Movie Discussion: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965)

  • Monthly Theme: 1960s Mindfuckrepulsionposter
  • The Film: Repulsion
  • Country of origin: U.K.
  • Date of U.K. release: June 1965
  • Date of U.S. release: October 3, 1965
  • Studio: Compton Films
  • Distributer: Royal Films International
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: $300,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Producers: Gene Gutowski, et al.
  • Screenwriters: Roman Polanski & Gerard Brach
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor
  • Make-Up/FX: Seamus Flannery
  • Music: Chico Hamliton
  • Part of a series? Yes. This is the first film in Polanski’s “Apartment trilogy,” followed by 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and 1976’s The Tenant.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. French film star Catherine Deneuve.
  • Awards?: Special Jury Prize & FIPRESCI Prize at the 1965 Berlin International Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “The nightmare world of a virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!!”
  • The Lowdown: I’ve read that Roman Polanski and his collaborator Gérard Brach quickly wrote the screenplay to Repulsion and made the movie only so they could secure funding for the project they really cared about: the 1966 thriller Cul-de-sac. Ironically, Repulsion is considered one of Polanski’s masterworks and a classic of psychological horror, while Cul-de-sac has faded to relative obscurity and is considered a minor film. Repulsion also marks the beginning of Polanski’s thematically-linked “Apartment trilogy” about the alienation and dangers inherent in urban living. The other two films in the trilogy are Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). Repulsion stars French ingenue Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a mentally fragile immigrant girl working at a salon in London. Her sister’s out-of-town trip with a married beau provides the catalyst for Carol’s massive psychotic break and subsequent killing spree.

If you haven’t seen Repulsion our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: This is our first film by a Polish filmmaker, so I expect extra insights from you.

Kristine: Oh boy. Do you need a reminder of my night terror life with Polanski? And, do you remember watching Polanski: Wanted and Desired when it premiered on HBO?

Sean: That documentary sucked.

Kristine: I knooooooow. His actual life story is totally fascinating and endlessly controversial. The doc did not do its material justice.

Sweetie Todd

Sean: I do need you to explain your past with Polanski. I don’t understand it.

Kristine: When I was young (somewhere between ages 9-to-11) I had a reoccurring nightmare about a creepy, horrible little man who stalked and menaced me (similar, umm, to Carole in Repulsion). Then one day I saw a picture of Polanski and totally freaked out because that was the face from my nightmares. Roman Polanski is my personal boogeyman. Now, of course, the explanation must be that I had seen his face somewhere before and it stuck in some dark corner of my brain, but at the moment when I saw the picture I was 100% convinced that he existed only in the dark shadows of dream land. Then, years later, when my parents were stationed in Tunisia, we went to dinner at one of their friends’ houses and the hostess was a beautiful woman who had worked on the set of Pirates (which was partially set in Tunisia). She regaled me with stories of him being a horrible tyrant who slapped around woman crewmembers. That sealed the deal for me.

Sean: I feel like this story implies the existence of a Polish superconsciousness.

Kristine: It’s totally Polish superconsciousness. We were connected from birth by our Polack blood. He courses in my veins.

Sean: This is bizarre.

Kristine: It is bizarre because what is the likeliness that I would end up at a Tunisian dinner party hosted by a woman suffering from Polanski-induced PTSD?

Sean: So when did you see your first Polanski film and did this whole narrative color/impact how you responded to it?

The gloves of condescension

Kristine: The first Polanski film I ever saw was Rosemary’s Baby, but I don’t think I knew it was Polanski. The first Polanski movie I saw with full knowledge was… oh shit, it was… Bitter Moon. I hated it and was deeply upset by it at the time, but I really want to revisit it now. And you?

Sean: I had no understanding or knowledge of Polanski as a figure or person or situation until I was an undergrad and watched Rosemary’s Baby for an honors colloquium on melodrama and horror. I had all ready seen Rosemary’s Baby (and Chinatown, for that matter) as a teen but didn’t even think about the director as a… Oh shit, wait.

Kristine: What?

Sean: Scratch that. I am having a memory.

Kristine: I am waiting. I am excited for your repressed memory.

Sean: My (now severely mentally ill) uncle – who was my childhood favorite before he went crazy – was obsessed with the Manson murders and I remember being like, 10 and him carrying around a copy of Helter Skelter and telling me about the Manson murders and mentioning Polanski’s name and possibly even showing me pictures.

Kristine: Is this the uncle you have fears about turning into?

Sean: Yes, this is the same uncle. I also remember my (also basically mentally ill) father telling me about Sharon Tate’s murder when I was around the same age. I remember him describing the The Fearless Vampire Killers to me and giving me details about Tate being murdered at Polanski’s house while he was away. So I did have a conception of Polanski in my mind, but it was as that guy whose pregnant wife was butchered by a cult….

