s the polar opposite of what is expected and demanded of her gender at the time.
The film’s title itself, “Repulsion,” acts as a meditation on Carol’s abuse and the disgust that she feels towards sexual advances, but it also doubles as the repulsion that her sexual advances feel when they see the real threat and dangers that are going on beneath her surface. Some viewers are quick to glibly account themes of sexual abuse as the means of explaining all of Carol’s behavior, yet these theories are never explicitly gotten into in the film and are entirely up to the viewer’s interpretation and analysis. That being said, Michael still acts as the audience’s trigger towards Carol’s unusual nature, which is fairly telling considering that he’s also a figure that’s constantly on Carol’s radar. Carol acts uncomfortable and different around Michael towards the beginning of the film and there’s a running theme where she’s fixated and plays with belongings of his, perhaps implying some sort of possible abuse from him. Perhaps the only reason that Michael even voices a comment about Carol getting “help” is that he’s worried that she might begin to talk and he’s looking to get rid of her. There’s also the popular theory that Carol was abused by her father too, but regardless of who’s the culprit, it seems like some history of abuse is present here, albeit repressed.
Polanski continues to explore the topic of Carol by putting a number of tricks on display here in order to get across what he needs to as well as accurately depicting Carol’s mental state. For example, Polanski slows camera movements down and plays with your perception. He turns the soundtrack into a cacophony of repetitive noises and distracting dissonance, things like ringing bells, ticking clocks, and hammering hearts. The subtle effects become more debilitating as Carol’s condition worsens and the apartment soon becomes a representation of her mental state. We see cracks and fissures adorn the walls of the apartment as the weekend goes on. Eventually dozens of hands are even jutting out of the walls and reaching for Carol in terrifying fashion as her safety continues to feel threatened. It’s a beautiful way to depict someone having a breakdown and mental episode. By the time the cracks are erupting through the walls it almost feels like Carol has ended up in the Amityville house. Only in this case it’s Carol’s mind that’s “haunted,” not the apartment. It’s easy to see why the film is widely known for Gilbert Taylor’s (Dr. Strangelove, The Omen, A Hard Day’s Night) stunning black-and-white cinematography, which also saw Taylor earning a BAFTA nomination for his work in the field.
Elsewhere the camerawork here gets up close and personal into cramped corners and foreboding shadows as a way of accentuating the claustrophobic hold felt over Carol. It’s incredible to see how this simple weekend in the apartment turns into such a haunted house experience. Carol effectively locks herself up in her surroundings with more surreal elements becoming our markers of time. Carol denies herself (and us) sunlight or any invasion of the outside world and so a progressively rotting skinned rabbit and wet potatoes that continue to bloom with Elephantitis become your clock surrogayte. These things sneak up on you too, making for some subtle, effective horror. You have no idea how much time has been lost until these rancid artifacts surprise you. Equally surprising—but in an entirely different way—are Carol’s violent outbursts. They blindly attack and come without warning in a way that makes every moment here pregnant with dread.
The film’s use of bells has been brought up already, but it’s an element that’s consistently used, almost as if they act as Carol’s “Insanity Theme.” Bells increase their presence on the soundtrack as Carol begins to stress or act out, not to mention instances of doorbells, chimes, and alarms getting amplified on the sound design as one of the ways of getting under your skin. Jazz is also prevalent on the film’s score, again using the music as a way of symbolizing the chaotic, unpredictable state of Carol. It’s a strategy so effective it would later become the main reasoning for the heavy jazz influence in Homeland’s theme song.
Throw on top of this other stylistic moments in the sound design, like Helen’s sex with Michael penetrating Carol’s room and crescendoing into her troubled mind. These instances of sexuality keep trying to force themselves on Carol, with even the aesthetics of Polanski’s film pushing this (FYI, this is also the first instance of female orgasm (sound only) passing by the British Board of Film Censors, so there’s some trivia you can throw in all of your friends’ faces!).
One of Repulsion’s most fascinating details is Polanski’s allowance of the film to barely have much of a plot, with instead focus going to putting Carol under the microscope. In spite of this, Polanski still never explains Carol. He shows us hints of her–like her disgust of men and “adult” sexuality, her avoidance of food, and a strong bond with her sister–but it reads more like you’re watching a specimen flail about in their habitat. Again, Polanski’s purpose here is not to explain Carol to you but merely show you her. You are left to your own conclusions and allowed to be as perplexed as Helen, Michael, or anyone else in the movie.
The film’s biggest hint–and really the only glimpse we get of Carol’s past or sense of backstory–is in the form of a family photograph. The first time we see the photograph it’s a rather casual moment. The photo rests comfortably on the mantle as it shows the adults of Carol’s family clustered in the foreground with a young Helen in tow. Young Carol on the other hand is left in the background of the photo, by her lonesome, looking like she’s almost lost in a trance. The film concludes on this photograph (only now it lies amongst the wreckage of Hurricane Carol rather than safely adorning the mantle) with Polanski zooming in to such a precise degree. He finishes on Young Carol’s distracted eye, tying things back to the film’s opening frames. This is Carol. This has always been Carol.
It’s a little crazy to see just how good of a reputation this film has rather than it being some misunderstood cult film. Repulsion is currently number 18 of the highest rated pictures on Rotten Tomatoes, which is insane, and is certainly saying something. It’s easy to see how this film could become a constant reference point for formative films in the decades that would follow. Aronofsky pays reference to it plenty in both Pi and Black Swan, with Lucky McKee’s May hitting many of the same themes and ideas, too. However other films such as Scissors and the aforementioned Darling are heavily influenced by the picture, with their works feeling like direct send-ups of Polanski’s masterpiece, rather than just variations on a theme. The film has even gained such significance that music videos by both The Cardigans and Metric are big love letters to the movie.
Repulsion is a treat from top to bottom, and if you’ve never seen this psychological masterpiece, today is a great day to change that and see what people have been loving for 51 years.
Then have some rabbit and potatoes.