When it comes to praise, anyone who is familiar with Roman Polanski also knows that he’s never going to win any awards for his person. An individual who fled the US to avoid jail, to put it kindly, the man is no Fred Rogers. While a talented director at his best, as with the work of any quality artist, his best still deserves to be addressed irrespective of his shitty nature as a person.
Which brings me to his great 1965 film Repulsion. ‘Pay attention to what she does,’ might be the best advice when experiencing this film for the first time. Few screenplays achieve such a level of depth through minimal use of dialogue. Firstly, let us examine the subject. Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is a beautiful young woman who shares a London flat with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Right away, we notice there is something off about her. She works as a manicurist for a high-end salon and is prone to ‘spacing out.’ She appears easily distracted and distant. Meanwhile, Helen is having an affair with a married man whom Carole does not like. ‘So this is the beautiful younger sister,’ he says patronizingly while pinching her cheek. Disgusted, Carole pulls away. She also does not like that he places his toothbrush and razor in her cup, which she comes to throw away, and is ultimately chastised by Helen as a result.
Helen and her married boyfriend are going away to Italy for a 12-day trip, but the landlord has been nagging for the rent, which Helen leaves in an envelope. ‘Be sure to pay the rent,’ she instructs Carole, whose blonde nature gives the troubled girl an ethereal, child-like quality. Despite being very pretty, there is something asexualized about her—helpless almost, albeit the surrounding, predatory men think differently.
However, what is most amazing is the sympathy that Polanski creates for Carole, whereas every man presents himself as a demanding jerk. As example, when suitor Colin (John Fraser) approaches Carole on a bench, she is staring off at a crack in the street. ‘You’re an hour late. I’ve been waiting,’ he chastises. Meantime, Carole appears clueless that there had even been arrangements made. Colin takes her home, but not before trying to kiss her, which she abruptly pushes away. Now, anyone watching this scene should see that Carole is in no position to handle closeness, much less a relationship. And any guy with decency would realize this. Instead, this guy continues to insist on seeing her, despite how troubled she is. The thought of having her on his arm is too tempting for his ego.
An interesting contrast to Carole is her more average-looking co-worker who cries after having her heart broken by her current male suitor. While relaying her tearful breakup, Carole sits off, appearing distracted and unemotional. She simply can’t relate, as men won’t leave her alone. Evidenced by her detached behavior, it is clear that Carole likely underwent the brunt of some sort of sexual childhood trauma and has not been able to recover. Although never stated, Roman Polanski intelligently renders this through his use of her environment, which manifests as violent and predatory. Hands poke out from the cracking walls and grab her. Anonymous, shadowed men appear in her bed and aggressively rape her, yet throughout the continued imagined assaults there is no sound—only that of the clock ticking.
Is this merely a young woman’s descent into madness? When left alone, Carole does not know what to do with herself, as she leaves in the living room a rotting rabbit on a plate and irons Helen’s married boyfriend’s dirty undershirt with the iron unplugged. It is telling that Polanski chose to use a rabbit—this creature in nature that is often hunted and helpless. Then, when Colin comes by to ‘check on her’, instead of perhaps calling a doctor, he thinks only of himself and whines about how much he misses her. Carole does not feel the same, as she then thumps him on the head with what seems to be part of a lamp, kills him, and places his body into the bathtub. This entire scene is done with a sense of immediacy—carrying out her actions as if she had no other choice. Colin never attacks her, mind you, and his murder is a brutal scene, yet we sympathize with her, regardless.
Repulsion could have easily been a film that, given its subject matter, devolved into Lifetime Movie of the Month. However, the difference is that the narrative unfolds intelligently via observation, and Polanski never instructs viewers on how they are supposed to feel. Instead, we are the observers— we watch Carole moving about vulnerably and helplessly until she ultimately decides to kill. Her movements are matter-of-fact and mechanical as if she is operating out of necessity. The strength of the film’s execution proves that any subject can be successful if rendered well.
Another Polanski film that surpasses convention is Knife in the Water (1962), which touches upon the ideas of male jealousy, competition, and confrontation between a young male hitchhiker and a wealthy married couple undergoing marital ennui. Interestingly, it seems that masculine aggression was forefront in Roman Polanski’s choice of subject, often approaching men critically, and presenting them as slightly more than aggressive archetypes. All this can likewise be seen within Repulsion when Carole attempts to fight off her belligerent landlord who is set on seducing and possibly raping her. For Carole, there seems to be no line between reality and fantasy, as what she undergoes while alone at night is the same that happens in daylight.
This presents an interesting contrast to the stronger demeanor of Mary Henry within Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls who, while acknowledging the starkness between day and night, also undergoes similar situations where not only are the men behaving condescendingly towards her, but ultimately she comes to realize there is little blur between reality and fantasy. Like Carole, Mary Henry is attractive and also feels that the world is predatory, albeit this is due to an individual man who continues to reappear. Within both films, the women are faced with their primal needs, be it safety, sexualization, or death. Both are thought to be going mad (if not stated then implied), and both go about life with a detached sensibility.
Throughout the film, Roman Polanski never instructs his audience on how they should feel, but rather he focuses on the character, as in how she reacts and how she feels according to what is around her. Much of it is in her mind but knowing this doesn’t make the events any less frightening. Repulsion demonstrates the sensitive perceptions of a troubled woman, as we witness the events unfolding according to her perspective. The film begins and ends with a close-up of her eye—ending with that childhood photograph where she appears distant and off to the side. We’ve been given a glimpse of her mind from the inside.
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More from Jessica Schneider: More Ambition Than Talent (& Knowing It!): Larry Blamire’s “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” (2001), Where Else Is There? Reviewing Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, An Examination of Egos: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957)