Thursday, 9 December 2010

Roman Polanski's 'Repulsion', 1965

Fig. 1 Repulsion Poster
Repulsion is an intriguing journey into the mind of the beautiful but mentally unstable lead character, Carol.

Fig. 2 Carol looking alienated.
Carol is a young French girl living in London. Similarly to Trelkovsky in The Tenant, she is foreign to this city and has feelings of insecurity and alienation because of this. The audience follows her very closely as she goes from her workplace to her home, an apartment she shares with her sister.  Julia Ain-Krupa describes the narrative as "the story of a foreigner who, in her extreme displacement, spirals into a schizophrenic breakdown.  As her life becomes more and more fragmented, we touch the horror of her disjointed experience" (Ain-Krupa, 2010:41)  Polanski, the director, keeps the audience extremely close to Carol in order for them to experience everything almost in first person, as Carol does.  Ain-Krupa explained that "The reality of her terror is made palpable by our shared experience."(Ain-Krupa, 2010:41)  Through the audience being placed uncomfortably close to Carol, they are forced to feel the same fear and awkwardness that she does and thus become party to whatever act she may commit.  As the audience continue to follow Carol they learn of her nervous ticks and see her innermost thoughts, all are left unexplained. The only link to her past, other than her sister is a family portrait sitting on a shelf.

Fig. 3 Carol in the family photo.
This photo is significant to the plot because it is the only visual aid the audience gets to help them establish her character, other than what she physically portrays in front of the camera.  The photo is incredibly unsettling as it shows a happy family gathered together in the foreground with one child standing, staring in the background.  It is the focus at the beginning and end of the film, thus making it more than just part of the family album.  One interpretation is that the little girl, believed to be Carol, is staring at a man to the right because he raped or molested her when she was young.  Ewa Mazierska revealed that "Although this interpretation contradicts Polanski's own explanation of using the photograph as an indication that there was always something impenetrable and sinister in Carol's personality, it is perfectly plausible." (Mazierska, 2007:39)  Through out the narrative the audience sees the nervous ticks Carol has and with no other clear explanation to be found this would be a realistic reason to explain away why she's so nervous.  Another example is in her dress sense, she wears patterned dresses similar to the one she is wearing in the family photo, innocent and modest, no flesh showing at all. Mazierska describes her appearance: "With her blonde, yet modest hair and long fringe, which almost hides her eyes, and in white dresses, she can be regarded as an epitome of moral purity, an angel" (Mazierska, 2007:40) She can be interpreted as pure, innocent, much like her past self in the photo.  This may be because she wants to return to a time when she was still pure and where sexuality did not dirty her or even become her desire.
Fig. 4 Carol's home cracking.
A technique that Polanski used to portray Carol's mental insecurity was the recurring use of cracks within the walls of her home. Cracks have many connotations assigned to them, in this instance they could indicate the cracks in her sanity as she becomes weighted under the pressure from external male influences.  Katherine Shonfield illustrates that cracks "implicate the primal fear of smearing, explored through an analogy between the interior space of their heroine's bodies, and the interiors of the apartments where they live...the transgression of the architectural edge...holds the threat of the violation of the edge of their bodies.  [Repulsion] deal[s] with fear of penetration writ large: written on the architecture of the interior and the architecture of the cities in which the films' action takes place" (Shonfield, 2001:55)  The cracks are a manifestation of Carol's fear of penetration, she is unable to understand or come to terms with her own sexuality and as she struggles more the cracks appear larger and more frequently.  Her home is becoming a giant reminder of everything she is struggling with internally, far from being a place of safety, it has become a predator for her sanity.  Physical cracks, Ain-Krupa divulged, were used because "in order to make Carol's disintegrating tangible, the audience would need to feel spatial changes" (Ain-Krupa, 2010:41) and these spatial changes are more that effective in portraying her mind's gradual cracking and disintegration. 

