“We must get this crack mended.”
Repulsion (1965), Roman Polanski’s second feature following Knife in the Water (1962) and the first one made in the UK is perhaps one of the few horror movies that have really aged well. The reason for that is probably because Polanski manages to avoid all the flashy temptations and pitfalls of the genre and the era and sticks to minimalism. Enchantingly shot in black and white, Repulsion presents to us the events that unfold in a span of two weeks in the life of Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a foreigner who lives in London in an apartment with her sister Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux) and works at a local beauty parlour as a manicurist. Carol is aloof from her colleagues and seems to be living in her own world. Hélène has a boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) who appears to be eyeing Carol too and whose presence seems to infuriate Carol for no apparent reason at first. Meanwhile, a young man called Colin (John Fraser) tries to win Carol over in vain. Soon, we witness Carol descending into some form of a trance and then into a (self) destructive mode as she shuns herself from everyone. With a storyline that can’t be, by any measure, called meaty, Polanski weaves magic as he performs a quantum leap with his innovation and resourcefulness in translating the text to the screen.
Repulsion fittingly begins with a zoom out of Carol’s eye and ends with a zoom into it, preparing us for the purely subjective tale that takes place between these two shots (and also paying homage to the surreal masterpiece Un Chien Andalou (1929) which, too, slit the human eye to look beyond its retina). The movie is entirely seen through Carol’s eyes and faithful reproduction of reality is flushed down the drain. Anything is possible within these two goal posts. None of the events that we witness might have happened in reality, but they sure do in Carol’s mind. Her colleague even talks about the chicken scene in The Gold Rush (1925). Clearly, Repulsion stands as a direct manifestation of Polanski’s ideas about normalcy and abnormality. Right from the early short films, Polanski has always questioned the popular definitions of these two terms. With him, it isn’t easy to incriminate or vindicate any character for their acts. With him, one is never sure who is in the cage and who is out. One could say, in Repulsion, that the old lady next door was unethical when she listens to the conversation between Colin and Carol, but is it her mistake that the door is open to all? Same is the case with his very first film Toothy Smile (1957). In The Lamp (1959), we see broken toys separated from the new ones that are manufactured to perfection – perfection as defined by the society. In Repulsion, characters are presented to us as they appear to Carol. They conform to or deviate from what she sees as normal.
Repulsion also resonates with the most dominant Polanski theme of them all, which is that of violation of boundaries. Right from Toothy Smile, where a man stares at a naked woman through the open window that he notices by chance, the director has been preoccupied with characters who breach some form of limits that are imposed on them by the society. Although it is highly likely that this vision of Polanski, who had had to put up with a lot during his stay in communist Poland, was politically motivated it has trickled down into every kind of scenario, refining itself and exploring various manifestations of this notion of infringement of limits (Looking at the events that have transpired in Polanski’s life – the murder of Sharon Tate, his arrest in Switzerland recently and the weight of his celebrity status – one can only conclude that life has a morbid sense of humour). It is no mere coincidence that he chose the well known tale of Macbeth, where too the sacrosanct border between the ruler and the loyal warlord is breached with miserable consequences, to make a film. Be the violation interpersonal in nature, as in the case of voyeurism, break-ins and conquests, or individual, arriving in the form of agnosticism, impotence and alienation, it seems to be only detrimental to all its participants.
Moreover, in this film, this motif of violation manifests itself in social, psychological, sexual and even religious terms. Carol is the symbol of complete purity in the film (Dressed in white, Deneuve is nothing short of a divine angel). She keeps warding off every kind of threat to that purity. A foreigner, now living in a completely alien city, she not only has to adapt to the new conventions, but also has to put up with every kind of oppression that the place may impose on her. There are enough indications in the film that Carol is homosexual (or, at least, unsure of her orientation). Now living in London, a city that must be far more conservative and, I daresay, homophobic than the place that she comes from, Carol is, clearly, far from freedom of choice (The anonymous phone call in which a female threatens Carol just goes to show how concrete this hostility is, as perceived by her, of course). It isn’t just sexual penetration that she is fighting against, but also those of conventions – political, social and religious– upheld strongly by the right wing. Carol is battling all the models presented by the society through its oppressive structures as the “right” way to live. But eventually, starting with the shaving knife – the first trace of a man in her apartment – that seems to have a disturbing presence, she is persuaded to give into all these forces.
Evidently, Polanski draws a lot of inspiration from Hitchcock, especially from Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960). Both Jeff (James Stewart) in Rear Window and Carol in Repulsion are alienated individuals living in an urban setting who look at their world through their skewed vision with a preconceived opinion about it. The only difference between them is that while Jeff becomes the aggressor, trying to find a deeper meaning to the world around him in order to add depth to his own life, Carol becomes the victim as she turns paranoid about her surroundings and pushes herself into a shell further away from the society. But the film is perhaps closest to Psycho, when it comes to genre elements, as it constructs a similar lonely, claustrophobic atmosphere where trespassers will be punished irrespective of their importance in the narrative thus far. My only gripe with Psycho is that it tries to explain Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) behaviour scientifically till the last detail. By attributing his behaviour to a psychological disorder, it isolates him as a stray case and hence fails to aim higher and explore why each one of us is a potential Norman Bates (Hitch corrects this slip stylishly in The Birds (1963)). However, Polanski, like Akerman did in her Jeanne Dielman (1976), which, also, dealt with an alienated woman taking to violence, carefully keeps all the ambiguity generated in the film intact, thus providing ample space for discussion and interpretation.
