Roman Polanski’s first English-language film opens with a close-up of a woman’s eye, which looks everywhere but does not seem to see anything. When the credits are over we see that the eye belongs to Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a young Belgian woman who’s working at a London beauty spa. It’s soon clear that this fugue-like state we find Carol in is not that unusual. In fact, underneath her beauty and her placid nature, Carol has some very serious disturbance going on.
Primarily, Carol’s issues stem from men, and her reaction to them. She resents it when her sister’s married lover leaves his toothbrush in the girls’ apartment; at night the couple’s noisy lovemaking keeps Carol awake. And while Carol ostensibly has a boyfriend, or at least a suitor, she doesn’t seem to like him much. In fact, when he kisses her she flees and runs into her apartment to rinse out her mouth. Up to now Carol’s madness has been overlooked – or denied – by those around her. But when her sister and boyfriend leave on a vacation and Carol’s left alone in her drab apartment, her madness spirals out of control, with fatal consequences.
Without a doubt, Repulsion isn’t as startling as it no doubt was back in 1965. Yet it’s still remarkably effective, and its influence can still be felt today (primarily in the work of David Lynch – watch Lynch’s use of texture and sound, and the way he can make an ordinary room look terrifying, and you can’t doubt that Repulsion must have made an impact on Lynch). Polanski uses the limited effects technology and what appears to be a minimal budget to his advantage: at one point Carol touches the wall in her apartment and leaves a handprint, as if the wall had turned to soft clay. It’s so simple, and yet impressive on both a visual level and a tactile one. And while most horror movies ask the audience to identify with the victims, in Repulsion, moments like the soft walls ask the viewer to identify with Carol and her insanity.
Polanski makes effective use of sound as well. There’s very little music throughout the film. For much of the time, the only sounds are those of Carol’s apartment – the distant sound of other tenants, the flies buzzing around spoiling food (and corpses). There are scares from the loud sounds of the cracks that appear without warning in the walls, but more disturbing is the dead silence that accompanies Carol’s hallucinations that men are coming into the apartment and raping her.
Repulsion’s story is, like its visuals, deceptively simple. Polanski’s screenplay provides just enough detail to generate questions that linger about the nature of Carol’s madness. One hallmark of good fiction is that the reader wonders about the characters – usually, what happened to them after the story ended. That’s not the case in Repulsion, but what the viewer may wonder about is what happened to bring Carol to this state.
The movie drops hints but never outright says what the origin of Carol’s madness is. A photograph, present throughout the film but never shown in close-up until the end, may hold the key. But even that leaves much for the viewer to ponder. There are signs throughout that Carol’s troubles are rooted to childhood trauma: when intruders real or imaginary come after her, she hides under blankets or under the bed; when her madness leads to murder she conceals the bodies – one in a full bathtub, one under a tipped-over sofa – clumsily, the way a child would. Other unanswered questions abound: where are Carol’s parents or family aside from her sister, and why does Carol’s sister react with such vehemence to her boyfriend’s suggestion that Carol see a psychiatrist? No one sees signs of Carol’s trouble until it’s too late; ironically, the one person who gets even a hint of her feelings is her would-be suitor, who reacts to a drunken male friend’s teasing kiss the way Carol reacted to his own kiss. But he never makes the connection.
Criteron’s DVD is a bit pricey but worth it for the picture alone, which hasn’t looked this good in years. Moreover, the disc makes it clear how Polanski’s use of both sound and silence portrays Carol’s state of mind. Extras include commentary by Polanski and Deneuve – though recorded separately, they both give plenty of insight into the production. Also included are documentaries, trailers, and a visual essay about the film.
If you want to see how repressed trauma, denial, and isolation add up to a tale of ordinary madness, watch Repulsion.