A Book Review by Dávid Szőke.
A fascinating study that examines themes mostly, but not exclusively, central to feminist visual representations, without losing sight of the paradoxes that shade contemporary approaches to Polanski’s work in the light of the #meToo movement.”
“We are clay […] and nothing is real for us except the Womb into which we shall return.” So says one character, the evil and immoral priest Carel Fisher, in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Time of the Angels (1966). Watching Roman Polanski’s movies, one has a constantly reverberating and eerie feeling of returning to a “womb” that is both homely and profoundly alienating. In each of Polanski’s films, home is the womblike place of trauma, horror (Macbeth), the fear of being deported (The Pianist), and a location where restrained emotions explode (Carnage). It is hard not to read into these movies for some elements from Polanski’s own biography, where the sense of being dislocated appears in multiple forms. His experiences of the Holocaust, including the ghettoization of Jews in Krakow, the deportations to and murder of his parents in Mauthausen and Auschwitz, and his hiding from the Germans have some resonances in The Pianist (2002). Violence and moral corruption are constant themes in Polanski’s films, especially following the Manson murders, with Macbeth often read as his immediate reflection on the incident. Polanski’s 1977 arrest and charge with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, which resulted in his flight from the US as a fugitive of justice, led to an immense reconsideration of his representation of women being mentally and physically brutalized, of which Repulsion (1965) was no exception.
Jeremy Carr’s Repulsion sheds light on how the themes of the uncanny feeling of isolation and entrapment, and the intersections of the real and the imaginary, promote the film to be a complex piece of the psychological horror genre. Although Polanski’s biography would not justify describing him as a women’s director, Carr convincingly argues how certain aesthetic elements and themes in Repulsion, like abjection, invasion, female monstrosity, or the household being the territory of comfort and confinement (which are mostly topicalized by feminist scholars and filmmakers) can pave the way for female-centered approaches to the film. While Carr cannot escape an occasionally superficial comparison of Polanski’s biography and work, his job is particularly hampered by the lawsuits and allegations revolving around the director since 1977, which altogether raises questions about the extent to which art can and should be detached from the artist.
Chapter One discusses the themes of isolation and entrapment, whereby Carr relates Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny, the familiar as a source of repression and anxiety, whereby the territory of true horror is the human psyche. Here, Carr gives a precise outline of the plot, approaching the subject of this part with subtle attention. He argues that Repulsion sides with, though also departs from, many films in the horror genre that locate the house as a place of initial solace or refuge, and how in Polanski the situations get reversed. In Repulsion, the flat that on the onset, unsettling as it is, seems to be a shelter for the Carol, the movie’s heroine (Catherine Deneuve), turns out to be the nest of her mental terrors. Thus, Carr interprets Repulsion as a twist on the Gothic tradition’s concept of the “bad place”/”terrible house,” where the interiors of the domestic space are as unstable as the mental state of those residing in it, and where there is a direct link between women, the social constraints of the household, and the mental illness that arises from them. One might find some associations with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), all featuring unique women incarcerated in and mentally tormented by the domestic space. In Carr’s view, what aligns Repulsion with these movies is that Polanski’s film entangles physicality and vulnerability, making the body a place of discursive practices.
