Translated by Angélique Tavormina

Repulsion (1965 UK 105 mins)

Source: Sharmill Films Prod Co: Compton Films Prod: Gene Gutowski Dir: Roman Polanski Scr: Gérard Brach, Roman Polanski Phot: Gilbert Taylor Ed: Alastair McIntyre Art Dir: Seamus Flannery Mus: Chico Hamilton

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Wymark, Renee Houston, Valerie Taylor

Sa ressemblance est-elle donc quelque chose qui est indéfectiblement enfermé en lui-même? Ce monde, c’est sa folie, se ressemble à l’infini; c’est son horreur (1).

Confinement stands as a recurring theme in Polanski’s Repulsion. Beyond operating as a means of distributing space, it can be said to act as an aesthetic and narrative structure, feeding the film as a whole. If such a principle already appears in the huis-clos called Knife in the Water (1962), the director’s first full-length film, it is in Repulsion that it acts as a figurative manifesto. Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a young, solitary, closed-off woman suffers from the palpable symptoms of schizophrenia. She gradually shuts herself up in her flat and her troubles develop more and more until they induce her to commit a murder. As in The Tenant (1976), Repulsion‘s story focuses on a character who suffers from mental problems, enabling the film to create an extreme focus on the representation of confinement. The film’s form and its visual style try to impose this problematic on the story material, creating an inner exploration of the character and her questionable relation to the world. A crude figuration of confinement and solitude is inevitable in order to give a cinematic form to the psyche. So, what does the principle of confinement allow the director to do and what are its consequences and aesthetic manifestations?

Confinement, which spreads from the character to the film, plays a great part in inserting the “fantastic” into this nearly clinical case study of schizophrenia. Thus, if Repulsion refers to the horror genre, through its confrontation between what is real and what is supernatural, it is more concerned with a process of analysis than a set of causes. Polanski links horror to his heroine’s increasing loneliness in order to create a subjective framework which might give a shape to a fear seen and heard, not from an external cause but from an internal one. Consequently, confinement begets insanity and is associated with obsession, a dual relation both to the image and being. In Repulsion, this theme is encapsulated by the opening image of the eye. An eye, inherited from the Hitchcockian universe of Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), is centred and appears in a very large close-up.

The title, Repulsion, comes out of the eye’s iris. The editing establishes a first association: what stands out against the eye already means repugnance. The credits are running: the multiplicity of words disorderly circulating is opposed to the near fixity and oneness of the iris’ circle. The eyeball, adopting this logic of confusion, flutters against the eye-sockets which are still impassive. This internal movement seems to be devoid of logic and motivation. Indeed, the zoom ends on Carol’s expressionless, absent face, as she listlessly holds a customer’s hand to manicure it. Her undisturbed, lifeless face, is thus closely related to this cold eye. This close-up represents Carol’s environment which is visually distorted. The film is thus not grounded in narrative objectivity but in an aesthetic of subjectivity, made of disproportions and limits. Carol’s universe vanishes into the “nature” of this close-up which organises the film according to three principles.

The principle of unicity: the gap of confinement

Michael (Ian Hendry), who is in love with Carol, can only appear in the frame according to a logic of compartmentalisation. For example, he is shown calling to her from behind a windowpane or within a phone box. The partition of space at the centre of their relationship only infers a possible meeting in compartmentalised spaces. Thus, later in the film, Carol will perpetuate the conditions of this disunion by immersing Michael’s corpse into the bathtub after killing him. Carol’s body is an area or field that doesn’t allow intrusion. This area can neither be reached, understood, nor seen from outside, and inversely those she encounters are unable to perceive her problems. In Repulsion, there is a tendency to emphasise the problem of Carol’s inner-self which is endangered by exteriority. Her body provides the main representation of this. Carol’s attraction to withdrawing from the world is contrasted to her fascination for opening onto it. The sequence in which Michael finds her sitting on a bench while obstinately staring at the cracked macadam, echoes Carol’s request, which may seem trivial at first, to repair the fissure in the kitchen. In the same way, the air vent in her flat puzzles her as she lingers over it several times. These themes and motifs are the boundaries of a closed universe and illustrate the concentrated anguish caused by her attempt at withdrawal. Details gain strange importance, marking an obsession. The fissure can be associated with the lexical field of love and is puzzling since it refers to the anxiety of sexuality. Michael threatens to smash the door in if Carol doesn’t open it: she regards this gesture as equivalent to his attempt to love her because rape, according to Carol’s inclusive system, can indifferently consist of either a violation of her body or the space she occupies. For example, the first stage of her nightmare about rape takes place in a wardrobe, through which a crack of light filters and which was, then, disturbed by her aggressor’s moving of a piece of furniture. After killing Michael, Carol nails a board to the bottom of the front door. This is not so much an act to hide her murder as it is to heal the cut which has been made to her space. The aggressive occupation of space doesn’t augur rape, it multiplies it.

The principle of exteriorisation: the eye boundary

Gradually the film concentrates on Carol and gives up the implication contained in the opening close-up in terms of the limited aesthetic framework it offers concerning sound and vision. At this point, the film’s space is confined to three places: the beauty parlour where Carol works, the streets she takes to go there, and the flat. But this unity is only momentary, indulging in spaces into which Carol finally vanishes. The automatic repetition of these spaces, associated with Carol’s absent looks, creates a claustrophobic system, in which the difference between inside and outside becomes confused. Each of them is characterised by a closing-off of space. The cubic rooms at work don’t open onto the outside world and the tracking shots contained in the sequences showing her journeys to and from work, bound her to the limits of what we see on the screen. The outside world only exists through the objective status of the places shown; aesthetically speaking, the film prioritises this closing-off. Thus, the garden, seen from Carol’s flat, is adjoined to a cloister. The outside world creates, around Carol, an area that is more spacious than the one of her flat, but the effects of her phobia are extended as a kind of mise en abyme. Outside violence becomes a means of locking space. Therefore, hallucinations only add to the sense of closed-off spaces secreted in the real world. For example, in the sequence in which Carol goes to the drawing-room, the wide-angle shot gives us the feeling that the ceiling is lowered, representing, according to this expressionist mode, the previous closing down of space.

