Repulsion (1965)


*. It’s an interesting title, isn’t it? The act of being repulsed; most commonly, being turned away by feelings of dislike or disgust. Does the audience feel repulsion though? Or is it all in Carol’s head?
*. I suppose the simplest explanation is that Carol finds men in general, or sex, repulsive. How she ever wound up with a boyfriend in the first place is beyond me. But in any event I think the title refers to more than just that.


*. Most obviously, that skinned and slowly rotting rabbit is repulsive. It would later find its way into a crib in Eraserhead. Presumably sometime after the landlord bins it here.
*. Rabbits are, however, good eating. Or so I’m told. My dog loved them, even in the form of roadkill. And even this rabbit would probably be better, and only a little more repulsive, than Carol’s plate of fish and chips.
*. The sprouting potatoes are kind of repulsive (Polanski calls them “quite repulsive,” and mentions that the sight of them scared him as a kid, for what that’s worth). Most rotting food is off-putting, though I think the potatoes here have the air of a still life painting.
*. Some noises, if not repulsive, are certainly annoying. Like bells. The convent’s bells from next door. The alarm clock. But most of all a telephone ringing and a doorbell going off like the flat is on fire. Studies have determined that these are among the most annoying noises known to the human ear. Right after the sound of a baby crying, I believe.


*. Are the lecherous men repulsive? The “navvy” in the street? The lads at the pub? The ass-grabbing, cheek-pinching sister’s (married) boyfriend? The landlord? Only sad-sack Colin seems like a decent fellow, and look what happens to him.
*. Rudeness is repulsive. It seems at times like everyone in this movie wants to lord it over somebody else.
*. Is beauty repulsive? The beauty industry certainly is. Women crying so that their mascara runs in dark tracks down their cheeks. And faces caked in mud! Who are those rich old ladies kidding?


*. Old people can be repulsive. I mean morally. It’s sickening how quickly the apartment fills up with older types at the end, coming in to have a looky-loo and offer worthless advice. Even the old lady with the dog from across the way is there, being the same nosey biddy who eavesdropped on Colin and Carol earlier but who rejected Michael’s request to use her phone.
*. But then beautiful single women can be repulsive too. Their apartments, for example, are filthy. In the documentary A British Horror Film the art director Seamus Flannery tells a funny story about how the other people (men) working on the film had no concept of how much of a sty a single woman’s apartment in London could be. He decided to show them.


*. Is Catherine Deneuve repulsive? No . . . but she’s not flattered here. Gilbert Taylor, the director of photography, couldn’t understand why Polanski wanted him to make her look so bad, shot in close-ups using a wide-angle lens that distorted her features. As if close-ups, pushed to an uncomfortable extreme, aren’t bad enough. Seeing the veins in someone’s eyeball. The pores and lines in their skin. The dark roots of their hair. We want to pull back. We are repulsed. But the focus on detail, focus to the point of grotesquerie, emphasizes the sense of claustrophobia and obsession. The camera is giving us cabin (or apartment) fever.
*. Is Carol Ledoux replusive? Yes . . . or at least you should find her repulsive. But if you’re like everyone else in the movie, you don’t. That’s a mistake.
*. So it’s all repulsive. Modern life. Hopefully Carol will be taken away to a padded room somewhere at the end. People who find the whole world repulsive shouldn’t be walking around in it.
*. A lot of discussions of Repulsion link it to Psycho. I’m not sure why. Because they’re both black-and-white movies from the 1960s about psycho killers?
*. One connection is that they are both slow burns, with uneventful first acts that set up the bloody climaxes in indirect ways. It’s a narrative structure you don’t see a lot of these days. Indeed most thrillers today begin with a pre-credit suspense sequence to engage the audience right away. We no longer have the patience to sit through a long introduction where nothing much happens.


*. The imagery is suggestive throughout of some deeper meaning. The rabbit. The potatoes. The nuns next door. The musicians in the street. But there may be less to all this than at first seems. The rabbit and potatoes were just meant to show the passage of time. Polanski was aware of the rabbit’s resemblance to a fetus but says he wasn’t trying to “exploit” that in any way. The nuns were fortuitous, and Polanski says he only wanted to show them in order to give a sense of life going on outside the apartment (as the musicians would too).
*. Polanski also remarks on the commentary about how such critics — ones looking for deeper meaning — scare him. He frequently makes the claim that interpretations of his films go beyond what his intentions were. For the most part, he feels that artists use instinct and not their brain.



*. I don’t know how much of this we can credit. Polanski says he doesn’t know what he meant by the cracks in the walls and the pavement, but it seems kind of obvious in that case that he’s drawing an analogy to Carol’s mental state. She’s cracking up, and getting ready to fall like the House of Usher.
*. With regard to other things, however, I’m inclined to believe him. I would, for example, be interested to know when it was first suggested that the photo at the end was meant as a clue to child sexual abuse. Polanski says it’s up to the audience. I thought the weird expression on the girl’s face was only meant to show that Carol had always been a bit different. Polanski says he just wanted to suggest that she had problems even as a girl. I can see why people might read abuse into it, but it’s certainly not necessary.
*. Or here’s another: On the DVD commentary Polanski says of the opening credit sequence that his name as director cutting through Deneuve’s eyeball was not intended as an homage to Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and that the connection was only pointed out to him after the fact. I believe him here as well.


*. I can’t make out what book it is Carol uses to wipe the blood from the door. I wonder if it has any significance.
*. It was important for Polanski to make the point that “you can live near a mentally deranged person without realizing there’s a problem.” In some cases I believe that’s true, but with Carol? Let’s face it, she’s a basket case, not functioning at all. I can’t understand Helen leaving her to take care of the apartment while she’s gone.


*. A lot of psychological thrillers play with the idea of what’s real and what’s just being fantasized. American Psycho, for example, leaves the whole film up in the air. The first lines we hear spoken in Repulsion are the woman at the salon asking Carol “Have you fallen asleep?” Is that a clue? Obviously arms aren’t really reaching out of walls, but we never do see what’s in the bathtub.
*. Great movies require luck. They are often happy accidents. Whether it was unconscious instinct that guided Polanski here or his saying so is being deliberately misleading, Repulsion clicks like a mousetrap. Just like the boss at the salon, Colin, the landlord, or even Michael at the end (the hero, taking Deneuve up in his arms), we can’t help being drawn to Carol even though we know we shouldn’t be. And, aside from the landlord, this is not primarily a sexual thing. It’s sympathy for the devil. You can’t blame Carol for being the way she is, but all the same you need to keep your distance. She wants to be alone anyway.


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