Screenplay by Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Freser, and Patrick Wymark
Cinematography by Gilbert Taylor
Repulsion begins and ends with an extreme closeup on Carol’s eye, and in many ways the film is designed to reflect her subjective vision. On the one hand, Catherine Deneuve occupies the screen for nearly the entire duration, frequently alone in a scene; we cannot help but identify ourselves with such a permeating presence. Moreover, the story accords her character the most complexity by far, even as her blank stares and mutterings render her impermeable to the other characters on screen. Perhaps the character who understands her the most is the one to whom she is least willing to reveal herself; her sister’s boyfriend says early on that Carol should “see a doctor.” At that point, there is little to justify this diagnosis; Carol simply abhors a man whose screen presence is grating and obnoxious even to the audience.
The film lulls the audience into complacency, almost boredom, as Carol goes about her mildly neurotic existence. The event that finally challenges the illusion of normalcy is entirely subjective. The film delves suddenly into Carol’s dreams and hallucinations, in which cracks in the apartment attack her and hands creep out of the wall to grope her. The expressionist lighting and sound design is almost entirely motivated by Carol’s internal experience.
When she imagines that a man enters the bedroom to rape her, he opens the door, removes a bookcase barricading it shut, yells, and struggles with her. Carol even screams in terror, but the only sound we hear is the ticking of the clock and the thunderous rustling of sheets. The screams, the scrapes, the bangs, are all muted by a blanket of delirium. The final nightmare sequence in which the entire hallway is filled with grasping hands employs the ultimate expressionist camera motion, Hitchcock’s dolly zoom, further identifying our own experience with Carol’s distorted perceptions. The film is edited so that we experience Carol’s distorted perception of time; she turns on the bathtub faucet, leaves the room, and comes back moments later to find it suddenly flooded.
On the other hand, Polanski employs an extremely wide angle lens in his closeup handheld shots of Carol as she walks her daily commute to work. The technique is magnificently unsettling (David Lynch used it similarly in INLAND EMPIRE), because it seemingly identifies our gaze with some other pedestrian – a stalker, perhaps. Yet these stalker shots are never revealed to be from anyone’s point of view but ours. The only character who might logically be privy to this point of view is Carol’s male “suitor”. He, however, is explicitly restricted from our point of view, as he is consistently revealed in a window behind Carol as we follow her down the street. That pattern is established the first two times we encounter him, and although they have some face to face interactions in other contexts, the next time the camera follows Carol he is once again revealed behind the glass window of a phone booth. In any case, the wide angle handheld shot, which appears to be from some anonymous POV that is not merely “the camera”, somehow places us outside of Carol’s subjectivity and implicates us among her voyeuristic assailants. When Polanski finally associates the gaze of the handheld POV shot with the gaze of Carol’s suitor, the viewer sees Carol looming above with a candle stick, beating him to death. The violence is barely seen; we are left only to experience the terror of the man who inhabits our same point of view.
What makes Repulsion a signature Polanski film is that the horror and the humor are inextricable. The visual metaphor of the suitor in the window is overt enough to be somewhat camp: he can look but he can’t touch. Other visual metaphors are even more obvious, and they cross into the territory outright humorous innuendo (his toothbrush in her glass, the cracks, the raw meat in her purse, etc.) Overall, the humor here is tamer than in Polanski’s other work (especially The Tenant). The only laugh-out-loud moment occurs at the end, when the neighbors discover Carol lying unconscious among two dead bodies and a chaotic mess of toppled furniture and rabbit meat. The dramatic irony is so palpable here that it becomes positively gleeful; we relish in their perplexity at events which only we have been privy to. Moreover, the old man repeatedly assures, “I’ll go fetch some brandy” as though it will entirely solve everyone’s problems. The exaggerated foreign accent only adds to the humor.
Yet the best part of this film, and a major strength in all of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” films, is the sparse use of dialogue and the personification of the apartment itself. The sound design heightens diegetic ambient noises such as airplanes, cars, and piano scales, giving the apartment a unique sonic fingerprint. Deneuve’s performance elevates simple actions such as trying on her sister’s dress to a level of unbearable intensity. We feel her terror and understand her psyche because, for the most part, we share her point of view in the film. Ultimately, though, she remains as impenetrable to us as she is to men. We never know what she might do next.