Kristine: Oh God, Sharon Tate.

Stillborn in the tub-uterus

Sean: And I think that the first time I watched Rosemary’s Baby, when I was probably 13 or 14, the Manson story did cast a pall over watching it, and creeped me out. But that’s it for my knowledge of Polanski as a cultural icon until that college course where we talked about his sex criminal past, etc.

Kristine: Look at this pic of Tate from the set of The Fearless Vampire Killers. She was so so gorgeous. Of all the directors whose work we have watched for the blog, doesn’t Roman Polanski take the cake in having the Most Fucked Up Life Story? In terms of both abuses suffered and bestowed?

Sean: As far as I know or can remember, yes. So did the mythology of the Manson murders impact Polanski’s role as your personal boogeyman?

Kristine: Strangely, not really. Though Tate’s death and crime scene photographs deeply, deeply upset me. I might be totally making this up because I was so traumatized by them, but didn’t the wide publication of those gruesome, horrifying photographs spark a big debate about what the press is allowed to publish as far as crime scenes are concerned? I might be making that up. So far as my impression of Polanski, I think the Manson murders just solidified my belief that the Poles are eternally and deeply unlucky and long-suffering. I totally believe in national traits, particularly for nations with traumatic histories. Do you? Maybe “national psychology” is a better term.

Sean: Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, Polanski’s also a fallen man who is deeply unlucky. I mean that in addition to being extremely unlucky, he’s also a perpetrator. Are the two connected?

Kristine: Yes, they are connected. He has bad, bad mojo.

Sean: Is the story that gets told about Polanski that the Tate murder sent him on the path to pedophilia? Or that he was already a creeper?

Kristine: I don’t believe that it did. Perhaps it made him more fatalistic and thus more reckless, but I think he was already a creeper. It’s a “chicken and egg” argument when it comes to the role of his conscious decisions versus his bad luck, but each feeds the other.

Jehovah’s Witness gets what’s coming

Sean: So considering your early childhood relationship to the idea of Polanski, how did you respond to Repulsion?

Kristine: I found it to be a surprisingly sympathetic and a weirdly knowing-slash-accurate portrait of “A Woman in Trouble” (to reference Inland Empire). Watching this film is what makes me want to revisit Bitter Moon. Did you answer me when I asked if you have seen that?

Sean: I have never seen Bitter Moon. I remember seeing previews for it on grainy VHS rentals back in the day and thinking it looked like the most horrible thing in the world. I hate sex farces. But I would watch it out of curiosity now….

Kristine: It is a situation. Peter Coyote in a pig mask being whipped by Emmanuelle Seigner, who is Polanski’s second wife in real life.

Sean: I am dying that Polanski, a known sex prevert and kiddie fucker, married a woman named “Emmanuelle”.

Kristine: Tell me what you think of the movie.

Sean: I want to say that this is only the second time I’ve ever seen Repulsion and the first time I watched it I hated it.

Kristine: Okay wait. I want to hear all about why you hated it the first time, and also whether, upon reviewing, you agree with my assessment about it’s portrayal of Carole.

repulsion_cracked mind
Turn switch “on” for wall-gash, “off” for no wall-gash

Sean: I was surprised at how riveted I was by the movie this time around. I expected to be rolling my eyes again…

Kristine: I am impressed that you chose it for the blog when you hated it so much.

Sean: I think, more than anything, it’s just a really finely crafted movie. The filmmaking is what impressed me about it this time around more than the story, which I still find a bit trite. The first time I remember finding Repulsion to be mind-numbingly boring and tedious. And I thought the daddy-fucking explanation for her mental disorder was a big eyeroll. But this time, I got way more into it. It’s just so beautiful to look at.

Kristine: Oh, I thought the tedious approach to her existence and her break down was one of the best things.

Sean: I think my initial reaction to the movie says more about me and the kind of viewer I was at that time. Watching it now, I don’t see Repulsion as tedious at all. I find it riveting.

Kristine: I agree with you about the daddy-fucking bit, however. Every time the camera would significantly pan over to that family photograph in slow motion with creepy music blaring, I was kind of rolling my eyes. That is def trite. I ignored that explanation and decided Carole was disturbed because of society at large and a woman’s role in that society, not because of daddy-fucking.

When you just can’t shake the rape-phantoms, try Unisom

Sean: I found that slow pan into the image of Carole as a girl in the final shot to be really unsettling and effective.

Kristine: Oh, I hated ugly child Carole. But I think the casting of Deneuve is… perfection. One of my absolute favorite scenes, in part because she is actually using her body in a forceful way and not just limping about, was when Carole is in the bathroom (and I loved how powerful the bathroom was in the movie, almost playing the role of a character in the story) and she sees her sister’s lover’s undershirt on the floor (because he is an inconsiderate filthy man pig, according to the movie) and she picks it up and huffs it then chucks it across the room and retches. That scene was amazing.

