In late September of 2018, famed director Roman Polanski announced his new film, slated for release next year, would center around the Dreyfus affair in France. Personally, I never learned it in high school but from what basic research I did do, it centers on the theme of truth being exposed. Historical drama? An established director at the helm? Powerful themes of truth and justice? Sounds like an easy contender for the Oscars. At least, it could be if it wasn’t for the director in question.
Polanski’s reputation as a respectable filmmaker has always been tarnished since being arrested in 1977 for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old and indicted for rape. The fact that the legal case is still going on for a case that’s over forty years old does nothing to help. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, more allegations have come forward against Polanski to the point where he was removed from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I bring all of this up because the film in question for this article, Repulsion, has some very telling images about women and assault. Also, another reason this is published in October is because the trope of mental illness is scary is a damaging one and one that crops up every single year with asylum-themed attractions and a bevy of horror films that include or place mental illness front and center, much to the detriment of those that deal with them.
Released five years after the world watched the shocking events of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Repulsion tells the story of Carol, a disturbed woman left to take care of her sister’s apartment and the horrors that may or may not exist. Framed as a psychological horror film, there are indeed some genuine scares once the sister leaves the picture but it’s really more of a character study of what happens when mental illness is left unchecked.
Ominous drums fill the air as the titles glide across Carol’s eye like a razor blade, evoking the iconic ultraviolent image from Un Chien Andalou and some of Saul Bass’ iconic work for the Vertigo title sequence (Saul would later return to the idea of the distorted body for the John Frankenheimer film Seconds the following year). At first, we see Carol at her job as a manicurist lost in thought. She leaves and gets catcalled by a construction worker on the way to meet her lover, Colin. As she goes home to her sister Helen, it’s clear that Helen is the one in charge. She’s the one that pays the rent, prepares the food, and does the rest of the domestic chores while Carol merely exists there. Helen has her own partner and frequently uses that at every chance she can as Carol tries to block out the sounds of their lovemaking in the neighboring room.
Speaking of sounds, the camera allows us to experience the various sights and sounds that fill the apartment, allowing us to get a feel for the place since we will spend a good portion of the film in there; think Rope but not tied down to the single takes that make it so notable. There’s a nunnery off in the distance with tolling bells; the ticking of the small clock upon the mantlepiece; a family picture with detached Carol in the background. There are some potatoes and a fresh rabbit in the fridge. Carol remarks about a crack in the wall that needs fixed. All of these things will reveal themselves in different forms as time goes on.
At the salon, Carol manages to display some empathy when her friend Bridget is found in the basement, upset about her latest messy dealings with a man. Seeing Carol prick up her ears and show some interest demonstrates an innate part of her repulsion towards men and sex, leading to a common theory that will be discussed later.
As Carol wanders through the streets and seeing a crack on the pavement, a man proceeds to do a racist Chinese stereotype with a guy that can be best described as a British Woody Allen as they enter a pub. Colin happens to be at the pub as well and when the two blokes try and get some juicy details from him without success, one of them remarks that he’d be better off trying Carol’s sister instead. He leaves in a huff because, let’s face it, that was a rather callous remark. After tracking down Carol staring at the sidewalk crack, they leave to get in his car; this gives us one of the few humorous moments of the film where street musicians jauntily strum a tune while crossing traffic. A failed kiss between Carol and Colin leaves her disgusted, rushing home to wipe away the affection from her lips, brushing her teeth, and tossing a glass in the trash.
Before Helen leaves with her boyfriend for an extended vacation, she receives a call from the landlord demanding the rent. She promises him that it will be delivered by her sister and everything will be fine, despite repeated warnings indicating a history of the contrary. Carol agrees but we’re not entirely sure that she’ll follow through. Helen and her partner leave the flat, letting Carol be herself in the apartment. Her flimsy nightgown on her frame, coupled with her appearance and tics, show her to be a repressed child in an adult body. Without the adults in the room, she can do very little for herself. At this point in the film, we will spend the next hour keeping watch with Carol.
Carol decides to mentally disappear in the salon as she’s sent home by her boss. Back at home, she puts her mouth to the faucet for a drink instead of a glass and takes out the rabbit. The rabbit is left out in the open as she forgets all about it to notice the gleeful nuns across the way. She fondles a straight razor in the bathroom, examining the shape of it without caring about the inherent danger that comes with handling sharp objects. After drinking from a proper glass, she sees a crack develop on the wall. Whether or not the crack does exist is left to the viewer’s imagination. While scrounging around in her sister’s bedroom, we finally get a jumpscare with a man in the mirror, complete with a scare chord.
Taking refuge in her bedroom, Carol barricades the door as she hears mysterious footsteps. The next day, she starts running the water for a bath and abandons it, only to return to it flooding the bathroom a few hours later. The cracks in the wall begin to expand dramatically, impossible to ignore. It’s heavy-handed symbolism as we get to the first instance of why this does not hold up in the #MeToo movement. Carol hears footsteps in her bedroom and is aggressively raped by a stranger with only the sound of a ticking clock obliterating her screams. Stylistic and imagined, yes, but it sets us up for what’s to come: rape of mentally untreated women as a form of shock.
