Cinematic Vocabulary – The Psychotic Break from Repulsion (1965)

It is a pleasure to return to Cinematic Vocabulary and kick off Polanski Week by looking at what I consider to be one of Polanski’s less appreciated films.  While The Tenant (1976) is the darling of cinephiles and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is second only to Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) in terms of mainstream appeal, Repulsion is sometimes overlooked as an early work, sandwiched as it is between Polanski’s break through film Knife in the Water (1962) and his more famous Hollywood projects.

However, it is my contention that Repulsion is a substantial landmark on the the road of Polanski’s artistic development.  The low-budget British Horror film allowed him not only to perfect some of the cinematic techniques that would feature prominently in his later works but also to tackle some of the themes dear to the generation of 1930s surrealist film-makers who clearly had quite an influence on Polanski’s thinking.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Set in around London’s South Kensington, Repulsion is the story of Carole Ledoux (played exquisitely by 20 year-old Catherine Deneuve), a young Belgian girl whose repressed sexuality tips her into first paranoia and then psychosis.  Initially, Carole is a normal if somewhat shy and withdrawn girl living with her sister.  She works in a beauty salon but has no friends aside from her sister and a young man whose romantic ambitions she struggles to keep at arms length.  Indeed, when we first encounter the young man he acts in a way that suggests that he knows Carole but you would not get this impression at all from the way she behaves towards him.  The situation degrades when Carole’s sister starts bringing her boyfriend home with her.  Carole is repulsed not only by the sounds of sex that filter through the walls but also the presence in the bathroom of a man’s razor.  However, things start getting really bad when Carole’s sister goes away on holiday with her boyfriend, leaving Carole completely alone with her fears.

This scene comes close to the end of the film, once Carole has been on her own for a while.  The state of the apartment mirrors the state of Carole’s mind.  We can see cracks beginning to form in the walls and the place is a mess, full of upturned furniture, rotting food and (though not included in the scene) two dead bodies. Aside from the cracks in the walls, the most obvious signs of Carole’s mental state are the fact that the ringing of a nearby bell is taken as a signal at which she is raped by unseen assailants lurking in the shadows.  As she descends further into madness, the cluttered apartment suddenly expands in size, resembling a huge and cavernous expanse of darkness and menace.  From this huge space we move to the claustrophobic confines of a corridor whose walls excrete arms, groping and caressing Carole as she crawls towards her bedroom, seeking out childhood’s safest hiding place under the bed.

It is possible to detect in this scene the same psychoanalytical concerns that animated surrealist film-makers such as Bunuel and Cocteau.  Indeed, the prominence accorded Repulsion to a straight razor seems to be a deliberate tipping of the hat to Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the famous sequence in which an eye-ball is sliced open as a cloud passes the moon.

The film’s desire to return again and again to the rotting potatoes and rabbit carcass are also reminiscent of the scene in Un Chien Andalou in which ants crawl out of a hand.  Bunuel himself claimed that this sequence was an hommage to the rotting meat in Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925).  Another clear reference to the surrealist tradition are the arms exuding from the wall.  Right down to the lugubrious black and white, this portion of the scene invokes the famous scene in Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete (1945) where Belle enters the castle through a corridor full of candelabras held by real human arms poking through the walls.

All of these sequences obey a psychoanalytical dream logic through which unconscious fears and desires are made manifest through dreams.  In both the Polanski and the cocteau sequences, arms reach out from some other place and brush up against the protagonist, driving her to terror and madness in her efforts to get away from them.  However, while these arms symbolise unconscious fears reaching up towards the conscious mind, they also capture the reality of life for many women.  Faced by a world full of men – always leering, lusting and two thoughts away from reaching out and grabbing – Carole retreats first to the all female world of the beauty salon and then to the safety of her apartment but once there she is still not free of male advances both real and imaginary.  Eventually, Carole’s entire world seems to turn against her as the apartment itself starts groping and grabbing at her.  In Repulsion‘s powerful final scene, we see the reasons for this fear of men; a peaceful family picture with Carole’s parents in the foreground and a younger version of Carole glaring resentfully at her father.  Suddenly the identity of the shadowy rapist becomes clear.  If there is one man a woman should be able to trust not to lust after her it is her father.  Once that taboo is broken then the world of masculine sexuality would rightly start to seem like a relentlessly oppressive and invasive space, once Carole’s terrors start manifesting themselves in the fabric of her apartment then her only chance of escape lies in catatonia.

