Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: Repulsion (1965) Review

*Warning: discussion of sexual assault and trauma ahead*

*Spoilers ahead*

Roman Polanski is a filmmaker difficult to write about for obvious reasons. Some may refuse to engage with the work directed by him, and it was an easy decision for me to review this film. For me, this review is very personal. I did not intend to write on Repulsion until after I reflected on my own experiences. I sat contemplating the film and if it would be better not to speak on it because of the disgrace of the director. In my reflection, I concluded that I am compelled to speak on it. Some may not agree, but I was struck with how the material unfolds. I was struck by how the film portrays the horrors of the psyche in Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and the apartment she inhabits with her sister. Additionally, I saw the immigrant experience also come into play in Repulsion through Carol and her sister, which only compelled me to speak further. As with the execution, I appreciate the film’s ability to communicate and navigate difficult subject matter and taboo through the horror-thriller genre. The haunting depictions of our main character’s trauma shocked me to my core, which I only ever felt when viewing Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), another psychological horror film. When looking at both of these films, I saw deterioration and gradual decline, which I felt was an essential component to accurately portraying this subject matter. In Possession, Zulawski explores the deterioration of a marriage, while Repulsion shows the deterioration of a woman’s sanity from what we can interpret stems from trauma and abuse.

Another aspect that I believe was strong is that both of these films end ambiguously concluding with death or suicide. Considering the subject matter, I say that the execution was done well. The slow deterioration in both films feels true to life; at least, as I watched, I felt that something more gradual is often how these types of illnesses reveal themselves. Some may argue that the depiction of mental illness is too stylized to produce entertainment value, which I can understand. Based on these genres, specifically horror, there is some sense shedding light on taboos. From what I have heard and experienced, I think the depiction is rather accurate. Interestingly, mental health professionals, during the time of release, thought so too. In the documentary, A British Horror Film, which goes into the making of and interviews with cast and crew, Polanski recalls a moment where a psychiatrist asked him what the filmmakers researched for this portrayal. Polanski responded that they had not researched anything, which makes us wonder if this was experience-based or all made-up. Furthermore, I like how the film does not give us a straightforward explanation of the ending scene. I took the ambiguous ending of Repulsion as meant for us to sit down and have a conversation. One speculates the ending— if Carol was suffering from trauma and was abused growing up. The end “reveal”  through circularity was shocking. In the opening scene, we zoom out of Carol’s eye as she tends to a client as a manicurist in a salon completely operated and owned by women. In the final scene, the camera zooms into the eye of young Carol in a photograph. We end inverse to the beginning— with a zoom into her eye. Catherine Deneuve as Carol

Interestingly, the photograph was shown in earlier scenes, but a sharp shadow obscures the family in the ending shot. It seems likely that there was some sort of sexual abuse, but that is not definitive. Since the filmmakers chose to include this sequence, they seem to be pointing us toward her childhood as a possible explanation. Although Greta Molton, in her article on Repulsion, saw the ending as “disappointingly phoned-in, an attempt to explain her character and cobble together an excuse for her actions,” I do think this ending is successful at generating a conversation about mental illness and trauma. I saw the ending as a way to reaffirm the fact that Carol, who murders multiple people, did not do this out of simple isolation and repulsion towards men. The ending reveals more about our main character, although it leaves it open to interpretation. I saw it as a point towards the enigmatic psyche of the perpetrator of the crime. Some may condemn Carol’s actions, but there is more to her story than what she did in that apartment. In her article, Greta Molton gives important detail about her experiences with Polanski’s work. She explains her reluctance when approaching it and how many of Polanski’s films examine the female perspective (even The Tenant). For the remainder of this review, I will be exploring a few other factors that I believe make this a stand-out horror film. 

