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We enter Roman Polanski’s harrowing Repulsion as if in the middle of the story, but it’s actually the beginning of the end. Polanski unceremoniously drops us into a beauty salon where a pampered matron takes to task our heroine, a manicurist who bites her own nails, played by Catherine Deneuve, as insufficiently focused. “Have you fallen asleep?” chides the cosseted client. Giving us no insight into her daydream, Polanski establishes our relationship with this impenetrable girl, whom we will barely get to know even though she’ll be the film’s main focus. Already the opening title sequence has concluded with a close-up of one of Deneuve’s eyes—with the words “Directed by Roman Polanski” ominously slicing straight across like a razor—yet, as we learn, our proximity to her hardly brings a greater understanding of who she is, or why she’ll do the terrible things she ultimately does.
At first, Carol, a francophone Belgian living in London with her older sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), seems a mere blank slate. She simply appears distracted from work, visibly withdrawn, and with a pleasant-enough man in her life, Colin (John Fraser), of whom she’s clearly less enamored than he is of her. It’s not until Helen’s no-nonsense married lover, Michael (Ian Hendry), delivers a verdict on Carol’s manner (“She’s a bit strung up, isn’t she? . . . She should see a doctor”) that we as viewers are encouraged to regard her conspicuously odd affect as shrouding more deeply disturbed depths. (Those seeing the film on its original 1965 theatrical release, however, might already have had a strong disposition as to what was in store, based on the poster art alone, a disturbing graphic of Deneuve’s head multiplied by seven and arrayed on the business edge of an open straight razor, beneath the text, “The nightmare world of a Virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!!”)
In Repulsion, as throughout his career, Polanski preys on the viewer’s acceptance of “face value,” only to cannily undermine it, with his characters treading into hostile territory they, and we, haven’t seen coming. All we see is what Carol appears to be, and progressively we see what she sees. Disavowing the workings of sympathy, Repulsion instead is a painful character study (there is no plot to speak of), and offers only the tiniest gestural attempt at “explaining” Carol. Though her symptoms—excessive attachment to her sister, revulsion toward men and the concomitant rejection of “mature” sexuality, hesitancies about food—can all be found in any given textbook on psychopathological disorders, Polanski refuses to argue her condition in a Freudian key. Averse to embracing psychiatric dictates to explain human behavior, Polanski is more an observer than an analyst, and his face slap to the claims of the therapeutic could not be more blunt.
Polanski’s sole concession to Carol’s past (and his only consoling rationale for those viewers who might need it) is embedded in a framed family snapshot we first see early on, as his camera moves across the apartment’s mantel (which also displays a souvenir statuette of the Manneken Pis, Brussels’s most eccentric tourist attraction). In it, adults and a young Helen are clustered in the foreground, while a blonde young girl stands behind them, alone. The photograph returns at the conclusion, now lying on the floor amid the detritus of Carol’s homicidal destructiveness, and Polanski this time zooms in on the young Carol, capturing her eye in close-up before the image breaks up altogether, a figurative rhyming with the film’s opening. (In a bit of pure serendipity, the child Carol, when we finally see her clearly, looks jarringly like the young Mia Farrow, soon to star in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby .)
Since there is no past, Repulsion is filmmaking strictly in the present tense, as Polanski’s up-close camera invades the dark, cramped spaces Carol inhabits. She quickly transforms the apartment into a quasi tomb by closing the curtains and battening down the hatches, literally. Time is marked by the ticking of a clock rather than by a play of sunlight and darkness. We know days have passed because a skinned rabbit left on a plate in the kitchen becomes ranker and the potatoes on the sink grow extravagantly more grotesque. The walls of the flat crack, hairline at first, then with the force of a thunderbolt. The pathos of Carol’s circumstances notwithstanding, Polanski’s mordant wit is fully on display: the atmosphere in the apartment is sketched with a flair for shock and showmanship that would be fully at home in a classic horror movie like The Old Dark House (1932), a useful reminder that Polanski has always embraced, if only to upend, the pleasures of genre filmmaking.
