This piece on Repulsion was written, like the Rosemary’s Baby essay, for a Polanski series at the University of Washington in 1986.–Robert Horton
There’s this rabbit, you see, this rabbit that is first mentioned in the opening minutes of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and actually appears in the flesh a few minutes after that. It’s intended as dinner for Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and her sister and her sister’s man, and it’s arranged very nicely on a clean white plate in the fridge: all curled up in the fetal position, looking like some monstrous abortion from a godless time, prehistoric or post-nuclear. (This freakish beatie is surely the uncredited physical prototype for the squalling, rampaging creatures of David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Ridley Scott’s Alien.) We will return to the festering rabbity horror throughout the film, as its putrescence escalates while our heroine goes increasingly insane. The rabbit is her mind, or is in her mind, no doubt; we witness this lapin tartare growing more fetid and disagreeable while her face remains as beautiful and bland as it was in the opening moments of the film, when we see a big close-up of her mask-like, utterly imperturbable face, staring into nothingness.
But then the rabbit is only the most fragrant and memorable part of Carol’s apartment, which itself serves as a picture of Dorian Gray, cracking and shivering and expanding while she remains shy and immaculate. The film is an extended game of point-of-view, during which the everyday flotsam of reality—street musicians, sugar cubes, laughing nuns, stray toothbrushes, tintinnabulating bells, fender benders, and a “poor bunny”—appear warped by a mad perspective.
Polanski forces the issue of point-of-view from the outset. After all, the film begins with the camera seeming to pull out of the pupil of an eye that will turn out to belong to Carol (the credits float across the image like mucus drifting over an eyeball). We’re explicitly locked into Carol’s vision, and the hysterical world she will survey over the next 105 minutes of screentime amounts to an exploration of her disintegrating mind. Polanski doesn’t make us take this on faith, however; he’s scrupulous in establishing her point of view.
Consider, for instance, the remarkable scene just after Carol’s sister leaves to go out to dinner, early in the film. Carole stares into a metal tea kettle, which effectively distorts her image. Polanski goes from that to the peeping-hole in the door, another lens that queers the vision. Then the camera, apparently unattached to Carol, looks about the apartment: at the children’s toys on the table, out the window at the white nuns and black nuns scurrying below, then across the wall to a vaguely Japanese artwork hanging there, to the phonograph and the Edith Piaf record sitting by it, to more trinkets on the mantle, finally to a photograph of a family, dominated by the central presence of a young, angelically blonde girl staring off into space. These shots are an evocative view of Carol’s world: the distorted vision, the seemingly arrested development of a child, the bottled-up repression of the nuns, the irrelevant dislocation of a Japanese print in a South Kensington flat, the unconscious sorrow suggested by Piaf, the extremely spooky look on the little girl’s face of being there but also being…somewhere else.
The cracks in the wall show another form of Polanski’s strict, no-cheating approach to submerging us in Carol’s point of view. The first mention of a crack comes during a conversation with her sister; sis is in the background, Carol is looking toward the camera in the foreground, off to the side, absently. Evidently she’s looking at the wall, because she mutters, very quietly, “We must have this crack mended.” Polanski will do nothing so gauche as to show us the wall—which is, presumably, unblemished—nothing that gives us the high-sign that “It’s all in her mind!” The phrase is simply dropped into the dialogue, but we can see that her sister does not respond to the comment about the crack, and that there probably isn’t one.
Later, after the couple has left to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Carol is alone in the apartment. For the first time, Polanski uses that awful craaaacking sound, and shows us the wall busting its seams. But he does it by the rules: first the sound, as we look at Carol’s face—and then a sharp, second-long cut to a close-up of Carol’s eye—and then the sight of the wall gaping open. Polanski didn’t have to insert that close-up of Carol’s eye—I mean, we’ve got the idea by now, right?—but he is one of the most careful directors alive today, and everything that exists in the frame matters to him. That’s why it’s important that this first visualization of Carol’s cracking psyche follows certain rules. Besides, Polanski is a director fascinated with eyes, as the essential organ for a character’s, or a director’s, vision. He likes making you see things in a way you’ve never seen them before, and he’ll blow out your eyes—figuratively, that is, although sometimes, as in Chinatown, literally—to make you see things his way.
