100% at Rotten Tomatoes; one of "The 25 Most Dangerous Movies" according to Premier (their selection is as subjective as any, but at least we have Eraserhead, “M”, A Clockwork Orange, and Un Chien Andalou there. ) Since it is one of the most influential films in history, volumes have been written about it; as a critic said, “it has become the blueprint by which scores of future filmmakers based their visions of insanity.”
I will not, however, quote what intellectuals have said, but only one simple-minded comment from imdb:
"i love movies and watch a lot of them (probably too many!) Repulsion has to be the most disturbing and upsetting movie i have ever seen. everything about this movie creeps me out, and the end shot of the photograph is almost too much for me. i'm not really sure why, but this movie really upsets me to the point that i don't ever want to watch it again, and i think it was very well done. movies like The Hills Have Eyes and the 1000 Corpses House movies are totally more gruesome than movies like Repulsion and they don't bother me at all! <…> does anyone else feel this traumatized over Repulsion, or over any other movie?"
I think this comment is a gem, and expresses the old controversy of cinema as art vs. movies as commercial product better than many theoretical articles I’ve read which only cloud the issue.
Repulsion is deeply disturbing, but not because something “horrible” is shown – nothing, in fact, is that horrible: nothing specially wrong with the cracks in the sidewalk or on the wall, the decaying rabbit, the sprouting potatoes, the chiming of the bells, the ticking of the clock, the wardrobe that slowly yields under relentless faceless male force, the mirr –
I’d better shut up, or I’ll scare myself to death.
When Polanski was asked why he loved filming inside closed-up spaces, he said he wanted the viewers to feel the fourth wall right behind their backs. Fuck, yeah.
The horror lurks in the trivial objects, just like insanity lurks within sanity. Carole slides into madness one step at a time, and the every-day objects become more and more menacing. It’s like the slippage described in Black House (King and Straub): everything still there, but not quite. The first part of the movie is all about this precarious ambiguity: there’s nothing wrong in not stepping on the cracks, in shunning a man on the street who makes passes at you, in not wanting to touch food that doesn’t look especially delicious, in forgetting a date, in expressing disgust at someone else’s toothbrush or anxiety over someone making loud love right behind the wall. Every little step, however, is a step in the right (=wrong) direction.
The apartment slips in the same direction, and the slowness of the passage leaves no hope. Nothing really changes much until it’s too late. The rabbit rots, and the potatoes sprout; and they used to be fresh, and she used to be sane; not quite, but who is? The violability of this borderline, the fragility of the human being while the viewer can’t help feeling that the church bell across the yard rings for him is what makes the movie so really disturbing. Did my hand just slip, or did I consciously stick my scissors into that woman’s finger?
2. Repulsion and The Tenant
A critic said The Tenant was a male version of Repulsion, only that it was much more enchanting to watch a beautiful young Catherine Deneuve lose her mind than to watch Polanski do the same; it is well said as far as witticisms go, but in fact doesn’t even begin to touch the essence of the sameness/opposition between the movies.
Repulsion is, obviously enough, the opposite of The Tenant (or rather – chronologically – the other way). The opposition runs throughout, most evident in the most basic things: black-and white vs. elaborate color scheme; clean-cut narrative vs. fantasmagoric multi-layered tale. Female vs. male. Murders vs. suicide.
Opposite, I said, not different, because essentially they are about one and the same thing: a person who slowly develops insanity inside the four walls of an apartment; in both cases, we never leave the main character’s head, being given only their point of view.
There is some common axis, some twinship: both times the characters are strangers in greatest European capitals (there are degrees of foreigness, though: there’s difference between being French in London in the 60s and Polish in Paris in the 70s; but Carole Ledoux only has to be a stranger, while the tenant has to be constantly humiliated for all conceivable reasons). In both movies the city itself plays an important part, as well as the furniture and doors/windows in the apartment, let alone mirrors. In both a home – something there is supposed to be no place like – belongs to someone else and turns to nightmare. In both there’s a scene where the main character is gazing in fascination at the now-absent (away or dead: degrees of being absent) person’s dresses hanging in the wardrobe, and both times dresses symbolize doom: promiscuity, impurity, - or identification with “the former tenant” and suicide. In both a wardrobe serves as a futile barricade.
I wonder if the two movies have any area of mere difference between them, or all about them is only total sameness and total opposition. I also wonder to what extent it was intended. They are considered to be parts of the so-called “apartment trilogy”, with Rosemary’s Baby in between; I don’t really see at the moment how Rosemary’s Baby fits between these exactly opposite twins.
It is followed through to bizarre lengths; the first Repulsion credit is the big “Starring Catherine Deneuve”, while in The Tenant Polanski isn’t credited at all except as the director, and the first credited actor is Isabelle Adjani. The action in Repulsion is accompanied by jazz music typical for the 60s; the glass harmonica that plays in The Tenant can’t be heard anywhere else (it was forbidden as psychiatrically hazardous, and they hardly found, in Germany, the last man on Earth who could play it).