Sean: When she brushes her teeth after kissing Colin and vomits? The vomiting is over the top.

Kristine: Toothbrush vomit realness.

Sean: I don’t know about Catherine Deneuve, though. I am a bit suspicious of Deneuve’s celebrity. She is always lauded by people, but I don’t think I’ve ever really been impressed by her charisma or performance. She is just a pretty face, I think. I adore Belle de Jour also, but in both that and in Repulsion she is mostly affectless and catatonic. I think she’s a blank slate that people project qualities onto that she doesn’t actually possess. I also think she’s a trendy/hipster/aesthete’s movie star.

Kristine: That’s why she is perfectly cast. Because “a blank slate that people project qualities onto” also describes Carole. I love that we both think this movie is a (quasi-, for you) masterpiece, but we disagree on all these points.

Sean: Sure, she’s well cast. I think Deneuve is fine and quite beautiful and delivers a fine performance. But Polanski’s filmmaking is the star of the movie, in my mind.

Kristine: Agreed.

Sean: She doesn’t steal the movie. At all.

Kristine: You know who steals the movie?

Sean: Who?

Ugs Bunny

Kristine: The rabbit.

Sean: I love the rabbit head in the purse. So awesome.

Kristine: Every time Polanski shows the rabbit decaying I shivered with delight and heaved with nausea. I was powerfully reminded of Antichrist with all the “isolated setting where nature takes over and woman goes insane” hooplala. I think Repulsion is the more interesting film, however, in that it shows how an urban setting can be just as terrifying and isolating as a rural one. I loved how fucking menacing Polanski made something as banal as sprouting potatoes, and I thought it was a great way to show the passage of time. You see, Sean, as a fellow Pole, Polanski understands the importance of potato symbolism.

Sean: Totes potatoes.

Kristine: It is our national pride and delight. Did you think of me when you saw those sprouting taters?

Sean: I think of you whenever I encounter a starchy food item.

Kristine: You can go straight to hell, you.

Sean: I loved all of Polanski’s choices – the cracks in the walls, the way the phantom rapes were shot, etc. For as much as I enjoy von Trier’s Antichrist, I agree with you that Repulsion is a more impressive cinematic exercise. But I have a question: this movie opens with close up of a human eye. When we discussed Eyes Without a Face, you said that Christiane is just the “eyes without a face” and therefore not a real protagonist – that she was stuck only looking, like the audience, unable to control the outcome of events. Is Carole in a similar position in Repulsion? I see a lot of parallels to between Franju and Polanski’s movies.

Glory hole accident

Kristine: Oh, there are parallels galore. Both Christiane and Carole are utterly incapable – whether due to external circumstances or internal states – of taking control of their destinies. Both women are defined almost exclusively by their beauty, or their relationship to the idea of beauty. Both women are entombed in these creepy domestic spaces. Both are subject to menacing men. Both are virgins who catatonically zombie around. Yes yes yes.

Sean: Eyes Without a Face is in dialogue with the tropes of classic European fairy tales and so is Repulsion… Michael calls Carole “Cinderella” and says that she should see a doctor. One of Colin’s friends refers to Carole as Little Miss Muffet. Later, Colin breaks the door down (á la the Big Bad Wolf).

Kristine: Yes, yes. What do you think about Polanski’s choice to make every single man in Repulsion… well, repulsive? With the debatable exception of Carole’s “boyfriend,” Colin.

Sean: I think the movie is either about misandry or is itself sort of self-loathingly misandrist. I find it fascinating that Polanski (a sexual deviant and predator) made this movie about how disgusting men are….

Kristine: That is what I was going to add. That Polanski is a creeper, but he is asking us to be sympathetic to this woman. We do not feel camaraderie with the men in this film.

Sean: But my concern is that, in doing so, Polanski actually pathologizes female sexuality. I’m uncomfortable with how Carole is presented as this frigid, inane creature. I really hate when she’s shown wiping invisible dirt off of herself, like a woman in a madhouse. The cracks in the wall = genius. Carole slapping at her own clothes = dumb and kind of sexist.

Are we in the cage or out of the cage?

Kristine: I get that totally and it made me uncomfortable, too. But I don’t have a problem with it because, while we are asked to sympathize with Carole, I don’t think Polanski is trying to frame her as a heroine. I mean, twitchy, frail, neurotic women do exist, sex and misogyny has a lot to do with why they exist. This movie is a portrait of that scenario. When I was noticing all the fairy tale references that you pointed out so well, it occurred to me that I also see Carole as a bit of a “Joan of Arc” character, too, or just a kind of female martyr in general.

Sean: Can you explain?