Fig. 5 The second murder's aftermath.
Her sanity's cracks begin to manifest themselves as more than just cracks, but as physical acts of violence by Carol herself.   Due to the possibility that Carol may be suffering mentally because of a past molestation from a relative her blatant terror towards anything sexual and violent outbursts can be viewed as acts of self defense. John Orr and Elżbieta Ostrowska stated that "The trauma of incestuous bodily violation accounts for Carol's obsessive and, ultimately, lethal, panic about its possible repitition, manifested in her hyperbolic reaction to all contact with men(Orr, Ostrowska, 2006:30)  Just her fear of it ever happening again has lead her to act quickly and brutally towards anyone that may or may not harm her.  This panic lead to her killing her possible boyfriend and her landlord that tried to take advantage of her.  In her panic she tried to cover the corpses, hide them from her sight.  This concealment of the bodies is exposed by Orr and Ostrowska in the following way: "[the] cinematic metaphor for Carol's pathological measures to defend her body from sexual invasion metamorphose her immediate environment into a devastated corpse-strewn womb, thereby eloquently rooting her madness in an earlier, 'innocent' phase of her troubled existence, while simultaneously troping her current state as maximum regression." (Orr, Ostrowska, 2006:31).  The indication, again, that she is trying to return to a time when she was child-like in innocence, her trauma has lead her desire to regress back to this time to murderous depths.  To the audience she is defending herself, but due to the lack of clear explanation, some of her acts are so brutal and unprovoked that they are unsure what to make of them.  Katherine Shonfield ultimately derived from these acts that "the difference between inside and outside refuses to disappear, and the interior aggressively reasserts itself." (Shonfield, 2001:56).  Her internal trauma is so powerful that no matter what anyone does, nothing can quell it.  The exterior has no influence on her and thus the internal fear and self-preservation that has been built up for so long finally takes over and leads her to murder and into a comatose state.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Repulsion (1965) Repulsion Poster. At: (Accessed on: 09.12.10)
Figure 2. Repulsion (1965) Carol looking alienated. At: (Accessed on: 09.12.10)
Figure 3. Repulsion (1965) Carol in the family photo. At: (Accessed on: 09.12.10)
Figure 4. Repulsion (1965) Carol's home cracking. At: (Accessed on: 09.12.10)
Figure 5. Repulsion (1965) The second murder's aftermath. At: (Accessed on: 09.12.10)


Ain-Krupa, Julia (2010) Roman Polanski: a life in exile. California: ABC-CLIO, LLC

Mazierska, Ewa (2007) Roman Polanski: the cinema of a cultural traveller. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd

Orr, John , Ostrowska, Elżbieta (2006) The cinema of Roman Polanski: dark spaces of the world. London: Wallflower Press

Shonfield, Katherine (2001) Walls have feelings: architecture, film and the city. London: Routledge


  1. and I love all the stuff about the 'primal fear of smearing' - really potent!

  2. Thank you! I thought it sounded pretty effective and a little gross too :P

  3. Phil pointed me towards your review and now I'm very jealous! Seems like doing this sort of thing is very effortless for you. Out of curiosity, how long did it take for you to write this review? Research included.

  4. Thank you! I'm glad it looks that way! It took me about 3 hours-ish including research. I think anyway, I did a second one just before so the time sort of merged together :P

  5. This was an interesting read :) Essays just have to look much like joke to you now :D

  6. I wish! :P I'm a lot more confident now but I still really worry about whether they make sense or if they're interesting enough. I'm really glad everyone that's read it has liked it though! I really appreciate the feedback too! I'll try to keep it up :D

  7. well ,just saw repulsion and have been searching on net last four hours for all its references from gerard brach to gilbert taylor and of course polanski ,certainly this is one of the best reviwes esp in terms of references ,the movie is superb esp for ppl who love cinema ,i think it went beyond what was written on the paper though i am still trying to get hold of the script to see for myself ,