The way in which, at times of extreme psychological stress, the unconscious mind can bleed through into the conscious mind is a recurrent theme throughout the Apartment Trilogy.  Indeed, one could almost go as far as to suggest that it is explicitly what all three films are about.  Consider, for example, the dream sequence from Rosemary’s Baby in which the imagery is dreamlike but also completely real.

This sequence also features another of Polanski’s visual motifs; the use of optical illusions.  Aside from the dream-like imagery, the above scene features a moment in which the camera appears to slide under the bed, looking up at images of heaven reminiscent of the Sisteen Chapel and so given an impression of depth through the use of perspective.  Polanski also plays games with perspective in the dream sequence of the final film in the Apartment Trilogy, The Tenant.

In this scene, Polanski uses the same trick as in the Repulsion sequence to make the room suddenly seem a lot larger, but he augments this trick by swapping in some out-size replicas of the apartment’s furniture, further increasing the cognitive dissonance and the sense that something is not quite right.

One of the books that Polanski evidently kept on set with him during the filming of Repulsion was Richard L. Gregory’s Eye and Brain : The Science of Seeing (1966), he even enlisted Gregory as a kind of perceptual consultant and dragged him round a number of cinemas and camera manufacturers in order to research the possbility of making Repulsion a 3D film.  Gregory is most famous for developing the idea of Perception as Hypotheses, whereby the brain does not directly process visual information but instead compares the data it receives from the eye to known schemas and paradigms that allow it to make sense of objects that do not look quite right.  Gregory’s homepage includes a number of films of optical illusions that demonstrate this principle but perhaps the most famous example of this kind of thing is the Muller-Lyer illusion.

The Muller-Lyer Illusion Explained

The Muller-Lyer Illusion Explained

Optical illusions are culture-specific.  We view those two lines as being off different lengths because we are used to living in built environments in which we are used to interpreting things through the use of perspective even though perspective clearly does not apply to a couple of lines on a screen.

Other than in artificially constructed Optical Illusions, Gregory points out that perception can go wrong in cases of mental illness or drug use and this is where I think psychology links up with Repulsion.  Polanski fills his scene of psychotic breakdown with optical illusions in order to make the audience share Carole’s sense of cognitive estrangement from the world around her.  The surrealists of Cocteau and Bunuel’s generation based their understanding of the human mind on the writings of Freud and so their attempts to make film about madness involved the use of dream-like imagery.  While Polanski also makes use of these kinds of techniques, he also makes use of more advanced psychological thinking trying to induce in the audience symptoms of the same psychological disfunction as the protagonist.

Repulsion‘s images of psychotic break-down are not only an important moment in cinematic history, they are also an important turning point in Polanski’s career.  The scene acknowledges the psychoanalytical and surrealist traditions but it also stresses much more recent thinking and the need to move on from tried and tested modes of artistic expression.


  1. Fascinating dissection of the role the Surrealist’s played in Repulsion and I thoroughy concur with your argument.

    Furthermore, is Repulsion not a damnation of far too much British cinema this past forty years because to my mind it showed what was possible for British filmakers if they embraced a Surrealist spirit, and shirked their duties to Social Realism?
    Using a simple location – a flat – Polanski creates a universe and an internal experience. This is a very un-English approach to film making. The central role ‘the room’ plays in the film, and its power to dictate and express emotions felt by the protagonist can perhaps only really be found in the work of one English artist this past forty + years – Harold Pinter. While Polanski’s earlier films Cul De Sac and Knife In Water played out like much of Pinter’s early work, it is perhaps ‘The Servant’ (Losey + Pinter) that is the closest relative to ‘Repulsion’ in the canon of Post-War British cinema. In that film, so too the walls, fixtures and fittings elogante and distort as the building’s owner descends into madness. The use of sound design is similar too – eerie Jazz and long, hollow silences.

