Repulsion ★★★★½

Part of Hoop-Tober

“I must get this crack mended.”

What we have here is a failure to communicate. Just as bad is the failure to observe. They are failures with which we all are overly familiar, whether we know it or not. Lost in a haze of tact and duplicity and feigned invulnerability and self-loathing, we keep what we think to ourselves. A wise and proper move at times; a misleading and destructive bit of stonewalling at others. And as we’re being selectively tight-lipped, we turn inward to consider what we should not consider sharing. Too focused on our navels to notice others' miscommunication and carefully chosen silence, to truly read between the lines and see them and their concerns. We blithely fill in their gaps in the most convenient and familiar possible way, then go back to determining how best to withhold information in service of a carefully manicured image.

Manicures are Carol’s (Catherine Deneuve) stock in trade, painting nails at a fashionable London salon. But whatever her professional skills, Carol is shockingly bad at maintaining her own psyche or self-presentation. She has taken quiet reservation to an extreme, drifting through life in a nearly catatonic state. To an objective onlooker, she is clearly unwell, perhaps even mad. Too bad for Carol that there are no objective onlookers to be found.

The first entry in Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” (followed by Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant), Repulsion simmers with unease from the opening frames—a title sequence of words floating over an eyeball (strongly recalling the opening credits of Hitchcock’s Vertigo). From the very start, it is apparent that Carol is mentally unhealthy—she has so drifted away that her client asks if she has fallen asleep. But this comatose mien is the default for poor Carol, whether dealing with her boss, Madame Denise (Valerie Taylor), her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), her tireless suitor, Colin (John Fraser), or anyone else. She is not just withdrawn from the world—she is utterly vacant, a terrifying blankness where the light in her eyes should be. She is repulsed by life itself, and especially by sexuality and the attention of men.

How does no one notice Carol’s maladjustment? To be fair, one person does: Helen’s married lover, Michael (Ian Hendry), briefly suggests that Carol is too high strung and should see a doctor, much to Helen’s irritation. But Michael really is no different than anyone else—he sees only what he wants to see, which is in turn only the piece that someone else has chosen to project, and he draws his own conclusions from there. The boorish, lecherous Michael speaks not out of concern for Carol’s well-being, but because he assumes that any woman not won over by his oily charms must be deficient. Similarly, Helen—the sullied, sultry older brunette to Carol’s icy, repressed younger blonde—doesn’t see Carol’s withdrawal because Carol has always been that way. For proof, look no further than the family photo on the mantle, with Mom and Dad and grandparents and teenage Helen and the family dog in the foreground, happy as can be, and little Carol in the background, staring off to the side. An odd one since her youth was Carol.

They’re all blinded by themselves and their self-interest, and by Carol’s radiant beauty. Casting a twenty-something Deneuve is a masterstroke, not only because of her remarkable acting ability, but also because of her luminous, otherworldly good looks. Madame Denise cannot imagine why such a pretty young thing would be unhappy, since the world must be her oyster. (When Carol disappears for three days, Madame Denise asks if it’s because Carol is “in trouble”—a hilarious question to ask a woman utterly terrified of even the slightest male attention, but also suitably euphemistic, another failure of clear communication.) And Colin, a seemingly good, albeit oblivious, lad, only wants to be Carol’s companion and to dote on her—to get laid, yes, but also because he seems genuinely besotted by this icy young woman, a fact sold only by the fact that Carol is so exceptionally gorgeous. He interprets her coolness and rejection as playing hard to get, a prudish young woman throwing up a smoke screen of virtue. He can’t, or doesn’t want to, see the manifest psychological disease present right in front of him; he’d rather see the quiet, pretty face.

But mad Carol is, and madder she will become (she is, after all, a nail-biter, and unlike real life, no movie character has ever bitten her nails and been altogether psychologically healthy). Deneuve is brilliant at maintaining Carol’s blankness while also suggesting the paranoia and terror roiling just underneath her vacant surface. And Polanski’s camera embellishes the unease, making the world seem alien and threatening even in otherwise mundane locations: an upscale beauty parlor, a nice London street in midday, a reasonably nice and spacious Kensington apartment.

