I love the word repulsion. A strange word to love I know, but it is capable of evoking such a powerful response that I can’t help but like it. Defined as a feeling of “intense distaste or disgust,” and a “force under the influence of which objects tend to move away from each other, e.g. through having the same magnetic polarity or electric charge,” (defined by Google), repulsion is a word I always react physically to, as if just saying the word reminds me of the time I was last repulsed by something.
So why the hell am I talking about the word Repulsion I hear you ask? Well, because it’s also the title of one of my favorite films.
Repulsion, is a 1965 British psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski, Staring the beautiful Catherine Deveuve and others. Filmed in London and shot in black and white, this was actually Polanski’s first English language film and only his second feature length production. The film is considered to be one of his greatest films, and one of the greatest psychological thrillers ever made, receiving a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and widely considered a masterpiece in horror.
Psychological thrillers are my favorite genre of film, TV and books, yet I feel it is very hard to find a good example of this genre. When I watched Repulsion for the first time a couple of years ago, I absolutely fell in love with it. Catherine Deveuve plays a young, possibly schizophrenic girl named Carol, who is seemingly repulsed by men. Throughout the film we match Carol’s increasingly claustrophobic and uneasy feelings and watch a woman, haunted by her past, inevitably descend into madness.
So what makes this film so brilliant? A number of things…
The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor, who was nominated for a BAFTA, entirely reflects Carol and her mindset. The film starts with her eye, twitching around nervously, as we enter her mind and adopt her perspective, and ends in a similar way through a close up of her eye in a picture of her as a child, as we then leave. The strange and erratic camera movements and close ups feel voyeuristic to me. As we also follow her around town, it almost feels as if Carol is self conscious, aware someone (the audience) is watching her every move. The low-budget they had for this film also adds to the raw and real affect that seems to echo Carol’s mind.
Carol’s character is something I really want to talk about (so you’d better get comfortable!) Naturally because she is the protagonist, but also because I think she is one of the most interesting and strange characters in any film I have ever seen. Catherine, who tends to play quite detached characters like the one she played in Belle De Jour (another favorite of mine), plays Carol perfectly. Her sense of nervousness is contagious, as she bites her nails, twitches and touches her face. From the start, you know something is not quite right with Carol, as she gets caught in a numb sort of day dream at work, and her strong dislike to her sister Helen’s boyfriend leaving his things around the house.
Near the start of the film, Carol says to her sister Helen whilst looking off into the kitchen, “I must get this crack mended.”
I don’t think her sister hears her, and we are not shown if there is actually a crack in the kitchen or not…I’ll talk about this more later.
We also get an idea of how Carol views herself. She doesn’t seem interested in clothes or makeup like her sister is, despite being a manicurist. When she get’s into the apartment where she lives with Helen, she flicks her shoes off straight away and strips down to her slip or underskirt, (kind of like I do everyday, only I change into my pajamas…) and later seems almost taken a-back when she looks at her distorted reflection in a kettle. Perhaps this distorted view is close to how she actually sees herself.
What I think is particularity effective is when we see Carol interacting with her colleague, Bridget, at work. In one scene, Bridget is crying alone downstairs. Carol seems genuinely concerned yet confused to why Bridget is crying over a man. Around her, there is always negative talk of men, and I think this confuses Carol. I think Carol doesn’t understand why any of these women spend their time obsessing over men who clearly do them more bad than good.
Then, in another scene with Bridget where Carol is detached and distant at work, Bridget tries to cheer her up by telling her about a Charlie Chaplin movie she had recently seen. Carol laughs and seems to really enjoy the idea of going to see a movie, until Bridget mentions her boyfriend (the one she was presumably crying about the other day) and once again, Carol shuts off.
Carol is also ambivalent towards the man who is tirelessly perusing her. Colin is shocked and confused at Carol’s reluctance to want to meet him for dinner, and offended by her behavior when she refuses his advances to kiss her. Eventually, he does kiss her, before Carol runs off back into her apartment, wiping her mouth and brushing her teeth, disgusted by the kiss.
I think here Carol was trying to be like the other girls in the film. I think she was trying to be a ‘normal’ woman who is obsessed with men, but clearly her attempts to overcome her repulsion did not work.
