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I have always been astonished at the ease with which Polanski could create the feeling of paranoia. There is no specific way to effectively represent paranoia on-screen. It is a very private and quiet emotion. It is not something that is usually shared with an audience. It is not achieved with startling or shocking moments. It is something that requires several subtle layers of detail and restraint. Repulsion may be the most perfect example. The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby (the others in Polanski’s “apartment trilogy”) both effectively re-create the tone (as do his other films), but what makes Repulsion stand out the most for me is that there seems to be no specific reason for Carol’s unraveling. It’s clear she is suffering some sort of mental problem, but there is no explanation or evidence for why. In fact, it is implied that she has just always been this way. The ambiguity is crippling for an audience and creates a bond between Carol’s skewed perspective and the experience of watching the film.
I think the scene that stands out most is the first time Carol is left alone by her sister. The shot starts with her in the kitchen. The room is dark, and she sits silently slumped over, until she becomes transfixed by her distorted reflection in the teapot. The way in which she inquisitively stares and moves her face around is our first glimpse at how unstable and childish her mind may be. Up until this point, she seemed like just a shy young girl living in London. We hardly imagined her to be anything more than awkward . . .
She is soon interrupted by the sound of a neighbor in the hallway; she goes to the front door to investigate, and Polanski presents what she sees to us through a lifelike peephole POV. There is nothing sinister at work here. The woman is simply taking her dog inside, yet an unsettling paranoia begins. Carol aimlessly drifts through the apartment as the incessant ticking of the clock makes the otherwise silent atmosphere practically unbearable. The antique figurines stare silently, and the nuns at the convent next door disappear inside. The tension builds until Carol arrives at the record player. The implication that the quietness of the scene will end is almost cause for elation for the audience. But the moment never arrives. Carol isn’t interested in music.
The final bit of the scene is the most unsettling. The camera slowly pushes in on an idyllic family photo from Carol’s youth. Her parents and sister have all posed for the photo, while a young Carol stands in the background, staring blankly off into the distance. Whatever this feeling she has in the apartment . . . the one we are now sharing with her . . . has always been there . . . and it isn’t going away.
This scene is masterful in its simplicity. The rest of the film is a psychological downward spiral. But not often do we get a scene that maps out this kind of descent so distinctly. Subtlety in filmmaking is a rarity. Few directors have the confidence to present it. Polanski is the master.
Ti West is the writer and director of 2009’s The House of the Devil, among other critically acclaimed films. His latest, The Innkeepers, will be released in early 2012.