According to Disability Justice, 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lives, with only 3% of those instances ever reported. And, with the suffocating presence of rape culture in the United States as experienced the past month with Dr. Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s rant piggybacking hers, the film when viewed today only serves to reinforce the cancerous idea that women are nothing more than walking emotionless Fleshlights. By viewing Carol as, according to some popular analyses, an undiagnosed schizophrenic, she easily manages to be a statistic. The source of her imagined rape fantasies is never mentioned or explained, save for a subjective close-up in the final shot. We’ve only seen one instance so far in the film but we’re just about at the hour mark.
Carol returns to the salon three days later and is scolded by her boss before going back to work, only to accidentally slice a customer’s skin while in a daze. Before she’s sent home, we do get to see one human part of Carol as Bridget recalls a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. She laughs and connects with another person. This is a bright spot in the movie, brief and well-needed but it’s all over when Bridget finds a heart in her purse, not unlike a brain on the subway stairs in Pi. While Carol walks home, Colin enters the pub for some more chauvinistic banter with his friends saying that a date with Carol will make her “weep with gratitude”. Colin fights against this as his friends try passing it off as a joke. Carol sleepwalks through the scene of an accident, not even taking a human moment to acknowledge the tragedy of what’s happened.
Back at home, Carol watches TV as the rabbit and potatoes rot away, the crack on the wall growing larger and spreading throughout the apartment. She runs away and places her hand on a solid part of the wall, only to realize the texture is all wrong. As Colin rings the doorbell, he demands to speak to her before busting down the door. Carol grabs a candlestick and stands there while Colin tries to explain that he just had to see her and know why she’s been so distant. He walks over to close the door and Carol bludgeons him, unceremoniously dropping the corpse in the overflowing tub and barricading the front door.
Carol makes her way back to her bedroom, only to uncover a man under the blanket and gets raped again. She wakes up naked on the floor to the sound of the doorbell. A postcard from Helen tells her to take care of herself, which is hard to do in her state. In her world of shadows and despair, hands grope her from the wall, later referenced in David Cronenberg’s The Brood and the handsy chute in Labyrinth. She cuts the phone cord with the straight razor after an unwanted call. The street buskers stroll by for a brief reprieve before the landlord busts in demanding rent.
He inspects the filth-riddled apartment and sees Carol in her flimsy nightgown, a child arrested in an adult body. His angry tone turns pleasant as he evaluates the situation. While he goes to toss the rabbit in the other room, Carol grabs the straight razor from the floor. He returns with kindness but the charade falls flat as it’s nothing more than an attempted rape of a clearly vulnerable woman. “There’s no need to be alone, you know. All shaking like a little frightened animal.” This is the real deal and we watch the struggle play out to the tune of the tolling bell. He tries to laugh it off but Carol manages to slit the back of his neck before stabbing him repeatedly with jazzy Psycho in the background, really the only moment in the film that mirrors the aforementioned film’s iconic shower sequence.
Carol’s downward spiral only worsens from there as the walls split apart and she tries to iron a shirt without plugging the iron in. The bells toll again and we get our fourth rape scene. It’s brief but it’s followed by Carol channeling John Nash from A Beautiful Mind by scribbling on a window. More groping hands from the wall and a falling ceiling not unlike a reverse Haunted Mansion. Thankfully the horror show is almost finished as Helen and her partner return to discover the carnage. Helen’s lover manages to carry a comatose/dead Carol away for treatment before the camera gives us one last lingering look into the bedlam. We stumble upon the family photograph, zooming in on young Carol’s eye, like if the finale of Lost were far more horrifying.
In the beginning of the 2003 featurette A British Horror Film, someone off-screen asks Polanski if the ending of Repulsion was meant to tell us that Carol was sexually abused as a child, possibly explaining her behavior. He shrugs it off and says it’s up to the viewer to make their own judgments. This kind of non-answer serves no purpose as confirming it would possibly open up more uncomfortable questions about the use of rape in the film and if the landlord was a roman a clef for Polanski. He’s even said that he’s not too fond of this film on a technical level according to multiple sources, even the commentary lifted from the initial Criterion Collection Laserdisc. With the torture of Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, albeit supernatural, it does not paint Polanski in a flattering light, even after the events of 1977.
The only possible way I can ever recommend this film is if you were a psychology student and wanted to watch, from what I’ve read, a compelling depiction of schizophrenia. The most recent edition of Movies & Mental Illness gave it the highest rating in regard to accuracy and dispelling the harmful idea that mental illness and violence go together as is prevalent in the majority of films that deal with any kind of mental illness. If the film had a different outcome where Carol was treated, odds are more than likely that she would be heavily drugged, lobotomized, or both. If there is a happy ending for Carol in the time the film is set, I am struggling to think of one. I’m not asking for a more thoughtful remake because this one is enough.
Will Polanski ever be given the punishment he rightfully deserves after forty years or have the next film not perform as well? One can only imagine as the #MeToo movement enters another year and society as a whole wakes up from the patriarchal slumber to try and right some wrongs. Let it be said that Repulsion does live up to its name in more ways than one. As for me, I’m going to wash my hands and find something lighter.