Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 24 October 2005
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Reviews: Rosemary’s Baby
Repulsion was the first film Roman Polanski made in the West, after his brilliant beginnings in his native Poland. There, he had directed a series of striking shorts (most notably, Two Men and a Wardrobe) and an exceptional first feature, Knife in the Water, an incisive psychological study of the shifting power relationships between an older man, his far younger wife, and a young student.
In spite of the apparent commercial appeal of Repulsion — a horror movie detailing how a young woman mentally disintegrates, murderously so, holed up in a London flat — the project turned out very difficult to set up, with production finally being found with Compton Films, a low-budget outfit more familiar with the distribution and exhibition of soft-core porn.
In a sense Polanski had high artistic ambitions with this film. He has talked of his desire at the time to make something more than just a horror film, to concentrate more on the psychological thriller aspects. The focus is almost exclusively on the figure of Carol, viewed for the most part with her or even from her perspective. This subjectivity of experience is the note struck from the opening credit sequence, with the slow zoom-out from an extreme close-up of Carol’s eye. Thus is evoked the film’s narrow vision of the world, the way it shares in Carol’s own introspection.
The first three shots of the opening sequence offer a clear exposition of the formal strategies at work in Repulsion. What do we see? (1) A close-up of Carol’s expressionless face. (2) A close-up of a hand (in fact, Carol’s) holding that of an older woman. (3) An older woman’s face, apparently caked in mud, with resonances of a death-mask, and looking rather like a body laid out in the morgue. In fact, it’s quickly apparent what the situation here is: Carol is at the beauty salon where she works, attending to a customer getting a facial. But as consistently happens throughout the film, a very realistic, everyday setting is made strange and unsettling. Here, this occurs through the disjointed quality of the three shots. They are of course connected contextually, they describe the same space and situation, but each shot is discrete and isolated, with a frozen quality to it. The effect is quite eerie.
Point-of-view is simultaneously exterior and interior. These three opening shots offer an objective depiction of Carol and her world, but their sense of disjointedness reflects Carol’s own disjunction from the world around. The way the film takes us into the world of the story, from Carol’s eye, to her expressionless face, and then into the narrative, underlines this subjectivity.
As the film progresses, Polanski begins to offer shots that are completely subjective, images from Carol’s own psychotic imaginings: cracks in the wall ratcheting up into hands bursting out of the wall, the glimpse of a male figure in a mirror, rape fantasies. There is also increasing slippage between the interior and exterior. Within one scene, the film will cut from Carol’s subjective viewpoint to an objective one, with nothing initially marking the distinction between fantasy and reality. Clearly objective shots — the decaying rabbit on the plate, the sprouting potatoes in the kitchen — in any case become motifs to represent Carol’s mental decline. There’s an artificial heightening of sounds — the ticking of a clock, the dripping of water, the ringing of a bell — to similar effect. In addition, details that Polanski concentrates early on act as precursors to later events in the film: the crack in the pavement a precursor to Carol’s fantasised cracks in the walls of her flat, the close-up of her very unappetising lunch a precursor to the infamous rabbit. Or, such details assume a symbolic import. The roadworks Carol passes are excavating the street in the way the film is going to excavate her mind; and when Carol next walks by, Polanski gives us a shot of the empty workers’ tent as a dark, threatening, maw-like opening, an image of the darkness that is to engulf her world.
This tent is also connected with the overwhelming sexual fear that Carol’s psychosis has placed her in, for, when she first walks by, a worker sitting in front of it harasses her with a coarse, allusive-but-clear sexual invitation. In fact, for Carol sex generates an unhealthy mixture of fear, desire, and jealousy. She’s jealous of her sister Helen’s relationship with her boyfriend Michael, if only for the way Michael encroaches on their flat (she throws out the razor of his she finds in the bathroom) and takes her sister away from her. But Michael projects a strong sexual presence, squeezing Helen’s behind and making sexually-loaded joking references to the nuns next door, and later Carol is shown twisting and turning in bed as she hears her sister’s lovemaking cries. She is both attracted and repelled by Michael, throwing away his undershirt in disgust, then picking it up to sniff at before rushing off-screen to (we assume) throw up. Ironically, at the end of the film Carol, in her catatonic state after the two murders, is carried out in the arms of Michael, the strongest sexual presence of the film.