The principle of magnifying: the face defaced by confinement

The closed space created by the hallucinations forms, through convexity and distortion, a perspective which is de-realising. Expressionist lighting changes the composition of space in order to re-introduce the partiality of the close-up. Spatial synchronisation is so important that it excludes off-camera perspectives, frequently integrating Carol into her own subjective shot. Carol looks at her reflection in a kettle, and then the room opens out around her face which has become a grotesque feature in the foreground. This merging with space proves the young woman’s mental aberrations. The spatial overcrowding, the disproportion of objects and the changing boundaries of the frame, build up a space which is all the more enormous since the body is submitted to it. Close-ups let us perceive, in the depth of the eye, a shapeless reflection, a convex space not referring to the reverse-shot but to a mental process of vision. An inner, impenetrable subjectivity vanishes into the eye’s neutrality. As an impenetrable macula of the pupil, this point represents the mark of an immense space. The foreseen reverse-shot doesn’t exist or occur, the camera closes in on the external area of the eyeball and is in deep contact with the eye in order to eat Carol up, from the inside. If Carol’s schizophrenia is associated with a notion of immobility created through confinement, it also induces an internal movement caused by the metamorphosis of bodies. This progress towards isolation and complete retreat questions, in the last resort, death and its physical consequences; that-is-to-say, the decomposition of the body.

These various stages are divided up in the credit titles of Repulsion. The zoom out comes to an end on a full shot of Carol’s face, which, under the persistent influence of the close-up, leaves the eye, which was not centred before, in the dark. The other eye, which is thus closed in by darkness, gives an ill-looking tint to the perfect face, establishes a gap and digs a “hole” into the representation. The shot changes the complexion of Carol’s face and reveals her madness. This distortion induced in space, spreads to the face as a form of disguise. Later, Carol is alone in her flat. She is outrageously made-up, a wide-angle close-up lengthening her smiling face in order to change it into a grimace. Under the credits, specific lighting techniques create a doubling effect that is echoed later in the film by another face, belonging to a customer, covered by a cracked clay mask. Lying and unmoving, her eyes hidden by alveoli, her skull covered by a cap and her body wrapped in a piece of white cloth, the film returns to the mummified visage of a dead body. The two faces, which are coupled through editing, resemble each other through both their “absence” and the change they undergo, underlining, thus, an evolution, which through splitting into two, is said to be expressed by the loss of the face. Even if it is divided by the plasticity of the shot or given an echo through editing, the face goes beyond the frame and loses itself in the “pangs” of representation.

In Repulsion, from the credits onwards, the face is spoilt or distorted by its confinement inside the frame. Carol’s schizophrenia is in keeping with a connection to space in which reality changes for the benefit of distortion, of rot. Thus, the food she allows to go mouldy is a plastic representation of this slow deterioration. This process, which consists in reducing the body to nothing, is conveyed by the final zoom into and close-up on the photo. Ending on the eye of Carol when she was just a child, it ultimately allows us to see nothing but the grain of the picture. The resemblance captured here accomplishes its last stage of defacement and putrefaction until the body itself disappears. As in the beginning, the eye conveys nothing; it means death in life. The zoom into the family portrait, which draws Carol near until it isolates her eye, tries to go deeply into the mysteries of her inner-self. Here, however, the eye doesn’t let us see the images of the past and the shot keeps its secrets. These two movements show only a vacuum and the lack of a psychoanalytical explanation of this being. The family portrait doesn’t place Carol within a story, it isolates her; it isn’t the essence and explanation of her problems and is only used in order to “close” her enigma. It does not signal the return of an idealised past because the child is already looking at her own “elsewhere”, and nothing important marks the distinction between her childhood state and her adult one. It proves Carol’s loneliness as a postulate, as something which has always existed. As it draws nearer to her eye, the frame plays a great part in isolating and driving her behind the walls of her insanity, of her disturbed mentality. This portrait locates her in an evolutionary absence, confirming the circular structure of the film which starts and ends with the close-up of an eye. The recurrence of the first shot walls Carol in, shuts her in darkness and abstraction. It may be the reason why Repulsion is often considered as an objective representation of a case of schizophrenia: there is no possible empathy towards Carol, no identification and no recognition in her insanity; she remains devoid of emotion because of her over-confinement. Therefore, the aesthetic of the film doesn’t aim at explaining the material manifestations of confinement but at checking their fixity.

Polanski carries confinement to aesthetic and mental paroxysms in order to associate it to an uneasiness of being. The character’s loneliness and anguish to live, become situations of horror, combining the aesthetic of the “fantastic” with a purely psychoanalytical application. As a result, Repulsion makes confinement its topic so as to extract the absolute vacuum. If the notion of horror is born in confinement, this thematic choice moves it towards the non-factual, towards absence and the mental state. The goal is to let us see this mental state, to consider it in its close and impenetrable aspects, that-is-to-say, from an external point-of-view. Here, confinement is extracted from an aesthetic of sensation and disproportion, plunging the film into the depths of solitude and resemblance.


  1. Jean-Louis Schefer, “L’homme ordinaire du cinema”, Cahiers du Cinéma, Gallimard, Paris, 1980, p. 59.

About The Author

Didier Truffot completed his doctorate on editing in Brian De Palma's films at the Sorbonne last year. He has published articles on De Palma, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Douglas Sirk in various journals including Simulacres and Cinergon.

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