Repulsion is full of details that simmer mysteriously. Polanski makes a close-up of hands peeling potatoes seem vaguely sinister, even if we don’t know yet that the potatoes will grow as deformed as Carol’s thoughts. A glove being pulled from fingers—the fingers of a manicurist—seems oddly resistant. In the end these hand images will climax in the animation of the walls in the apartment. The other weird details—the sucking of sugar, the wrestling on telly, the postcard with the conspicuously off-center Italian tower—accumulate and create a palpable sense of disquietude. The cinema of Roman Polanski is rife with the ordinary being uncanny.
Polanski had the apartment built to differing dimensions, so that in some scenes the living room seems small, in others expansive; and so on with the other spaces inside, especially that horrible hallway. He also uses wide-angle lenses to distort space (a practice that prompted cinematographer Gil Gaylor to mutter, “I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,” as reported in Polanski’s autobiography, Roman). Polanski’s orchestration of these odd elements is brilliant, and communicates as fine a portrait of madness as any on screen. But the apartment is only the most striking of the film’s locales. Polanski charges the other, more banal, avenues too.
The film begins in the beauty salon, which is both sterile and grotesque (its grotesqueries need not be catalogued). The other key locations are the streets of London. At first, these would seem to be beyond the reach of even Polanski’s considerable talents of art direction; those wide-angle lenses aren’t going to do him much good out there. But Polanski’s deviousness is boundless. A crack on the sidewalk can be spellbinding. A car accident is unsettling even when in happens in the background. A simple plate of fish & chips (while no rotting rabbit, mind you) looks static and gross.
And then there are the scenes in which Carol is not even present (and when we say that the film is seen through her point-of-view, that’s not the same as saying that we literally see things through her eyes). The ultra-strange conversation in the pub between Colin and his chums is informed by the same kind of misunderstanding of male-female relations and sexual terror that we see in Carol. And it ends, incongruously, with Colin’s garrulous mate urging him to “Relax, take it easy, enjoy life”—and then planting a kiss directly on Colin’s lips. Colin’s drawing his hand across his mouth echoes Carol’s gesture, when Colin had kissed her.
Even sanity rings with offbeat inflection. The sister’s man seems healthy enough, but his farewell to Carol—”Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do”—is in the realm of the absurd. And his note to her on the postcard, “Don’t make too much Dolce Vita,” is like a terrible, cruel joke. The thought of Carol making anything remotely like la dolce vita is so ridiculous, the note becomes hurtfully pointed, like laughingly telling a quiet person to quit talking so much. Then there’s Carol’s only friend, the girl at the beauty salon, who responds to Carol’s tale of solitude by saying, “That’s enough to drive anyone up the wall!”—a loaded phrase within the design of the movie. She goes on to describe her merriment at seeing a Chaplin picture, and advises Carol to go out and see a movie. This brings the film’s most poignant throwaway moment: Carol says, “I’d love to!”, clearly hoping her friend might invite her out; but the friend doesn’t quite cross that line, the friendly hand is not extended, and Carol goes home alone to play out the final acts of her drama. By the way, the Chaplin film is The Gold Rush, and the scene the friend describes is the one in which Chaplin and his companion, delirious from hunger and cabin fever, go slightly insane, and Charlie appears to be a chicken—another story of cooped-up madness and distorted perspective. Polanski is thorough.
We end with the eye again, with the photograph. We’ve been given no explanation for Carol’s madness; we have seen only its persuasive reality. The clue of the photograph suggests that the sickness has been there for a long time, and is connected with Carol’s daydreaming, her fantasy, her imagination. That may disturb us most of all: that the dreamer’s reaction to civilization is to go insane, or enter an alternate reality. It’s a final tribute to Polanski’s skill that he doesn’t just submit this as an idea, but as a spookily haunting image. That little girl—who could be a young Catherine Deneuve—is a frightening and impenetrable figure because, like the first close-up of Carol, her face, eyes, posture, spirit communicate the presence of absolutely nothing.