The acting, specifically Catherine Deneuve’s, is fantastic. I found her without fault. For me, this was a role she perfectly portrayed— from her timid exterior to her inner turmoil in the apartment. I found it all so believable. When she spoke to a coworker about never being able to love, I was so emotionally devastated that I had to pause before moving on. The other performers were also good, but there were moments— mainly the ending discovery of the bodies by the other tenants—that felt a bit strange. Perhaps that was the intent of the direction. It could have meant to simulate how far removed the general public is from the actual events. If this is the case, I find that to be an interesting thought, considering Rosemary’s Baby would also play with this idea four years later. I am unsure if it effectively led to the final resolution, even though I did appreciate how the bystanders, simulating the bystander effect, did not go down and help Carol. The landlord’s slaying (Patrick Wykmark) via the straight razor left by her sister’s boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) in the apartment was a climactic moment in Deneuve’s performance. Her raw emotion and anger built up from the childhood trauma resonates powerfully in that scene. Her almost hypnotic slashing was well shot and hauntingly acted. 

The landlord, who preys on her and offers the room’s rent paid in exchange for “favors,” is a figure of authority who is slain in a fashion that mirrors the other predatory men in her life. The barroom scene is a perfect example of this; Colin (John Fraser) is the traditional “boyfriend” to be, but his friends are incredibly toxic about the whole situation. Instead of finding his true love, Colin’s relentless pursuit of Carol ends with his death. His character, and his quest for love, are concluded in a POV shot through a peephole. Colin is shockingly bludgeoned to death by Carol’s candlestick after he shuts the door on a departing neighbor walking their dog. This neighbor could have been his witness. His character portrayal was effective in the situation, since he acts as the “knight in shining armor” who is slain by who he believes is a damsel in distress. I found his acting to be done well, particularly in his final scenes. For Carol’s sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), I felt she did a great job. Her shock at the ending reveal felt very real, and I believe she performed as the more confident older sister well. 

For cinematic technique, I appreciated the choice of black and white, and how realistic the apartment looked. The expressionistic lighting also adds to the fracturing of her psyche, similar to the literal cracking sidewalk. The same documentary, A British Horror Film, also mentioned that Seamus Flannery (the film’s art director), and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, actually went to photograph flats in South Kensington to make the film look more realistic. Even if this film has nightmarish and stylistic moments, the attention to detail and verisimilitude is fantastic. Little details, like cracks on the sidewalk, foreshadow Carol’s descent and isolation in the apartment. Many of the quick-paced cuts during the murder sequences left me speechless. But the ordinary can also be as horrific. When Carol mistakenly pulled a nail at the salon, I jumped. The prevalent close-ups of Carol’s face were also quite prevalent connecting us with her psyche. These close-ups allow us to inhabit her as the film becomes more and more unordinary, moving towards a nightmare. The scene of the many hands coming out of the wall and touching Carol is one that transcends any rational experience. It represents much of the trauma following her and is one of the most memorable moments. The scenes of the apartment cracking and propelling itself with loud creaking noises, as if done by hydraulics, are moments that leave quite the impression. An impression of shock and intrigue that make us question our faculties. The sound, especially the clock ticking and water dripping, isolates us in the present. We hear this gradual progression to the murders through the isolated sounds that may feel more present as they go through an episode of mental anguish and turmoil. Flies buzzing near the dead rabbit also remind us of the decay and death left out, completely against the normality of a typical apartment. My favorite moment in the downward spiral was the tilt down revealing to the audience that the iron Carol is using is unplugged. This tilt is a perfect example of how shock can come from playing with a very ordinary task. 

Repulsion depicts some of the worst aspects of mental illness. Argue that it is stylized or not; it hits to the core of what horror film, and art, can do. From the scene of the many hands coming out of the wall to the apartment cracking and propelling itself— it all depicts Carol’s move towards psychological breakdown. The horrific scenes of rape are truly shocking, even if they are all in Carol’s mind. As a horror film, it taps at some of the most difficult subjects in life. The trauma that so many young women, and men, face from their experiences of childhood trauma. I have felt similarly to Carol in social isolation, but never could I begin to imagine the horrors of the past that these filmmakers left to our speculation. Allowing us to inhabit the world of a woman who is relentlessly leered at by men, even from the opening, is a film that gives us a critical perspective. Although I might be reading too far into it, I do think this film is a conversation starter for difficult subject matter. I often feel reluctant to approach such controversial filmmakers on the Cinematic Syntax. Still, for some reason, I felt compelled to examine and review this one. I believe that it is important to understand the groundbreaking works of cinema, and I think Repulsion is one that qualifies as that.

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.

Christian’s Bio:

Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.

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