Screening Log #56: Repulsion (1965)

Written by Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach, and David Stone
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux, John Fraser and Ian Hendry




Faulkner’s assertion in Requiem for a Nun, that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is so often quoted for the succinctness of the truth it carries. Carbon may steadily experience radioactive decay, and the past may reach into the present through the fingers of architecture and culture, materially insisting on a previous moment, but, as a fact of human experience, history exists only as an extension of consciousness. A past moment is gathered up and subsumed into the present self immediately after it has ended. Stored as a memory, this past is always inflecting the present moment by its presence. The immanence of history, as part and parcel with whatever causality lies behind behaviour, manifests itself in every activity. To state that the past echoes into the present is insufficient; the past directly informs the present as much as the present actively reforms the past. There is a mutual and powerful dialogue between the two.

Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is explicitly interested in the manner that this relationship between past and present plays out. Carole, Catherine Deneuve, is a young Belgian woman living in London with her sister Helen, Yvonne Furneaux. Carole works as an aesthetician in a beauty parlour, administering manicures to the wealthier older women who frequent the shop. Her demeanour detached and distant, her concentration easily distracted, Carole seems to live at a certain remove from the immediate present. Seemingly pursued and accosted to varying degrees of aggressiveness by men whenever she leaves her flat, Carole is particularly suited by a young man, Colin, John Fraser, who doggedly insists on her having dinner with him – and who is himself dogged by his friends in a pub about the progress of his sexual pursuit of her. Yvonne is maintaining a romantic relationship with the married Michael, Ian Hendry, the carnal sounds of which prevent Carole from sleeping soundly. Carole likewise repels from Colin’s romantic advances. After tacitly agreeing to meet him for dinner, she forgets this arrangement after becoming fascinated by a crack in the sidewalk. Colin offers to drive her home and the two sit in his car awkwardly before he attempts to kiss her, which she first spurns and then later accepts, but does not return his kiss, instead looking wide-eyed into the empty space beyond his shoulder, running from the car afterward, disdainfully wiping the kiss from her mouth in the elevator.

It is when Yvonne leaves for Italy with Michael that Carole’s detachment becomes more pronounced and clearly articulated. Her absentness from her immediate life increases and she experiences vivid dreams of sexual assault and rape by a male figure that waits in her bed or breaks through her barricaded door at night. She stops going to work after injuring a client and neglects to answer the telephone or pay the rent that is late. Colin becomes desperate, his calls not being answered, being prodded by his friends, he shows up at Carole’s apartment, demanding that she seem him. The symbolism of him breaking down her front door to gain access to her is as appropriate as it is subtle. This invasion has dire consequences, both for Carole and Colin, and result in Carole’s further recession into herself. Events assume a familiar pattern when the landlord arrives to collect the late rent and egregiously misinterprets Carole’s inert and passive state as one accepting of his sexual advances.

Polanski increasingly aligns the visuals of the film with his protagonist’s viewpoint, utilizing angles and the play between light and shadow to defamiliarize and distort the interior spaces of the apartment. In several instances, it seems as though entirely different rooms have been designed to look like the apartment, their vast open spaces emphasizing the separation Carole feels from her present surroundings, their alienness and strangeness. Reflective surfaces distort images of Carole as she walks through London, or gazes into implements of domestic life and the walls loudly crack and crumble around her, making explicitly, if unsubtly, the manner in which the boundaries dividing her present and past are coming undone. The walls of the apartment also become malleable, clay-like, at one point, and on several occasions sprout groping hands that molest Carole as she moves through the hall. The place in which one most likely should feel safe has itself been corrupted by the events of Carole’s past, preventing her from taking any solace while alone.

Yvonne and Michael return to the apartment – after sending an unfortunately phallic postcard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa – to find Carole catatonic under the bed, the apartment in complete disarray. The closing shot slowly brings into focus a family photo of the girls in which Carole looks not at the camera, but horrified toward an older man in the frame. The trauma insinuated at by the film is made explicit. By employing an actress as naturally gorgeous as Catherine Deneuve to play Carole, Polanski creates an unsettling relationship between the viewer and the men in the film. Certainly the audience admires Carole’s beauty – her hair, especially, looks glorious – but this enjoyment of her appearance can render the viewer complicit in the same tragic “appreciation” of her beauty as the men who invade her private and public spaces. Polanski’s employment of “forced perspective” shots carries the simultaneous effects of at once more fully realizing Carole’s world while inflicting a distortion of perspective that is germane and sympathetic to, even if completely dwarfed by, the unwanted acts forced upon her.

Repulsion is by no means a subtle evocation of both a pervasive and systemic problem in society and its negative effects on the psychology of its victims, but its visceral power to shock the viewer into a new awareness is certainly a larger stake than the grace of craft.

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  1. […] his apartment trilogy – Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant – Roman Polanski interrogates these interruptions of […]

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