Polanski’s brilliant audio design is also essential in our experience of Carol’s decline; the overriding acoustic effect is one of invasiveness, of unwelcome sounds overheard, the centerpiece being Helen’s orgasmic aria penetrating the thin walls of Carol’s bedroom, sexuality itself loudly proclaimed. The opening theme of a muffled, steady drumbeat suggests an overture to an execution, and those thumps return, repeatedly and aggressively, as when Carol hastens to wash her face clean from the contagion of an unwanted kiss from a visiting Colin. Bells, too, are classically enlisted to echo the onset of madness—not just those of neighborhood churches but also in such domestic varieties as ringing telephones and doorbells, both alarming indicators of the world outside trying to get in. Throughout, Polanski uses jazz elements, percussive and nerve jangling (original music by Chico Hamilton, orchestrated by Gabor Szabo), which provide a through line to all of his earlier short films, scored by the influential Polish jazz composer Krzysztof Komeda (who died in an accident in 1969, shortly after scoring Rosemary’s Baby).
Repulsion was Polanski’s second feature, after his Oscar-nominated Knife in the Water (1962). Knife, which also found the transgressive in a tried-and-true genre formula (in that case, a suspenseful love triangle), was his first film after graduating from Poland’s Lodz Film School, where for five years he learned virtually everything that could be taught about the production of moving images. Not least of these was the role of the actor—he himself appears in a number of his own shorts, as well as in his classmate Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (1955); and Repulsion’s John Fraser, in his own memoir, credits Polanski as “the best director of actors I have worked with.” Deneuve, for her part, speaking decades later, also found her experience working with Polanski moving and formative: “It’s funny because three of us were French: Roman, who despite being Polish spoke French all the time, [screenwriter] Gérard Brach, and me. We really were the three musketeers . . . Yes, I felt very close to Roman. That’s the film I feel I helped make. The producers were used to producing porn. It was a small-budget film, and for them nothing of great consequence . . . The experience with Roman was very important to me.”
It’s perhaps Deneuve’s presence, as a glacial blonde in distress, that has kept critics noting the film’s Hitchcockian qualities ever since its release, not to mention its Psycho-like central poetic effect of the camera closing in on a woman’s eye. (Writing in 1965, Kenneth Tynan would go so far as to claim that “Repulsion is Psycho turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film, we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims—in Polanski’s, our viewpoint is the killer’s.”) But Repulsion, which has taken its place in the canon of official postwar film masterpieces, recalls more than just Hitchcock. In addition to its more or less inevitable connections to Buñuel—looking backward to Un chien andalou (1929), with its own scandalous eye, and forward to the surreal, Deneuve-starring Belle de jour (1967) and Tristana (1970)—and Cocteau (the magically armed corridor walls tormenting Carol recall his 1946 Beauty and the Beast), Repulsion owes much to Val Lewton’s low-budget style of evoking unease and inquietude through lighting and shadow in such films as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Similarly, Repulsion enthusiastically joins a robust subgenre of films, like John Brahm’s Jack the Ripper tale The Lodger (1944), largely concerned with suspicions of depravity behind the walls of boardinghouses and apartments. (Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant  would soon follow Repulsion’s lead, both of which confirm what Walter Benjamin [no better judge] called “the horror of apartments.”)
Although decades later Polanski would complain that, of all his films, Repulsion “is the shoddiest . . . technically well below the standard I try to achieve,” the film, which won immediate and widespread critical acclaim from mainstream as well as cinephile critics, has proven to be highly influential itself. Its legacy shows in various kinds of contemporary visual art, from narrative, character-driven films, such as Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (1994)—another example of a director getting under the viewer’s skin to convey the unspeakable loneliness of an individual not reconciled to physical reality—to the work of the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, who’s paid Polanski the homage of naming several paintings, some featuring extreme close-ups of body parts, after his films.
It’s noteworthy that Polanski is cited in the work of a contemporary artist like Tuymans, as it reminds us of Polanski the artist first and foremost—not so much Polanski the successful film director, and certainly not Polanski the celebrity—an individual who has endeavored to express a worldview within a framework of popular forms, one that has as its center insights into the nature of vulnerability and dislocation. Those insights abide within Polanski’s aesthetic register, one closely allied to what Georges Bataille was describing in his 1949 essay “The Cruel Practice of Art”: “Art, no doubt, is not restricted to the representation of horror, but its movement puts art without harm at the height of the worst and, reciprocally, the painting of horror reveals the opening onto all possibility. That is why we must linger in the shadows which art acquires in the vicinity of death.” And if I may once more echo Bataille, Polanski brings an exquisitely sustained lyricism to Repulsion’s own, piercing, story of an eye.
Bill Horrigan is director of media arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, for which he has written on numerous visual artists, including Chris Marker, Luc Tuymans, Johan van der Keuken, Phil Collins, Sadie Benning, Mark Dion, Shirin Neshat, Kutlug Ataman, Neil Jordan, and Adi Nes.