“I had to stay with my uncle, he is unwell”: the tenant to the concierge, explaining his absence from the tenement.
“One of my aunts came to see very suddenly”: Carole to the owner of the parlor, explaining her absence from work.
One might attribute this to the lack of imagination in Polanski/Brach team, but, you know.
There are hands protruding from walls (Repulsion) or the window (The Tenant); while in her case, the hands want to grab, caress, and desecrate her because she is the object of desire, in his case the hand intends to injure or kill, because he is an object undesired by anybody - except Stella, that is: mirrored image again. While in Carol’s insanity sex represents utter horror, the only person who behaves kindly towards the tenant is an obvious nymphomaniac.
The uncannily beautiful woman is the agent of repulsion, while the ugly (Polanski has managed to carefully eradicate all his not inconsiderable charisma) man is its object. He is desperately trying to fit in and gets rejected in every situation; she voluntarily alienates herself from everyone and everything, moving, one step at a time, further and further away. Her surroundings are (however superficially) sympathetic; his are openly hostile. She reasserts her gender by constantly rejecting the opposite sex; he merges with the female “former tenant”. She seldom engages in a conversation, and when she does, she hardly talks, as if words, too, may stain her, while every word of the interlocutor makes her withdraw further into herself; he is in constant dialog, every instance of which ends up proving him that he is guilty for merely being himself and alive – and would be much better off as someone else and dead.
In the end she, a murderess, is lying there quietly, angelically, finally having achieved her perfect state of inviolability, pureness and inaccessibility. He, a suicide, is lying there in a mess of glass and blood. She succeeds in what she aspired for; he can’t even complete his own suicide, not even at the second attempt.
But the neighbors are around in both cases… of course.
I spoke about the importance of this theme in my previous review, now will touch only upon a few things.
All through the movie, we can see only one neighbor: the old woman with the dog. Her sublime hour is when she witnesses the talk between Carole and her young man, and she relishes it to the last, taking in as much as she can.
Then, the young man sees her, tries to shut the door, and it’s at this moment that he gets killed. The neighbor is instrumental in his murder, because he closes that door on her and because of her; of couse, Carole would have killed him anyway, but that’s how everything converged. Observers are murderers, you see, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically.
Moreover, the woman with the dog is the germ from which all other observers spring: she is the first to whom the bewildered sister’s boyfriend runs in search for a phone, et voila! There’s a whole lot of them here, only hinted at before (by the presence of that very old woman). The neighbors, whose existence in the film is so short, are each a perfection; all hues of curiosity, solicitousness and obtrusiveness are on display. It is shocking to see how the isolation of the apartment erupts into this hungry multitude; there was some dignity in solitude filled with visions and nightmares, but in the end we see everything as the neighbors see it, not Carole: pathetic mess, miserable decay, she alone is untouched, inviolate. Then everyone goes out, and we are allowed one more view of the debris – and children’s toys, little sweet things, so heartbreakingly ordinary – and, finally, the photo.
4. What Happened
There are two schools of thought. One maintains that the photo shows the man who had abused Carole when she was a little girl, and at the photo she looks accusingly at her molester; also the man raping her in her visions is supposed to be that man (probably father). The other disagrees. Since I belong to the latter, I will try to present my arguments.
I think we can all agree that Polanski has never been interested in the origins of evil; evil is inherent to the world, is all; in review of The Tenant I already tried to show how nothing is ever surprising for the characters or the viewers. I don’t think he has ever told, or will ever tell, a story where something horrible happens “because” someone did something, or where someone does horrible things “because” something makes him do it. It’s what people are, and what the world is, that makes them do what they do; no excuse of “because” is offered unless it is “because they are what they are”. Tess kills because she is a victim pushed to the limit; Andrzej (Knife in the Water) baits the nameless young man because the latter is an easy prey; vampires suck blood because they are vampires; and Carole Ledoux kills because she is pure.
She, without thinking, does all it takes - all her insanity prompts her to do - to protect her purity, and I don’t think this purity was ever violated. It’s too perfect, too precious a gem to have a flaw. It’s not really men, abusers and molesters, that she is protecting herself from; it’s the world as it is, with foods and old women and dirty sinks, sex being only the most obvious and the most aggressive part of it; that’s why her repulsion from the world takes shape of an anti-sexual obsession. But she separates herself from the whole world, men and women and foods and words and objects alike, finally withdrawing into her own ivory castle of catatonia – ironically, her utmost purity is achieved under the sofa, on the littered floor of an apartment where flies prey on the decay; but nothing can touch her now.
Similarly, her eyes in that photo do not seem (well, not to me, at least) to be fixed on the man, with anything like accusation or horror. I have always interpreted it as an embryo of further full-scale repulsion – she is gazing beyond this world, into some perfect plane of existence only the insane can see, which one day will engulf her completely.