From these scenes, we see Carol is not just a one dimensional character. She is kind and concerned for Bridget when she is crying, and she seems to genuinely love being around her sister, although Helen is always around her married boyfriend instead, not giving Carol the attention she desires so much from her. Part of me thinks Helen is possibly asexual, which is the lack of sexual attraction to anyone, yet at the time it would have been a unheard of thing, and still is a rather new concept. Other ideas lead to the possibility that she had been abused by her father when she was younger. In the family portrait they have in their apartment, it shows a young but still distant Carol looking at a man, presumably her father, in a seemingly hateful way.
Lets go back to the cracks. This part in the film I found to be genuinely quite scary, as these cracks appeared throughout the house, accompanied with the loud spasmodic music, scaring poor Carol and me half to death. The cracks to be are probably a reflection of her mind that she is reflecting outwards, and relates to the earlier part where she mentioned she had to fix one, although clearly she never did and that only allowed more ‘cracks’ in.
The apartment is also a key in this film. Part of the so called “Apartment Trilogy” by Polanski, the film takes place mostly inside of the claustrophobic and grimy apartment. The apartment is rarely ever silent, the sound of a ticking clock is constant, the sound of the neighbors dog barking, the group of nun’s across the street playing outside, the sound of someone playing a piano (the same tune over and over…ahh!) and the sound of the phone ringing which is so loud it scared me half to death on a number of occasions. These noises seem to reflect once again, my dear Carol. Her mind is constant, ticking things over, unfortunately having to bare the sound of her sister getting it on with her boyfriend (which was interestingly enough the first ever depiction of the sound of a female orgasm!) I mean if she wasn’t repulsed enough by it all enough, she sure is now.
The dead rabbit is also important throughout the film. Carol takes it out of the fridge after her sister Helen ends up not cooking it, and leaves it to rot in the living room. Carol doesn’t seem bothered by the flies or the inevitable smell of the rotting rabbit. As the rabbit continues to rot, it appears Carol’s mind does too, eventually she stops going to work and her world becomes her disgusting apartment where it seems she is increasingly unable to take care of her self.
There are some very intense and haunting scenes in this film which seem to be part of a dream or a schizophrenic episode. Hands come out from the wall and grab at her, a man breaks in and molests her, and she grows increasing unstable and paranoid.
For me, every man in this film is kind of disgusting. I don’t know whether this is solely because we are seeing it through Carol’s eyes, or maybe I just relate to Carol in a weird kind of way, but they do make my skin crawl. Firstly, they all behave really inappropriately. I mean, Colin, who barely knows Carol, ends up breaking into her house just to confess his love for her. And don’t even get me started about the landlord, that whole scene with him in made my skin crawl, “You look after me and you can forget about the rent.” This whole film just manages to make me feel nauseous.
Finally, Carol ends up killing both the men who enter her house (and invade her psyche), Colin and the landlord. This is particularity unusual because Carol is a female killer who refuses to conform to what everyone else is doing or what is expected for women in the film. It seems at times Carol almost wishes to be a nun, as she stands at the window in her white gown, looking at the carefree nun’s having fun. Carol rejects human sexuality, yet accompanied with her schizophrenic episodes and detached personality, it clearly doesn’t work as well for her as it does for the nuns.
Overall this film is an amazing example of the psychological thriller genre. In fact, with films like Black Swan (another favorite of mine I’ve mentioned many times before…) drawing elements and motifs from the film, I think it’s probably clear this film helped create the genre itself. It’s unforgiving insight into Carols mind brings the viewer paranoia, nausea, feelings of terror and nervousness…exactly what a thriller should do, yet so many fall short. It’s disjointed music, uncanny visual effects and troubled and detached character really make it a masterpiece and truly a visionary piece in film.
So anyway, I hope you’ve been inspired to watch this film if you haven’t already, and if you have, well, I hope you enjoyed my ramble.
Thanks for reading, tell me in the comments some other psychological thrillers that are masters in the genre!
Now excuse me, I’d better go mend that crack…
PS- if you’re having trouble finding this DVD like I was, you can buy the cheaper, uncut version here!