A woman leans into a wall, and the wall melts, leaving an impression of her hand. This image, well into the second half of the movie Repulsion, is indelible—disturbing and frightening. It really stays with you. And it’s just the beginning—the story of a woman repulsed and driven crazy by sex, it may be the world’s worst date movie.
Roman Polanski’s first English language film, Repulsion, was first released 50 years ago. He has had a remarkable career, as well as personal scandals and tragedy, with Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant, The Piano, and the recent Venus in Fur confirming his importance as a director.
But in 1965, he was just beginning to make himself known. His first feature, Knife in the Water, had gotten him into trouble with Polish authorities even though, or maybe because it was the first Polish film to get an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Arriving in London, speaking no English, he was seen as exotic and brilliant and managed to quickly become a part of the arts scene.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
What Polanski achieved was not just scary or psychologically convincing—it was art.
It’s hard to recapture the effect this film had on audiences when it was first released. Much like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Repulsion was unlike anything anyone had seen before. A powerfully effective and convincing portrait of someone gradually going crazy.
It opens with a close-up of an eye, unblinking. The credits angle past the eye until the name of Polanski—which cuts across it, an implied violence that reminds us of the surrealist silent classic, Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Then the camera pulls back and we are looking at Carol, Catherine Deneuve, beautiful and impassive. Carol seems distracted, but distressed by the presence of a man in the house—a married man her sister is having an affair with. She lies in bed at night, listening to the sounds of lovemaking in the next room; she is disgusted finding his shaving gear and dirty undershirt in the bathroom, but later stares at the razor and the shirt, attracted as much as she is repelled. Early on we have a sense that there is something not right with her. She is very literal, shows no sense of humor, and seems to have no appetite. These are symptoms of mental illness—often seen in schizophrenia. She notices a crack in the wall of the apartment--which Polanski cleverly doesn’t show us. At least not at first.
She seems distracted, stares at cracks in the sidewalk and is often oblivious to what is happening around her. As she walks home there is a minor car accident in the road—she doesn’t notice. And she doesn’t get that a young man, Colin, is interested in dating her. When he hesitantly kisses her, she panics, bolts out of the car into traffic, and once home scrubs her mouth clean.
When her sister leaves her alone and goes off with her lover on vacation, Carol begins to deteriorate. The first part of the film is quiet, and we watch Carol from the outside. There are moments of unease—the repetitive pianos scales from another apartment, the interval bells from the convent nearby, the ticking of a clock. But after her sister leaves, the end of Act One of the film, things change. We begin to see the world as Carol sees it.
When wandering the apartment she opens her sister’s armoire and suddenly she sees a man in the mirror. No one is there. This startles her (and will scare most of us in the audience). She starts a bath, and then seems to lose time staring at the lover’s undershirt—when she “comes to” the bath is overflowing. In bed, she hears a man outside the door, and suddenly turns to find him in her bed. The sexual encounter happens silently, until the shrill of an alarm interrupts— no one is there.
Suddenly thunderous cracks appear in the walls, and the hallucinations become more vivid. When Colin, worried about her, breaks into the apartment, she clubs him to death and drags his body into the water-filled bathtub. And when the landlord clumsily tries to seduce her, he is violently slashed with a razor. It is then that the apartment begins to change. The rooms become larger, the hallway longer; when she touches the walls they become soft, and then hands reach out and grab her breasts and belly. The silent rapes continue and then the ceiling seems to close in on her.
We have been not just watching her become more and more psychotic—we actually experience it as she does. The obsessive preoccupations with the man’s razor and his undershirt, the imagined rapes, the transformation of the apartment into a living thing, a sexualized space that both comforts her and attacks her, her withdrawn disconnected look and disheveled appearance, her child-like repetitions of comforting routines like knitting, ironing, and writing invisibly on glass. All these behaviors point to a profound psychotic decompensation. Not to mention her murderous outbursts.
When her sister returns home and finds the dead bodies, her screams sound sexual. The boyfriend finds Carol catatonic under the bed and carries her outside. The camera surveys the apartment and settles on a photograph we have seen before: of Carol as a young girl with her family—but separate, and staring. We move into a close-up of her eye. What is she staring at—her father? When the film was made there was little recognition of the trauma of sexual abuse in a family. Today, we may well read her scowled attention to her father as an accusation.
But perhaps not. It’s doubtful that Polanski had this in mind when he wrote the movie. Maybe we are just to understand that there had always been something a little “off” about Carol. This is a better way of understanding Carols’ illness since it is no longer believed that childhood trauma can cause schizophrenia, or any other psychotic illness. But that she may well have been troubled even as a child—that fits.
This is a quietly unsettling movie. With several moments that shock and images that stay with you. The first time Carol puts her hand on the wall and it softens to show her handprint, is really creepy. The distortions of the apartment space and the shock of the hands grabbing her in the hallway are the stuff of nightmare. And both murders are profound in their violence, even though the actual blows happen unseen just out of frame. Much like the shower scene in Psycho, which actually never shows knife entering flesh, though we hear the slashes, the thudding sound of the heavy candlestick hitting Colin’s skull tells us all we need to know.
In the university course I teach, called Madness at the Movies, I use film to convey the experience of mental illness. Repulsion is the best film I’ve found to show the deterioration into psychosis and the experience of both auditory and visual hallucinations. Of course, most people with psychosis are not violent—this is after all meant to be a horror film—but the brilliance of the portrayal of Carol before she completely falls apart, and as it happens, is remarkably convincing. This is a film that, 50 years on, holds up remarkably well. As a shocker, as art, and also as a perceptive psychological study of a vulnerable young woman.