Even before Carol is left to her own devices, Polanski suggests dark things to come. The low-angle shot as Carol first enters her apartment establishes it as a place of menace. Carol listens to Helen and Michael having sex so loudly it sounds as if they’re in the room together, even though Carol’s room is at the front of the apartment and Helen’s is (naturally) at the rear, separated by a large living area. The legitimacy of what we’re seeing is constantly called into question, with Polanski treating Carol as one of his classic unreliable narrators (a theme continued throughout the “Apartment Trilogy”). When Helen and Michael depart for vacation, leaving Carol alone in the apartment...well, solitude is not the cure for an insular and overactive imagination.

Polanski mesmerizingly visualizes Carol’s mental disintegration, using techniques both overt (cracks exploding in the apartment walls; molesting arms reaching out from the corridor) and subtle (the low and slightly canted camera angles; the increasingly wide-angled lenses distorting the size and shape of rooms). Early on, Polanski tours the apartment, quietly and clevelry orienting us to its layout, all the better to disorient us later as his visual tricks mirror Carol’s internal disquiet. As Carol presses clothing with an unplugged iron and eats sugar cubes and imagines horrifying rapes by various intruders, all to the nerve-wracking sounds of ticking clocks and dripping faucets and buzzing flies, her mental decay is reflected in the rotting, sprouting potatoes on the kitchen counter and (in one of the director's most disgusting images) the decomposing rabbit carcass sitting in the living room. (All of the movie’s food is visually revolting—the pleasures of the flesh made repellent.) Even the smallest details are distorted: Carol looks through the peephole to see fish-eyed images of visitors; a postcard arrives from Helen, picturing the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Everywhere Carol turns, structural defects follow her.

Repulsion is brilliant and horrifying as a study of paranoid mental breakdown, but what truly elevates it is the permeating sadness of a world oblivious to Carol’s predicament and unwilling to help. Carol is plainly terrified of sex—when Colin kisses her, she runs into her apartment wiping her lips and brushes her teeth, and she finds Michael’s overt earthiness abhorrent. The only moment at which Carol threatens to come alive—discussing her co-worker’s trip to see a revival of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush—is destroyed when the co-worker mentions her boyfriend. But no one seems to care why Carol is so frigid. Colin keeps pursuing her in his puppy-dog way, Michael suggests she needs to loosen up, Helen dismisses it as a harmless intrinsic quirk, Madame Denise suggests a couple of days off to rest. No one takes the time to notice the obvious and deep disturbance in Carol’s psyche or to consider how she might be helped (or even whether she needs help at all). She’s just a bit off. Just a pretty young girl who needs to relax and be ok with men ogling her and propositioning her. Just a hysterical girl, behaving as women will.

But is that all there is to Carol? Polanski’s adoption of her viewpoint often leaves the viewer unmoored, questioning what is real and what is not and whether Carol has any current reason for her intense misandry (save for one man who most certainly gets what’s coming to him). And Polanski frequently suggests that the denial of the sexual impulse is inherently destructive—Carol’s first outright hallucination follows her contemplation of wearing Helen’s sexy dress, and even Colin nearly gets into a fistfight after being teased about his unsuccessful attempts to get into Carol's bed. But as we return to that family photo—clear evidence of Carol’s longstanding mental instability—we note the look of anger on her face. It’s more emotion than the adult Carol has ever expressed. And at what—or at whom—is it directed? Is Carol simply staring into the middle distance, preoccupied with unhealthy thoughts then as now? Or is she staring at someone? Poor Carol is unquestionably insane, but perhaps she had some assistance in getting there. Perhaps she has—or at least had— some reason for her repulsion. Pity that no one took the time to help her mend those cracks.

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