Given the subjective and mostly surreal nature of the movie and the advantages of the genre, there is a lot of scope to employ warranted symbolism in the film and Polanski does just that. Phallic and penetration symbols galore, Repulsion is a gold mine for any student of Freud (The postcard showing the Leaning Tower of Pisa from Carol’s sister is the closest the film gets to being humourous). During the course of the movie, Carol’s apartment becomes the embodiment of her psyche and her virginity. What was initially well lit, neatly arranged, spacious and unblemished becomes, by the end of the film, a ruptured, dark, ramshackle mess overcrowded with neighbours, much like Carol herself. But, like it was done in Psycho, these symbols never become necessary elements for the film to be successful. They merely impart an additional layer to the film without ever having to reveal their presence. The object that she slams Colin with may be the symbol of the very thing she is hostile to, but, first of all, it is a weapon. The cracks on the wall may signify the cracking of her own psyche and resistance, but, primarily, they are elements of horror. The head of the rabbit in her handbag may allude to something deeper, but, again, it is first a shock factor. Furthermore, the film itself, notably, remains faithful to its genre instead of digressing into needless discourses or trying to be too clever for itself. It is, in the first place, a solid horror film and, only secondarily, a film that is a satire against the mores of our society and the baseless tenets that it proposes to everybody.
More so than the masterful Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which, too, spoke in subjective terms and satirized religion within the framework of a conventional horror movie, Repulsion is Polanski’s version of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). When, in Antichrist, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) does the unthinkable after knocking Him (William Dafoe) out, what she is actually doing is the exact opposite of what religion has taught us through the years – to be fruitful and to multiply. So does Carol as she slays – the icon of reproduction – a rabbit, destroys all the phallic symbols in the movie and, essentially, combats the obligation placed on everyone by religion to get a family and reproduce. Only that Trier isn’t content with just employing symbols for this purpose! Early on, Michael, upon observing a catholic procession, jokes that the church perhaps has wild parties at night. Soon, this notion of religion and sex being the two sides of the same coin takes shape in the movie as the soundtrack consistently replaces sounds of sexual moaning with those of the church bells. For Carol, who has been so far standing in opposition to this unfair responsibility of perpetuating the human race, this hypocrisy of organized religion is too just much to take and she, sadly, succumbs to it.
Even technically, despite being the director’s second feature, Repulsion reveals itself as an auteur’s work. One has to just look at a few of those early short films to see the consistency of directorial choices that Polanski makes. The pan shots that stray from the central object of attention, the ground-level deep focus shots and the spectacular interplay of light and darkness confirm the signature of Polanski. Furthermore, Polanski uses the camera (maneuvered magically by Gilbert Taylor) to provide contextual meaning using the pans and the zooms. His camera often starts out at the sunlit window and gradually makes its way to the darker interiors where Carol is sitting as if penetrating the resistive apartment. But what is truly the high point of Repulsion is the way it prunes down details to the most basics leaving the rest to our imagination – the most important factor as far as this particular genre is concerned, for horror never concerns itself with what’s out there, but with the uncertainty about something being out there at all. There is rarely a B-movie moment in the film that goes for cheap shock. For almost the whole movie, Polanski’s camera lingers entirely on Deneuve’s face. Every other information that we require is provided by the meticulously assembled soundtrack that not just evokes the creeps that it should, but also provides meaning to the visuals that we see.
One just can’t abstain from mentioning the role of Catherine Deneuve in the movie for Repulsion flourishes upon her very presence. More than her performance, which is indeed pretty commendable, it is her very image that provides depth to the film’s text. With looks that could puncture any man’s heart, Deneuve as Carol is the angel herself. In Repulsion, Polanski lets his probing script collide with the cherubic image of Deneuve and comments on what mass hysteria could do to even a goddess. Polanski gives feline mannerisms to Carol (cats being the cleanest of all animals), who is seen fiddling with her nose and purging herself like a cat now and then. After watching Repulsion, the casting of Deneuve as a bored urban housewife who takes to casual prostitution in Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour (1967), another superb film that examined the consequences of sexual conformism and oppression albeit in a hilarious fashion, looks all the more virtuoso since it absorbs the image of Deneuve distorted and updated by Polanski’s film and further subverts it in ways that only a master could have thought of. Employing Deneuve, Polanski, like Buñuel, has successfully turned the Cinderella story inside out (Michael calls Carol “Cinderella” early in the film), with escapism giving way to confinement, hope giving way to despair and fantasy giving way to paranoia.