Kristine: Well, she is unhinged and beset upon by delusions, she feels hunted and assaulted always, but she is not completely delusional because she is actually seen as a potential victim by almost all of the men that she encounters. She tries to warn her sister, Hélène, to make her see how dangerous the world is for her, but Hélène ignores her. And, lastly, Carole’s inability or desire to change her fate seems very old school lady-martyr to me.

Sean: I like that idea a lot. But to push back on it a bit, aren’t Joan of Arc’s visions about her own empowerment? That she is chosen by God to do something and perform acts of heroism? Carole’s visions are about her own victimization and degradation….

Kristine: Haven’t you ever been in a dire emotional/mental state and you begged someone to stay with you and it made them mad/disgusted and they left? You are right that Joan of Arc and Carole are hardly parallels but to me, even though Joan of Arc was very proactive in creating her own narrative, she ultimately passively submitted to her fate much like Carole does. And that seems like a very old, entrenched idea about femininity, that women possess an inherent sort of fatalism about their role in the world. And, yes, Joan of Arc was about empowerment, but she was also a servant to a vision that “came” from a patriarchal God. Joan’s vision was far more powerful than Carole’s, but she is a servant to that vision just as Carole is a servant to her own paranoia and visions of her own victimhood over and over. It’s interesting that Carole actually acts against the real men that try to bed her when she cannot do that with the men that appear in her hallucinations.

Cuticles are gross

Sean: Yes, I do think that the contrast of her passivity dealing with the phantoms and her active/violent role in real life is very interesting… I just want to point out that I find the film’s coda really the most problematic. (1) How Hélène reacts to Carole’s state at the end, paralyzed and weeping while doltish Michael whisks her out of the apartment like a knight errant. And (2) How Carole herself is reduced to nothing but a limp, catatonic body in the end – I get that this in dialogue with the fairy tale conceits that the movie has been employing but…. it is frustrating. At least Christiane in Eyes Without a Face got to stalk off into the woods like a feral twee ghoul.

Kristine: Okay, I have so many things to say. My feelings are also mixed on the ending. I loathe Michael and hated him being the one taking action at the end. I desperately wanted Hélène to suddenly understand Carole, and to snap into action and help her. However, I thought Carole’s reduction to just a body (which was how she was viewed by men all along) was the only conclusion her story could have, and also yes to your fairy tale point. Two things about the ending: Remember all the weirdness about the “touching” of Carole? How the crowd was like, “Don’t touch her!” and then when Michael picked her up and was carrying her, the crowd was whispering how “He shouldn’t be touching her, he has no right.” It was like the crowd suddenly saw the world through Carole’s eyes – that all human contact was some sort of rape, and that her virgin body shouldn’t be tainted by the touch of men (which goes back to Carole’s body violently rejecting men – throwing up after kissing, heaving after smelling Michael’s shirt). And Carole’s reduction to a body is so, so awful since she loathes the body so much. I thought the ending with her as a virtual corpse nicely paralleled the opening, where we see a hand that looks like it is dead… and then Polanski pans out to show that it is the hand of the pampered matron whom Carole is giving a manicure to. The fact that her job requires her to be intimate with the body, which she hates and fears the most, is one of the many indignities visited upon her. Thus the cuticle/scissor-stabbing scene.

Sean: I love that reading of the crowd not wanting Michael to touch Carole in the end. Michael takes it upon himself to mess with her, whereas the crowd is convinced they should wait for professionals (the ambulance). The cuticle stabbing is also the one time Carole acts out violently against a woman, not a man. I thought the general role of the matronly elder women clients in the salon was really fascinating. The juxtaposition between the girls working at the salon, who were these fresh, young things eager for romance,  and life experience of the older, jaded women clients dispensing callous bon mots was fun.

Who’s Afraid of Roman Polanski?

Kristine: Yes. And the only time Carole is happy in the entire movie is with her salon friend, Bridget. But then she does victimize Bridget, too – with the rabbit head.

Sean: We have to talk about Bridget. She’s the most interesting character in the movie to me…. Though I wouldn’t say Bridget is “victimized” by finding the rabbit head in Carole’s purse. I think it’s the opposite – that Bridget, her girl friend and compatriot, is the only person who really glimpses what’s going on with Carole. But remember when Carole finds in Bridget in tears, mascara running down her face. Bridget’s weeping over “Bloody men” and says she could “cut her throat.” She calls men pigs and asks why they are so filthy. She also says things like, “Don’t look so miz” and “That smooth boy.” Then Bridget tells that weird story about a Charlie Chaplin movie – Chaplin wants to eat a shoe, a man wants to eat Chaplin because he thinks Chaplin’s a chicken. Bridget also gets frank advice from one of the elderly female clients at the salon, who says that men are “just like children, they want to be spanked, then given sweets.”

