Narrative is immanent in art. One simply cannot extricate it from any art form. One cannot dispose of narrative, only retard it. Often when one reads an essay about or review of a work of art, and the reviewer cannot get the art work, he will claim it has no narrative. If the work of art is bad it will have a narrative, merely a poor one. But a poor narrative is not a lack of narrative. If the work of art is great, and the reviewer does not get it, he will claim it has disposed of narrative. But it will have a narrative, and a great one; but one that pushes the boundaries of what narrative is. Good examples of this can be found in a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Chris Marker’s La Jetee.
Then there are films that are superb examples of classic narrative, peeling back a tale in incremental detail, only to, far too often, be called plotless, merely because the plot is not the Lowest Common Denominator sort that involves over the top sexuality, violence or scenery chewing. One such film that fits this bill is Roman Polanski’s hour and forty-five minute long 1965 black and white film, Repulsion. Narratively speaking it’s as perfect as a film can get. Having known my share of psychotics and psychopaths, I recall being riveted by this film’s fidelity to the psychological realism of the irreality that infects the insane the first time I saw it, over twenty years ago. Compared to a film, like Alfred Hitchcock’s outdated and pseudo-Freudian Psycho, Repulsion has it all over that film- one it’s far too often been compared with, and often in the negative.
The film, Polanski’s first in the English language, follows the life of an insane young blond Belgian woman named Carol LeDoux (Catherine Deneuve), living in a London flat with her brunette sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). From the beginning one can see she is teetering on depression and/or madness. She lives within her own world and has a sick fear of men, one which seems to have been with her since youth, if the photo of her, as a girl, with family members in Brussels, is any indication. Along with the portrait of an even younger female in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, this is one of the two best films that I have ever seen that deals with the aftermath of sexual abuse in women. But, whereas the heroine of the Bresson films merely implodes and does not hurt anyone else, the same is not true for Carol. The early portion of the film shows Carol’s bizarre reactions to the normalities of life- at work as a manicurist, at home- dealing with her sister’s married boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry), and in the rest of her life, where she is sexually pursued by a milquetoasty young man named Colin (John Fraser). All of these folks are relatively normal, which only heightens Carol’s oddities. In the decades since the film came out, it is interesting to read anecdotes about people who ‘went postal,’ to see just how often the person was engaging in such odd behaviors as Carol indulges, only to snap, and have everyone else look back and bemoan why no one ‘saw the sign,’ or some such lament.
When Helen and Michael holiday to the Continent, Carol is left alone in her apartment, and her imagination runs wild. Thrice she indulges in rape fantasies involving a street worker she spies at the beginning of the film. She imagines her apartment walls are cracking, growing and shrinking. She lets a plate with a dead rabbit on it fester, and raw potatoes go black and sprout. She also commits murders of two men. The first is Colin, who breaks down her door, professes his affections, and then goes to shut the front door, to prevent a female neighbor from looking in, only to have Carol bludgeon him to death with a candlestick. Ok, here is a minor flaw in the film- only in films does a single blow or two to the top of the head kill someone, especially if done by a petite woman upon a man much larger than she is. But, accepting that flaw of filmdom, Carol then drags his dead body into her already overflowing bathroom tub, and deposits him (although, again, how she could so easily heave a dead weight like that is just one of those suspension of disbelief things that has to be accepted). A bit later the libidinous landlord (Patrick Wymark) prevails upon her door, demanding payment of the rent, only to become enamored of the nymph in her translucent teddy. He tries to force himself on her, only to have her slice the back of his neck with a straight razor, then hack away at him till he’s dead, too. Now, once the initial shock of the first slash took hold, any male would have flung the smaller woman across the room in a rage, and ran the hell out of the apartment. So, Repulsion is not a perfect film in details, although narratively (in the broader sense) it is.
After the second murder, Carol is lost to fantasy, and an unspecified amount of time passes. When Helen and Michael return from their trip, they find the carnage, and the apartment fills up with the ghoulish neighbors, all eager to gawk at the insane carnage left behind. Carol lies catatonic under some furniture, and Michael picks her up and carries her off, as the authorities come, only to have the camera slowly pan around the room, and find the family photograph seen earlier in the film. A beam of light shines directly on the face of what is likely the young Carol as she gazes far off into the void, away from the direction he relatives are looking at, showing her as ‘different from early on. The camera then irises in on her eye (the exact opposite of the film’s opening shot, where the camera pulls back from the grown Carol’s eye), as the woodwind theme song for Carol plays, and the film ends.