Carol’s feelings of disgust are reinforced by the characters around her. On the one hand, there’s her colleague Bridget with her “Why are [men] so filthy?” Then, there’s the phone call, presumably from Michael’s wife, with its accusation of Helen as a “filthy tart.” And there are the pub friends of her would-be boyfriend Colin, with their perverse sexual bantering. Carol can’t make any distinctions between different degrees of sexual interest. Both Colin, with his earnest courting of her, and the landlord, with his overt attempt at rape, meet their deaths at her hands. Even early on in the film, Carol can only react with extreme nervousness and uncertainty to Colin’s attempts to ask her out. In this scene outside her work, she is contrasted to Bridget’s kissing of her boyfriend in the car and merrily tripping up the steps. Later, when Colin drives her home and tries to kiss her in the car (just as Bridget was kissed), Carol reacts by turning away, then suddenly running off, obsessively rubbing away at her face in the lift, then franticly brushing her teeth.
Carol’s psychosis is expressed in three kinds of behavioural tics. There’s her spaced-out quality, where she simply switches off and ceases functioning with the world around her, as when she stares at the chair in the salon basement or the crack in the pavement; or when, searching for a missing shoe, she freezes in a crouching position and forgets the bath she’s running. Secondly, there’s her obsessive brushing/rubbing movement: brushing away at the seat of a chair; brushing away at her nightdress after she walks in on Michael shaving in the bathroom; twitching and rubbing her face. Finally, there’s an autoerotic impulse, tied in with her narcissism: in one scene we see her licking her hand, with the camera then zooming in on her reflection in the kettle, a reflection with which she is clearly fascinated.
Polanski reflects in stylistic terms the distorted nature of Carol’s perception of the world. His use of short focal lengths, depth of field, and the unusual design of the set have the effect of elongating the space within the flat, distorting the normal spatial relationships. Extreme low angles are a further distortion: our first view of the flat is shot at floor level, the camera holding on Carol’s legs as she goes into her room; and at the very end of the film, signaling Carol’s final mental collapse, the looming, overhanging ceiling appears to get closer and closer to her. Expressionist lighting patterns enhance the mood, as when the landlord and Carol move in and out of the patches of light in the living room. Finally, when we follow Carol outside on one of her walks, the nervy, handheld camerawork perfectly reflect Carol’s own nervousness, uncertainty, irresolution, and disjunction from the world around her.
Repulsion is a stylistic tour-de-force, made at the time when Polanski was at the height of his powers, brilliant, innovative, provocative, and witty. (Nothing since The Tenant has ever measured up to the body of work Polanski produced before.) But there’s still a nagging sense that in the end Repulsion doesn’t really add up to very much. Once the film’s premise is clearly established, the narrative in effect has nowhere to go beyond further illustrations of the premise; and some of the more grotesque genre effects (the ever-increasing cracks in the wall, the hands coming out of the wall) seem out of keeping with the finer sensibility that’s at work. (The subtler shot of Carol’s hands leaving an impression in the wall is so much more startling and unsettling than the shots of the multitude of hands bursting out.)
But for all that, the visual and emotional effect of Repulsion’s final shot is very satisfying. After Carol has been carried off by Michael, the camera pans over the shadowy line of dolls and toys on the mantlepiece, to first take in the clock (the source of the film’s ubiquitous ticking), and then, to the sound of the incessant rain outside, to zoom in on the family photo that we’ve seen before. Now it’s symbolically fractured by lines of shadow, the family members broken and separated, and the camera closes in on the young Carol, ending up on a close-up of her eyes. Thus the film returns us to the eye of the credit-title shot at the start of the film. The film closes in on itself, just as Carol’s mind has.