Kristine: I think Bridget is what Carole most desires and fears: a sexualized woman who is used by men. Right? Sean, does this movie qualify as body horror? I kind of think it does even though there are no graphic scenes.

Sean: Yes, I think it is totally body horror (thus, the violent vomiting in response to the body). What’s up with Bridget’s Chaplin story? That story in itself is a kind of body horror tale.

Modern Love

Kristine: I don’t know. That story is all very “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” – some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused. Like, the nature of desire and perception is insane and irrational and that causes problems and strife in the world. Or something like that. Do you have a more cohesive read? And we need to discuss Carole’s nightgown. These crazy ladies forever in their nightgowns.

Sean: I think that the Chaplin story is about class conflict and cannibalism and the consumption of bodies… It’s key that Bridget is laughing (a bit hysterically, I might add) at the thought of these male bodies in conflict with one another, and especially in a conflict that involves desire, consumption and annihilation.

Kristine: Yes. And consumption of bodies = sex. I took note of Bridget’s maniacal laughing as well, and also Carole’s artificial sounding laughter, like she is taking lessons in how to be a person (or more aptly, a woman) from Bridget. I thought Carole’s behavior in the outside world versus the inside of the apartment was interesting. Firstly, whenever she was out in the world, she was always fastidiously dresses and buttoned up, like her clothes were a form of armor. Inside, its all filmy nightgowns and sitting with her legs spread. One would think a neurotic like Carole would not allow a man in the house when she was in her nightie – but in interior spaces she can explore the “other” Carole who desires sex. Do you agree? Are you annoyed by Polanski using an old trope about women and interior spaces? Is the apartment a big vagina?

Sean: Wow. Well this brings me to a point I wanted to make…. For me, the movie’s use of perspective is downright brilliant, and I see Polanski discovering what he is capable of and how he can use perspective to tell a story. I think he went on to really employ these tricks in Rosemary’s Baby, where we are so masterfully forced to inhabit Rosemary’s perspective. But in terms of Repulsion, I am talking about that tracking shot following Carole down the hall until she walks in on Hélène’s boyfriend shaving, shirtless. How Carole continually glances out the window to a church across the way – once in the distance nuns appear to be playing ball. In her apartment, she watches tv with the sound off. The crack around the vent widens. She nibbles at a cracker, the wall behind a family photo splinters and drops like an iceberg. She then realizes a different wall is soft like clay – she can see her handprints in it. Later, Carole wanders the apartment. Suddenly the rooms are enormous. The walls are coated with water. Cracks appear. Male hands spring from the walls to grab her. The ceiling presses down on her like a vice. Just how the environment of the apartment is constantly shown from Carole’s perspective and used to tell us about what’s going on with her psychology…

This is a phone sex ad

Kristine: Yes to all that. I made a note during the movie to ask you about the wall of hands. I feel like we have seen that kind of image in multiple horror movies, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, for one. Is this the first movie you know that deploys it? I kind of love the idea that once Hélène leaves, Carole and the apartment become one entity and it’s cracks are paralleled in her psyche. Thanks for bringing up the cracker. One small but  very effective thing Polanski does with Carole is to underscore her neurosis with food. We only see her eat the cracker and some bread (we see her picking at some similar white bland food at lunch when Colin tries to take her somewhere to eat). She won’t eat with Colin, and she is horrified and disgusted by the rabbit Hélène is cooking. We all know food and sex are connected. It seems like by depriving herself of “lusty” food like game meat and restricting herself to puritanical saltines, she is trying to control her body and urges. Yes? Or am I overreaching?

Sean: Oh I love it. Yes, I agree. But back to the female/interiority question, of the apartment being a big vagina…. I liked it. It didn’t bug me. Colin breaking down the door is a kind of rape. And she beats him to death with a phallic instrument (a candlestick, like she’s in a game of Clue)

Kristine: Yes. I did roll my eyes at her actual kills though. You’ve got to put your back into it when you stab or bludgeon men to death. She was like “meh,” all limp-wristedly flailing the razor at the landlord.

Sean: I actually thought it made her attacks more brutal that she was inept at committing acts of violence. The landlord’s murder is so much more protracted and painful because she isn’t very dextrous with the razor. Rather than expertly slashing his throat, she gives him a million cuts all over his body. Horrible. But speaking of phallic imagery like the candlestick, I want to remind you of this moment: Carole awakens naked on the floor, with a thin sheet thrown over her back. The phone rings. A figure in the hall slides a postcard under the door – it is from Hélène and Michael – “Don’t make too much Dolce Vita while we’re away” Michael has written. On the postcard is the leaning Tower of Pisa.

Movie to Bridget: You’re ugly.

Kristine: I totally didn’t see that as corrupted penis, but you’re right. And remember that sinful, lusty Hélène is the one dying to visit it.