Carr convincingly argues how certain aesthetic elements and themes in Repulsion, like abjection, invasion, female monstrosity, or the household being the territory of comfort and confinement (which are mostly topicalized by feminist scholars and filmmakers) can pave the way for female-centered approaches to the film.“
Chapter Two further elaborates on this latter notion. Carr’s main argument here starts from the movie’s tagline (“The nightmare world of a Virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!”), arguing that Carol’s sexual anxiety becomes a triggering aspect to the film’s terrifying events. The link between sex and horror helps build the film’s narrative, from instances of Carol overhearing allegations of sexual violence at her workplace; the disturbing sounds of sexual act by her sister, Helen; the odor of some dirty shirts left behind by Helen’s boyfriend, Michael; Carol’s hallucinations of being raped; or by the manifestation of her psychosexual revolt when kissed by the suitor, Colin (Carr is rather sympathetic to this latently oppressive character early in the film, while noting Colin to be forceful, toxic, and violent before his death). Sex, desire, danger, and death, the frustrated perception of (volatile or gentle) male behavior by Carol and, through her, the audience raises questions about how Polanski’s movie adheres to or resists patriarchal cultural discourses about evil and femininity in a highly sexualized context. By making his heroine an object to the audience’s attentive eye, Polanski offers much for the interpretations on the gendered nature of the cinematic gaze in Repulsion, particularly in its perverse game of portraying a beautiful and sexually alluring woman destroyed, which aspect later returns in Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970), two films that Catherine Deneuve shot with Luis Buñuel. Particularly controversial in the film is Polanski’s portrayal of female fantasy about rape, and the author suggest that Polanski’s personal history, his relationship with his actresses, and his criminal record draws his sympathy towards his heroine in Repulsion into some enigma.
Chapter Three discusses the themes of paranoia and perception. Here, Carr argues that the differently visualized sense of paranoia that occupies a large place in Polanski’s films, in Repulsion is especially unsettling for the heroine’s internalized and isolated, and therefore never truly explicated, mental state. As Carr says, although Carol’s psychosis is without a doubt monstrous in essence, yet what sets Repulsion apart from other notable films of the 1960s in the horror genre, like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), or Hitchcock’s movies, is that the perceptual crisis of Carol is central, rather than incidental, to the exploration of her mental state. In so doing, Polanski positions us as audience dangerously close to Carol’s paranoid perspective, which is clearly accentuated by the film’s opening close-up of Carol’s eye, pulling back to reveal Carol’s bewildered face, which makes us, passive spectators, empathetic participants of the game. Like in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), since eyes are decoders of the complexities and the fragilities of our mental set-up, our closeness of the eye involves the risk of being pulled into the inexplicable, yet dangerously familiar realm of the paranoid.
Polanski’s attempt, yet refusal to make us understand, empathize, or look behind the scenes of Carol’s schizophrenia and her disgust of men, is clearly accentuated by the movie’s rather vulgar depiction of men and the production design. In Chapter Four, Carr discusses the way the film’s set embodies what is uncanny and surreal, with male hands reaching out of the walls, eels emerging from sinks, pointing towards the weirdness and the alienating that exists both within Carol and in her outside world. Our uneasiness is strengthened by Polanski’s intense close-ups, the distorted imagery, or the depictions of blood during the murder scenes and the beauty parlor, Carol’s workplace, as a sort of torture chamber. An uncanny presence itself, the flat takes dangerously otherworldly shapes in Carol’s fantasies, whereby past and present intertwine, and the audience is left with little explanation of what causes Carol’s breakdown.
Regarding all these points, Jeremy Carr’s book is a fascinating study that examines themes mostly, but not exclusively, central to feminist visual representations, without losing sight of the paradoxes that shade contemporary approaches to Polanski’s work in the light of the #meToo movement. While Carr does keep in mind that Polanski’s representation of the sexualization and the representation of women is rather problematic, in particular the portrayal of rape in Carol’s fantasy, the author acknowledges that Repulsion leaves many doors open for its sympathetic, yet fearsome picture of his tormented heroine. At the same time, even though Polanski in many interviews said that the film was never intended to be horror, Carr eventually considers the film to be a true masterpiece of the genre, in which real dangers lurk in the woman character’s own mental and existential crisis. In this view, Repulsion stands as a true masterpiece that uses our empathy for Carol to pull us into the darkness of her mind. While relying on our perceptions and reactions, the film effectively leaves us unsettled and encouraged to take issue with sexual politics, the gendered depictions of moral and mental frailties, and the borders and border-crossings of visual representation.
 Iris Murdoch, The Time of the Angels (Frogmore, St Albans: Triad/Panther, 1978), p. 165.
Dávid Szőke holds a PhD from the University in Szeged in Hungary. He is currently researching counter narratives to antigypsyism in literature and culture at the Heidelberg University, Germany.