WARNING: If you have a “Repulsion” about spoilers, then avoid this article!
Welcome back as I continue with my summer theme of horror films/literature that take place within apartment buildings. In case you have forgotten, it all started with this article – Beyond the House: An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures. Part 2 – Apartment Buildings. I wrote that piece at the beginning of the season. And though summer is on its last legs, I carry on within the fictional confines of sweltering, oppressive, terror-ridden, and psychosis- inducing living spaces that challenge its occupants’ with a petrifying dose of the unreal. Or maybe, what they encounter is far too real – a dark revelation into the disturbances of their minds. This is certainly true for Carol Ledoux, the disturbed protagonist in the film that is the subject of this article. But let me back up for a second. Summer is a season that beckons us to the great outdoors. And here I am, writing about a suffocating indoor environment. Perhaps you find the subject untimely and therefore offensive, revolting, disgusting, loathsome and even….repulsive. If so, you share the sentiments of Carol, who in trapped in the inner-recesses of her mind, uncomfortable with the mysteries that lurk within the claustrophobic rooms of her psyche. And yet, the film Repulsion, directed and co-written by Roman Polanski, presents viewers with Carol’s paradox – she feels safe inside her mind, safe inside her apartment with its barricaded doors. Well, she is never at ease, but the apartment will at least protect her from the threats that lurk on the street, unless….these threats find their way inside her, and awaken her from a dreamlike trance for which she is not prepared to abandon. So readers, a haunted apartment can provide some solace, even in the good ol’ sunny summertime. Trust me as I take you on a tour of Carol’s apartment, a tour of her mad, mad mind, a mind that will produce horrifying hallucinations and drive her to kill people.
So, what the hell is wrong with Carol? In short, she fears her own sexuality. She mistrusts her own desires and therefore she avoids sexual encounters and repels the advances of men. In short, she finds the subject of sex “repulsive”. In a New York Times article, reviewer David Kehr points out how Carol envies the nuns she watches from her apartment window, for they are free from “the burden of sexuality.” It should noted, that Carol does not seem to be asexual, nor does she seem to be repressing any desires directed toward the same sex. (She dons lipstick to make herself attractive for a fantasy/nightmare sexual partner/rapist. More on this later) Rather, she fears “sexuality” in and of itself and all of its mystery. Kim Morgan, writing for The Huffington Post, sums it up this way:
Carol is the personification of sexual mystery — she is what lurks beneath the orgasms of pleasure and pain
Churned inside a kind of fire that enflames the rawest elements of sexuality, its no wonder she is a psychotic mess.
Most of the drama and inner-conflict play out in that apartment she resides in (in truth it’s her sister’s apartment). It is the very first film in what has become known as Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy. However, the first film of the trilogy that I reviewed is Rosemary’s Baby (Click on the link to read that review). In that review, I state what all three films have in common. And that is this:
- They detail the unfolding psychosis of a central character.
- They blur the protagonist’s perception of reality
- They feature an oppressive apartment setting that further augments the madness of the main character
Let’s hone in on the third point. The apartment certainly stands for everything that point expresses, and much more. The apartment symbolizes her own “fragile, egg-shell mind” (Thanks Jim Morrison for coining that term!). As everyone knows, eggs easily crack. And cracks do appear on the walls of the apartment, cracking before her stunned eyes. Carol is cracking. And the stuff of her desires and fears are seeping in.
Carol is from Belgium, but she is living in her sister Helen’s apartment in London. She is very attractive, but painfully shy and soft-spoken. Helen is sexually active and Carol is uncomfortable with this. She is “repulsed” by the loud sexual activity she is forced to listen to while she unsuccessfully tries to sleep at night. She hates it that Helen’s gentleman friend leaves his bathroom accessories behind, placed so close to her personal items.
Shot skillfully in black and white, the camera often follows Carol as she proceeds to and from work. Her first walk is accompanied by a mellow jazz tune. As the film progresses, the background music that accompanies these walks becomes frenetic. Sometimes it is the wild music of experimental jazz. Sometimes it’s the peculiar sounds made from a three-man marching band that panhandles on the streets. Often when she is alone, like when the camera stays with her on the elevator ride up to her sister’s apartment, the music is soft and simple – a few notes on the piano or flute. It’s childlike, but in an eerie way. I am reminded of the openings of many Syd Barrett composed Pink Floyd songs before the psychedelic music kicks in. This is the music of a person retreating to their shell; regressing into a protective womb. Out on the streets, men make passes at her. A suitor follows her, strikes up conversations with her. The music is untamed as the men crack away at her shell.
Helen is planning on leaving her sister alone for two weeks. She and her boyfriend are traveling to Italy. Carol begs her not to go, but to no avail. So she is left alone to confront her awakening. See, throughout the film, Carol is in a near-catatonic state. It as if she has been sleeping and is trying her damnest not to wake up. She fears the pain of sexual awakening. And she must face this awakening, alone, without her sister. As a symbol for her vulnerability, there is the dead, skinned rabbit. Helen meant to cook this for her boyfriend before they departed for their vacation. She skinned the rabbit and was all set to boil it, but the boyfriend insisted on taking her out to dinner instead. When Helen leaves for Italy, the rabbit sits there on the counter, drawing flies. It is a sickening sight. The rabbit is like Carol, who has been stripped of her protective layers. Helen has abandoned both. The skinned rabbit is an unsightly thing. And the things Carol will succumb to – these things are unsightly as well. Enter the horror!
A brute of a man begins to rape Carol in her bedroom at night. She first spots him in the reflection of the mirror. She gasps, turns around, and sees no one in the room. Silly girl, he exists only in the reflection. He is she; her desires, her fears. Later, he forces his way into her bed. Forces himself on her. All the while, viewers of the film hear the sound of a clock ticking. Tick..tick..tick… then RING of the phone or DING DING DING of the train outside the window. These “rings and dings” cry out in the morning, when the scene is over. She always wakes up alone.
Carol misses work for several days. She seems determined not to leave the apartment. Meanwhile, cracks sprout in the walls. The hallway walls turn into a viscous substance from which hands reach out to touch her as she desperately tries to make her way through the corridor. Things are breaking in. Her shell is cracking. She is cracking. Carol has two male visitors while she is alone. One is the suitor, who wants to know why she keeps avoiding him. The other is the sleazy landlord who comes looking for the rent money. But as it turns out, he wants her instead. Carol takes care of both of them. She kills them! She is repulsed so much by those that force her to confront her sexuality that she has to murder them. But before going to bed at night, she dons make-up and makes her self attractive for the phantom that haunts her bed. The poor, confused girl. So torn, so…cracked. But at least she is able to hum sweetly after kills each man. Temporary moments of peace when her dissonance is temporarily resolved.
Though brutal and unsettling, this film smack of genius. According to Wikipedia, reviewer Jim Emerson places this film in a list of “102 films to see before…”(before you die? Before something.) From the patient camera and spot-on audio to the brilliant performances, this simple and relatively low budget film succeeds in every way that a film can succeed.
One more film will complete Polanski’s apartment trilogy. The final film, both in order of release and here at this blog, is The Tenant. Polanski himself stars in the film. He is the disturbed tenant. Hopefully I will have this review completed within a week or so. Until then, I bid you farewell. To my apartment dwelling friends, enjoy your living space. But please don’t confuse it was the dark recesses of your mind. This will only haunt the place, and the consequences can be deadly.