Sean: This is not the first horror movie we’ve watched that figures that if the interior/domestic is feminine, then the telephone is a portal and a mode of violation in that space. Phones are rapey. Remember when Michael’s wife calls and mistakes Carole for Hélène and calls her a whore and a filthy little tart?

Kristine: Ah, you are so right. Remember Freddys’ tongue licking Nancy’s mouth in A Nightmare on Elm Street? And the killer’s rapey crank calls in Black Christmas?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: I love that point. How men can reach into the female domestic space. Phones are rapey. Why do you think I never answer mine?

Sean: The ringing of the phone is a kind of penetration. It breaks the calm, the stillness. This movie actually has lots of phone shenanigans.

There is a gay sex club that looks just like this.

Kristine: You didn’t answer about wall of hands.

Sean: Oh there are some other very iconic moments involving walls of hands in horror movies. We just haven’t gotten to them yet. Actually it’s a trope in fantasy as well. I want you to remember Jennifer Connelly falling down the well of hands in Labyrinth, where the hands make faces in order to speak.

Kristine: Grope grope grope.

Sean: The first instance I can think of for wall hands is actually Jean Cocteau’s 1940s version of Beauty and the Beast. So we’re back in the province of fairy tales. In that movie, hands sprout from the walls to hold candelabras and beckon visitors. The idea of the house as entity, and the hands as some way of the entity reaching out to touch us, is totally gripping and primal.

Kristine: I agree, and in this case the apartment does what Carole is scared/excited for the men in the outside world to do – grope her and possess her.

Sean: I want you to know, through re-watching and then talking about Repulsion with you, I have decided that this film is a masterpiece. Your insights and enthusiasm have convinced me.

Kristine: I am thrilled beyond measure. I am beaming.

Sean: I’d like to talk about the rivalry between the sisters. Remember the scene where Carole chews her hair while she listens to her sister’s orgasm through the walls? Later, Hélène watches a boxing match on tv and goes in to wake Carole from sleep and Hélène confronts Carole about throwing Michael’s things in the trash. There’s lots of sparks between them. What did you make of their relationship and, as someone who grew up with a sister, was it accurate?

French Deliverance

Kristine: I thought it rang true. Hélène’s impatience with Carole being a total freak felt real and relatable. I was a weirdo younger sister and my sister was understandably irritated with me and my need for her attention. Carole acts more like an 8-year-old than a grown woman. She is extremely infantile. Remember the scene where Carole goes into Hélène’s room and holds her sexy, grown-up lady evening gown up to herself and looks in the mirror, imagining herself as an adult, sexual woman like her? I thought Hélène’s attempts to please both her lover and her sister, and her failure to do so, was also shown realistically. Of course, we want more from Hélène, We want her to see how serious Carole’s emotional schism is, but it is understandable that she doesn’t and that she chooses her own needs over her sister’s. What about for you? What did you make of it?

Sean: Well, I wondered if the idea was that both sisters had been molested by the paternal figure in the photo and that they’d just reacted in opposite ways – that Carole went inside herself and became a mute ladygirl and that Hélène became a sexy extrovert.

Kristine: Right, yes.

Sean: This is where I worry about Polanski pathologizing female sexuality. Were we supposed to see Hélène as “loose”?

Kristine: I thought about that, why Polanski felt it was necessary to make her Michael’s mistress instead of just his girlfriend.

Is one sister ever platinum blonde and the other midnight brunette?

Sean: Right. I feel like the movie is asking us to judge Hélène. Like, she’s a fallen woman or something.

Kristine: Maybe it was a choice to get the audience a bit on Carole’s side. Like, no wonder she thinks men are evil and out to harm women, when the relationships she has been to exposed to all are all corrupt. But I am not sure. Hélène, in my mind, is not presented entirely unsympathetically.

Sean: I also thought the movie linked Hélène to male violence by having her watching the boxing match. Remember that when Colin assaults his rapey friends in the pub for talking trash about Carole, one of them says “Hey, don’t be Cassius Clay!”

Kristine: Interesting, I didn’t pick up on that. I do think Hélène is presented as tough and streetwise, to contrast her with Carole.

Sean: But then she was so useless at the end. I was shocked that she didn’t even get down on her hands and knees to see if Carole was breathing or anything… I mean, if you found your sister lying catatonic under a bed would you just stand there looking at her? I thought her reaction to Carole at the end was cold and disgusted, uncaring….

Kristine: Of course, I would totally save my sister. I didn’t think it was cold and disgusted, I just thought it was weak… She was in utter shock realizing that she shouldn’t have left Carole alone, that Carole was really trying to tell her something when she begged her not to leave. I didn’t like that Polanski made her weak at the end and had Michael the cad being the one taking action.

