A Crack That Needs Mending: Roman Polanski's Repulsion
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a film as much about perspective as it is about paranoia. Indeed, its opening image—an extreme close-up of an eyeball—asserts as much from the very start. It’s an image that recalls Un Chien Andalou as the title and credits slash across the frame. In this sense, the film’s keen focus on perspective is operating on two levels: one, as a peek into the mind of a woman descending into madness, and, two, as an exploration of sexuality as viewed from youth.
Carol Ledoux, a Belgian salon worker living in London with her sister, floats through her daily routine like a machine on autopilot. She’s spacy, remote, and quick to startle; in other words, she’s in her own world. When her sister and her sister’s partner go on vacation, Carol’s isolation in the confines of their flat increasingly warps her vision of reality; she sees spindly arms grasping out at her, visions of strange men and aggressors flash in her periphery, and some fleshy, undulating thing seems to be writhing just behind the drywall.
It would be very simple to dismiss the portrait of paranoia that Polanski has conjured here as mere psychotic horror; a person goes insane while alone in an apartment. But, as in all of Polanski’s films, the intimate—often uncomfortably so—camerawork locks us in close proximity to our central character. Every furrow of Carol’s brow creates a canyon of horror on her face. Every nervy twitch of the head, a dramatic sweep. It’s a trick that not only allows us to empathize by placing us literally a half-step away from our subject, but also one that allows us to observe and inhabit her every emotion. Indeed, the camera seems not only to hang on her every move, but also seems to want to embrace her in a gesture of comfort.
This distinctly realist style creates a perspective that lets us crawl into Carol’s head and inhabit it for its runtime. Where Polanski’s masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby, which he would make three years later, lingers in a lucid space between Rosemary’s psychedelic nightmares and equally horrifying reality, Repulsion denies Carol any such distinction between nightmare and reality; here they are but one in the same. The cracks and bodies and groping arms protruding from the sweaty tenement walls never disappear, even after their respective episodes. Instead, Carol’s nightmares are given permanence. If it is all true to her and we are indeed in the process of slipping inside her head, why should it not seem totally true to the audience as well?
The second perspective that the film toys with is its view of sexuality. Early on in the film, Carol’s older sister and her sister’s partner have sex in the neighboring room. As the sounds of their lovemaking disturb Carol night after night, the pace of her descent into her autopilot stupor quickens. In these scenes, Polanski frames the wide awake Carol first in a tight close-up, then pulls back to reveal the negative space of the room allowing the cacophonous moans from the neighboring room to grow ever louder. To Carol, sexuality is a gnawing horror that taunts her at night and, due to the persistent advances of a friend in the area, a constant threat that bothers her by day. Later, when this friend comes to check on her, he bursts through the door after receiving no answer. It’s a violent and bizarrely aggressive act. But it’s also an abstracted physical replication of the nightmares of sexual assault that have plagued Carol’s nights. Her aloofness and chilled responses to his advances are not met with a respect for her space and autonomy, but rather, persistence and violence; albeit none direct to her person. And, it is no mistake that it is Carol who is the younger, not the older, of the two sisters. Throughout the film, Polanski shows Carol dumping four to five sugar cubes in her tea and, eventually, simply popping a few into her mouth to suck on like a child. It is a subtle touch, but one which helps enrich Polanski’s image of a child in torment.
Perspective is key in horror. It is played with, as in The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, it is shifted, as in Psycho, and it is dissolved, as in Repulsion. Perspective carries the key to empathetic connection with the victim. But, ultimately, it is a tool used to come to grips with the terror that is unfolding on-screen, and, ideally, used to reach the catharsis toward which a horror film builds.