Each month, we will induct a new film into the Panda Collection, our archive of great films that raise challenging questions. This month’s film is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
By Reed Brewer
Repulsion is not Roman Polanski’s best film. In his 1984 memoir, Roman by Polanski, the director admits as much, stating the film is “well below the standard” he sets out to achieve. He describes the film as merely a “means to an end.”
However, I am unwilling to relegate Repulsion to the status of a mediocre stepping stone. It does more than just lay the groundwork for his more polished endeavors of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. We already know that Repulsion previews the predatory style that Polanksi would later perfect. Watching the film to affirm that seems frankly boring and exhausted. Moreover, that blatantly ignores the elephant in the room. To discuss Polanski’s cinematic language without addressing his criminal past is not just an oversight, it’s defiantly dishonest. Repulsion uniquely gives us a platform to litigate both his style and past.
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The plot is simple and ultimately unremarkable—but, just so we are on the same page, here’s a quick rundown: Carol (Catherine Deneuve) is a French-speaking Belgian beauty, who, in an attempt to shun all attraction, boards herself up in her sister’s London flat. While the narrative has its share of twists, a mundane plot analysis risks underselling Polanski’s masterclass ability to unnerve us.
The film’s opening credits play over Carol’s eye in an extreme close up. As the credits scroll, Carol looks sheepishly back and forth, hoping to flag potential threats that might lurk behind us. Throughout, we maintain our focus squarely on her neurosis; whatever threatens her won’t have an effect on us. We are just here to watch, and Carol’s terror is the main event. In an explicit allusion to Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), the words “Directed by Roman Polanski” forebodingly slice across Carol’s eye. Here, Polanski perversely signals that he is the director of Carol’s internal psychosis, as he will orchestrate the threats that fuel her unrelenting paranoia.
I urge resisting the temptation to compare the film to Psycho (1960, Hitchcock), which is a comparison that is often made. Repulsion is far more willing to engage with sexuality and, more specifically, sexual terror than Psycho. Hitchcock conceals Norman’s (Anthony Perkins) sexual repulsion beneath his murderous “Mother” garb. Norman engages with his sexuality both at arm’s length and on his terms. He can lustfully gaze at his victims through a secret, safe peephole at the motel. In Repulsion, Carol has no similar refuge. Sexuality is incessantly thrust upon her; even her apartment proves to be a porous asylum. Her sister’s vocal intercourse pierces through her bedroom walls, haunting her awake.
A comparison with Psycho merely recognizes that both Norman and Carol have sexual aversions. But we already know that. That analysis feels lazy and superficial. It also doesn’t help us parse Polanski’s convoluted role in Carol’s breakdown.
A more apt juxtaposition with Hitchcock—if one is even needed, but hey it’s film so why not—comes between Repulsion and Vertigo (1959). Scottie’s (Jimmy Stewart) lust for Judy/Madeleine (Kim Novak) in Vertigo isn’t that dissimilar from the attraction exhibited by Carol’s wannabe suitor, Colin (John Fraser). Both men are drawn first by beauty and then by intrigue. However, Scottie’s desire to solve a mysterious death drives his obsession with Judy/Madeleine. Colin’s motivation is far less complex; he simply wants to know what could possibly motivate a woman to reject his advances. After all, he is attractive, well-to-do, and charming. What more could Carol want?
Polanski only teases us with a rationale for her repulsion. (You could say the answer comes in the final frame with the family photograph. But any inference is hardly conclusive.) Searching for an explanation is a fool’s errand. All we need to know is that she is Job and he is God. He manipulates her world and watches her squirm.
The lack of a rationale is most apparent in the two rape sequences. In both, a male intruder forces his way into her bedroom. Polanski never labels these sequences as reality or nightmare, but it doesn’t matter as he conflates the two. His intention is to inflict pain. He abandons both the percussive Jazz score and all dialogue, forcing us only to watch her terror. (The silence comes in stark contrast to her sister’s audible orgasms earlier.) We hear just a metronomic tick-tock, mockingly asserting that her horror exists exclusively in the present tense and moment to moment.
Polanski himself is a convicted rapist. Watching Repulsion without considering that is shameful. Watching Repulsion without admitting that Polanski lives in an asylum he never affords Carol is flagrant. Watching Repulsion without recalling that Polanski forced Deneuve to pose for Playboy is heinous. Unlike Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion compels us to scrutinize his directional style in light of his criminal past.