Yeti attack

Sean: True… What did you think about how male camaraderie and male aggression was depicted in the movie? Remember how Colin’s crass friend describes a catfight that left him bloodied, his clothes torn. It was two women fighting over the same man. Then a male driver yells “clumsy bitch!” at Carole when she leaps out of Colin’s car into traffic. Later, Colin goes to a pub – his crass friend asks if she’s still keeping her legs crossed. Virgins just tease men…. When Colin breaks into Carole’s apartment he says “It’s all so sordid,” about their relationship. Earlier, Bridget had promised to tell Carole “all the sordid details” of her breakup with her beau. “The ringing nearly drove me mad,” Colin says of calling her repeatedly. “Poor little girl all by herself, all shaking like a little frightened animal” the landlord says. He is the paternal figure she must confront, and he makes sexual advances on her like her REAL paternal figure – which makes the violence in their confrontation inevitable. She hides a razor (again that Michael was shaving with) under her robe.

Kristine: I think Polanski’s insistence on portraying women as victims of men, and all men as violent aggressors is a harsh and bleak view, but it is compelling. I really like your point that even though Colin is “the good guy” who stands up to his gang-rapist friends, he still forcibly invades Carole’s interior space. And it’s plainly problematic that he is pursuing her in the first place. She shows little interest in him. She has no personality or interests that we are made aware of. She is completely infantile, as we stated earlier. So we are left to believe that he is interested in her either solely because of her physical beauty, or because he desires an infantile virgin to project his desires on. Either choice is icky nasty. I guess my question is – who does Polanski think is the “worse” gender? Men or women? They both get it pretty hard in his movies. Or is he just a misanthrope?

Sean: Right. He may just be a misanthrope. I thought the landlord calling Carole an “animal” totally connected this movie to Antichrist. The idea of woman as the body, man as the intellect is such an old sexist notion. I also thought it was interesting that the landlord sees the rape he is committing as a transaction – he’ll knock money off the rent in exchange for sex. In some ways, I think this casts Hélène as the “whore” who does take the money (ie. the expensive trip to Pisa she allows Michael to bankroll).

Margaret Hamilton?

Kristine: Von Trier had to be directly inspired by Repulsion to make Antichrist, don’t you think?

Sean: I bet von Trier has seen it. But I didn’t see it mentioned in interviews when I did research on Antichrist for our discussion of it.

Kristine: I disagree that a woman with a married lover who lets him take her on a trip is a whore, necessarily. That strikes me as a bit harsh.

Sean: I agree with you, but I think Polanski thinks it does.

Kristine: Did you notice how there were several occurrences in the movie when Carole picks up the phone and people start berating her, thinking she is Hélène (the landlord, her lover’s wife)? I think that Polanski is suggesting that the world sees them as the same – unmarried, working class immigrants who therefore have little to no value and can be bought. I’m sure Hélène’s neighbors and landlord think she is a whore, so her sister must be, too. This relates to the class struggles you mentioned are present in the film with the tension between the girls and the clients in the salon.

Sean: Oh, the old lady neighbor with the dog.

Kristine: Yep.

If you look into the void, the void looks back

Sean: Okay, another topic of interest to me is the movie’s emphasis on sight and the eye. Remember that it opens with a close-up of an eye. There are lots of eyes in the movie – including the eyehole that Carole must look through on her front door. We see both Colin and the rapey landlord framed in that eyepiece. Also, Carole looks at her own reflection a lot  – in the side of the tea kettle, in the bathroom mirror, in the reflective surfaces outside. Bridget also gazes in the mirror, if I remember correctly, when she is crying in the employee changing room. Then, of course, the camera zooms into the haunted expression of a young Carole in the photo, all the way into her pixilated eye. The end. What is the significance of “the eye”? Is it the relationship to seeing and self-regard? Something else?

Kristine: I noticed that as well… I think part of it is how Carole is reduced to her own physicality throughout the movie, and then really reduced to just a body by the end. In other words, she exists as people see her. Colin sees her as a virgin bride, the landlord sees her as a Lolita/whore. She is a blank slate upon which men project what they want to see. But I also think it’s just a symbol for her fractured psyche and humanity. Remember the very beginning when the close-up of Carole’s eye is bisected by the credit “Directed by Roman Polanski”? First of all it’s über-violent that he assaults her eye with his name, but also the fracturing of her eye is really the fracturing of her self (the eyes are the window to the soul and all that). That fracturing is a visual motif throughout the movie – the cracks in the sidewalk that paralyze and transfix her, the cracks in the walls of the apartments. So I guess my answer is that the eye theme is both about the effect of the male gaze and also about how Carole’s “sight” is fractured and warped.

Sean: Awesome. I totally agree. The men playing the banjo and spoons?

Kristine: My take on them is that they are just kind of bit players in Carole’s nightmare. You know when you are in a state and then everything seems ominous as hell? I’m sure she is thinking, I saw them on the street and now they are outside my window, this means something awful. You?