    And yet, despite these precedents I can think of no legacy in British film that suggests anything much has been learnt from either ‘The Servant’ or ‘Repulsion’. Maybe ‘Performance’ evokes a counter cultural reworking of the formula? It is certainly evident in the work of Japanese filmmakers such as Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike and Takshi Ishii (Dark Water, Audition and Freezer). Why not here I wonder?


  2. Richard — Yes, I think you’re absolutely right that Repulsion is a damning critique of the weak comedies and gangster films that make up so much of modern British cinema.

    The DVD has some interviews that show how many factors weighed against Repulsion including producers who mostly did softcore porn and who had to go off and research what it was like for women to live on their own because they had no idea what a shared flat might look like. Repulsion shows how much can be achieved with the right director.

    I think you may well be absolutely right about the link with Pinter and there are certainly thematic links between The Servant and something like The Tenant. Both films are full of weirdness but also rooted in social realism. Having said that, I also agree that British art can tend to be rather relentless in its devotion to social realism.

    Sadly, I suspect the reason for Repulsion’s lack of contemporary shadow is simply that not enough film students watch that kind of film. I fear that cinephilia is becoming like every other form of art appreciation; the preserve of a small and aging group who are having trouble filling their ranks from among the young.

    Jonathan Rosenbaum has this great essay about how when he was growing up, everyone would turn up to watch what were quite high-brow films. Now you hardly ever get cinematic revivals and a lot of intelligent films simply never make it to the cinema.

    We live in a time of social fragmentation where people have given up on the idea of changing mainstream culture in order to create their own little worlds and sub-groups but all this means is that people never feel the need to leave their cultural comfort zone.


  3. – Jonathan Rosenbaum has this great essay about how when he was growing up, everyone would turn up to watch what were quite high-brow films. Now you hardly ever get cinematic revivals and a lot of intelligent films simply never make it to the cinema.

    Certainly there was a time when Chris Marker, say, was an absolutely essential film essayist upon whose every film a generation waited attentively. Then again, the BFI, Criterion, Tartan, Pathe – these companies make available for home consumtion so many films that would have been lost forever if it was left to the cinema alone.

    > We live in a time of social fragmentation where people have given up on the idea of changing mainstream culture in order to create their own little worlds and sub-groups but all this means is that people never feel the need to leave their cultural comfort zone.

    This is absolutely true, but I also think there’s simply more of everything to consume both good and bad, from the past and present, and time is limited . Certainly people are generally creatures of habit, but that’s their perogative. So long as I get to see all the old stuff well, I’ve given up worrying too much about everybody else! I recall trying to get a book on Stanley Kubrick back in 1994 and only being able to get one, which was out of date and didn’t feature Full Metal Jacket. Shoot forward to today and Kubrick is now a mini-cottage industry. Some might call that progress.


  4. This is true.

    By and large I’m quite ambivalent about the increasingly tribal nature of our culture. On the plus side I think that the creation of discrete communities results in the creation of very specific cultural artifacts (which is a good thing when compared to attempts to please everyone and throw loads of everything into a big pot and boil until everything loses its distinctiveness) but I also think that the lack of a real mainstream means that a lot of people are cut off from communities that they could benefit from hugely.

    For example, 10 years ago you could still see great films on terrestrial TV. 20 years ago you could see great works of drama. The rise of reality TV for the most part killed serious drama in the UK and now decent films are incredibly rare.

    I think that something is lost if people can’t stumble across Bob le Flambeur on late night TV and be transformed by it and the fact that you can now get the film on DVD as a part of a long-overdue Melville box set seems poor comfort when it comes to capturing the next generation of cinephiles.


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