Although the closeup on the photo, at film’s end, reconfirms what the whole film amply demonstrates, that Carol has always been ‘off,’ and that perhaps sexual abuse is the reason why, there are other disturbing things in the film- from Carol’s writing on windows in her apartment, but with her fingers, to the wall of arms that gropes for her, to. Most unnerving of all, because it clearly is NOT seen from inside Carol’s psyche, is the rubbernecking of the neighbors who form a gallery of grotesques. Surely there were signs of what was going on in the apartment? But did any of then report anything? No, like the then contemporaneous case of Kitty Genovese- a murder victim whose neighbors did not report her death screams to police, the neighbors in this film cared little of what was going on until someone else ‘took responsibility.’ Then they indulged their worst tendencies. As much as this film can rightly be called a horror film because of Carol’s insanity, it can equally bear that label because of the way the rest of the society within the film reacts (or, to be accurate) does not react to the horrors Carol unleashes, until too late. Interestingly, despite carol’s film-long repulsion toward men, especially her sister’s boyfriend, in the end, it is only Michael who acts to protect Carol from herself and further harm.
The DVD of the film, put out by The Criterion Collection, after years of subpar releases by smaller companies, is one of their better ones of recent vintage. The single disk contains theatrical trailers, a 22 minute long 1964 television documentary filmed on the set of Repulsion, a making of documentary called A British Horror Film, which has interviews with Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. There is also an insert essay by film scholar Bill Horrigan that occasionally bogs down in film theory nonsense. But the best extra feature in the package is an audio commentary by Polanski and Deneuve, recorded in 1994. One would have to guess that it was made for an earlier laserdisc version of the film, and just appended to this version because Deneuve and Polanski had no further insights to add in the fifteen years since it was recorded. It is interesting to hear Polanski rails against some of the techniques he used in the film because, frankly, they are amongst the best things in the film and why so much of his later work, especially in the last two decades, has never come close to matching the power and greatness of this film. Thus, to hear him call this film, likely the best in huis pantheon, his shabbiest work, is to realize that many, if not most artists- even those capable of greatness, really and truly have no clue as to the things within their art that constitute greatness. They are dart-throwers, at best.
Polanski also discourses on his lucking into getting jazz musician Chico Hamilton to score the film, after his usual musical collaborator from Poland was not allowed to work on the film, due to union rules. He makes several good points about the film, such as Carol’s attraction and repulsion to the more virile Michael, while she feels nothing but repulsion to the less masculine Colin. He also describes how many of the visuals used in the film were made, from building a peephole and door larger than the real ones, to using three different sized photos at the film’s end to achieve the zoom in effect. By contrast, Deneuve has little to offer in the commentary, save for some banalities on how good a director Polanski was. Her tales about life on the set are not particularly illuminating, whereas Polanski ventures his opuinions widely; especially when he manifests some disappointment with deneuve’s subsequent career choices; such as opting for more emotionally frigid characters than he would have expected, especially given her turn in this film. And when we hear Deneuve speak in not so glowing terms about the overall experience, one cannot help but think that Polanski is correct, that Deneuve never sufficiently challenged herself as an actress throughout her career. However, the best revelation made is when Polanski tells of his original screenplay having a third murder in it, in between the two male murders. He originally had Michael’s wife stalking the apartment, then entering and haranguing Carol, mistaking her for her sister, only to discover Colin’s body, thus prompting carol to ‘silence’ her. But, Polanski was talked out of this, and wisely so, for it would have been psychologically wrong on two fronts: 1) it would not have fit in with her repulsion to men and 2) it would have been a rational murder- one committed to cover up the first murder, not out of sheer paranoid insanity and irrationality.
As for the film, shown in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, it has never looked better on DVD. The transfer was likely taken from a very good copy of the film. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor really takes advantage of the shadings that only black and white film can offer. The film’s soundtrack, by Chico Hamilton, is top notch, and never intrudes, and only highlights things already manifested to the viewer. When carol endures her rape fantasies, though, silence reigns, save for the occasional ticking of a clock. But, the best thing about Repulsion is the screenplay by Polanski, Gerard Brach, and David Stone. Save for the minor lapses mentioned above, it’s flat-out great writing, and its characterizational excellence is not only revealed in the ‘shocking’ scenes of violence (even small ones like Carol’s pricking of the fingers of one of her clients), but in even smaller touches- like when a catatonic Carol passes by a horrid auto accident that others are drawn to gawk at. So engrossed in her own little fantasy world, is she, that other real horrors mean little. But they signify observational excellence from the screenwriters.
Perhaps the best observation the film makes is in its choice of title, as I explained in an earlier piece I wrote on the film, in a memoir:
….not only does Repulsion refer to Carol’s feeling toward men, & most other humans generally, but also the audience’s uneasy & growing repulsion to her insane acts. The girl in the family photo demonstrates her repulsion from connecting to anything in this world by simply looking away. What prompted this in her is never explained, & wisely so- often this Freudian approach only manifests Freudian, & other psychological, failures.
The title does not only describe the obvious, Carol’s state of mind, but what the film evokes in its audience; especially given the audience in its initial year of release. One can only imagine how wrong such a film that hewed a more Freudian line would have gone.
But, Repulsion does not make those errors. Its narrative, and a few other qualities, are so near perfect that it is a sure sign that intellectual art inevitably brings emotional pleasure. The reverse, of course, is rarely true. But, Polanski’s film need not worry of such matters. Greatness, in fact, need not worry at all. Would the same could be said for that it frames.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.