Sean: I thought they were very twee and very French. Totally something from Delicatessen or Amélie or… gag… Micmacs.

repulsion (1)
The Mirror Has Ew Faces

Kristine: But she is in London.

Sean: I know. But that is the flourish of a Francophile Pole director.

Kristine: Ha, you are correct.

Sean: Just very quickly I made a list of items in Carole’s apartment: Edith Piaf records, issues of Marie-Claire, dog figurines on the mantel, a crystal horse, a ticking clock, a spilt knitting basket, the family photo. Was Piaf all ready a trite reference to Frenchness in 1965?

Kristine: We’ve seen this is several movies now – grown woman who are presented as “easy” with these collections of little tchotchkes and figurines (Margot Kidder in Black Christmas, for one) that ties them to their girlhood. I also think in the case of Hélène, they tie to her working class status. It’s all cheap little stuff, reminding us of who has the power in her relationship. What do you make of it all? How would you feel if you made a new female friend you thought was cool and smart and you went to her house and she had a mantle of unicorn figurines and a bed full of teddy bears?

Sean: Were unicorn figurines de rigueur in 1965? A bed full of stuffed animals would lead to me throwing my drink in her face and running out the door.

Kristine: It just annoys me that we can’t have a woman who likes sex just because, not because she is a little, wounded child inside.

Sean: Remember when Frank Zito brought Anna, the lipstick lesbian photographer, a teddy bear in Maniac?

Kristine: Oh God. I would be really mad and upset if any man tried to give me a stuffed animal. So mad. Like, my nightmare is we go to the State Fair, and he is all, “Here, I won it for you in the Ring Toss” or some shit.

Sean: Gross.

Ratings Roundup

The Girls Rating: Masterpiece!

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!

Don't ever give a murder victim his own camcorder...
Don’t ever give a murder victim his own camcorder…

12 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965)

  1. A Polish woman actually calling her kind “Polack”s? We are Poles or Polish. Horrible article.

  2. I’m sorry our discussion offended you. Ethnic identity’s a tricky thing. I’ll let Kristine respond to this if she wants to, but my question would be: Doesn’t she get to decide how to talk about her own ethnic identity?

  3. This film could very well also be titled Attraction or Contempt.

    For a subjective madness film this certainly shows lots of scenes and attitudes from without. That is to say, I think that there is certainly a social message or agenda to the film. It isn’t merely a portrait of individual madness, it certainly is that, and effective as well. But the girl remains a cipher. From the family photo we can gather that she was always distant and unfocused. from the assault fantasies or nightmares we can guess that she might have been raped when younger, otherwise why or how the intensity of the scenes? She is presented as distant from the start, but a(n unwanted) kiss triggers a descent to ultimate madness and catatonia.

    But it is not an accident that she works in a large company devoted to making women attractive to men. Young beautiful women work to help older, less attractive ones (the first scene present a client much as a mummy or corpse in a morgue,) maintain the illusion that they are still attractive, even when they are unable to tell the difference (“Use this color, she’ll never be able to tell the difference.”) The beauty salon is run by a woman (“I was back at work two days after I had my first child.”) and seems to be a hundred percent feminine space.

    Women speak aloud that men are only after one thing, but it certainly doesn’t stop them from exploiting this biological need (we are shown a whole female-run business that does this.) And the way men are presented fully justifies women’s views of them – Men perform unwanted advances, cheat on (obviously with the cooperation of a rogue female,) speak badly of, molest, and ultimately attack women – both men who are killed are invaders of the girls’ apartment. Both sexes are contemptuous of each other and neither sex is presented in a wholesome, positive light.

    Is it any wonder then that a not-wholly-there, unbalanced woman is confused about her own role, or whether she is meant to be attracted of repulsed by the other sex? A very telling scene is when she applies lipstick not too long after an assault fantasy/nightmare. What is lipstick if not a signified of availability? That she is utterly confused is obvious.

    On the whole then I’d say that Polanski’s comment is meant to be a social one, it is criticism of a society where men’s and women’s traditional roles and behaviour are signalers if not triggers of emotional instability, neurosis and even psychosis.

    And how have thing changed since 1965? Things are pretty much as they were then, if not worse.

    The film remains as relevant as ever.

  4. “…Remember the very beginning when the close-up of Carole’s eye is bisected by the credit “Directed by Roman Polanski””

    A very Buñuelian image – good catch!

    Also the male/male kiss was not commented on, but I think it mirrors the vomit kiss.

  5. I bought a new boxspring mattress for my daughter from a company in fort worth, TX well I thought it was new. And my started getting bitten up. I thought it was mosquito bits. Well a couple of months went by and I went into her room about 3 a.m. and I noticed that there was a brown bug on her pillow.

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