This week’s episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot is almost the antithesis of last week’s, or at least it was to me as a viewing experience. While A Room with a View is an endless source of pleasure and a film I’m always eager to revisit, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a bottomless pit of discomfort and a film that, since I first watched it, I’ve never had any desire to suffer through again.
This is not to say that Repulsion is a bad film, far from it. While the film is rather disturbing in its exploration of female sexuality turned into violent psychosis, perhaps showing some rather ugly aspects of Polanski’s view of women, as a horror film it’s quite riveting and a veritable miracle of ingenious technique. The sound is especially miraculous but, alas, we’re here to discuss the film’s visuals, which are quite impressive in their own right.
The cinematography is an amazing mix of British realism with a very continental feeling surrealism. The black and white is often stark and almost abrasive in its cutting contrast, rendering the protagonist into a sort of ghostly vision of feminine innocence. The greatest visual accomplishment of the film, though, isn't so much its beautiful yet creepy cinematography, but its masterful set design. The apartment where most of the film's narrative occurs is practically a second protagonist, going from realistic banality to a nightmarish vision of hell with an extraordinary ease. From arms jutting out through clay walls to a bathroom that seems to have grown to twice its original size in the middle of a sequence, Repulsion’s apartment is comparable to The Shining’s hotel when it comes to startlingly effective but deceptively normal looking horror film sets.
Repulsion is very often discussed alongside Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, as a sort of trilogy of the terror of living in apartments, which I think is rather misleading. While I can understand a great similarity between this film and The Tenant, I think that when comparing it to Rosemary’s Baby a key difference comes to the forefront. When we’re watching Mia Farrow descending into a spiral of paranoia and satanic conspiracies there’s a great closeness between the audience and the protagonist. In a way, we’re experiencing the terror through her eyes and it’s because of her responses and reactions that we’re engulfed in the film’s suffocating atmosphere. In Repulsion, in contrast, Polanski seems almost reluctant of getting too close to his protagonist, Carol played by a stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve.
While the director himself insists that the entirety of the film is a subjective experience seen through Carol’s perspective, I strongly disagree that this is what the film, as a finished work, ends up accomplishing. When I watch Repulsion I never get the feeling that I’m experiencing Carol’s psychic meltdown, but rather that I’m watching it from a distance, almost in a voyeuristic manner. This is mostly a byproduct of the opacity with which Polanski and Deneuve render the character, never trying to explain, empathize, or simply attempt to comprehend the troubled psyche around which the entire edifice of the film is built.
For my best shot I chose a shot where the presence of a camera watching Carol from a distance is unquestionably present:
This shot appears quite early in the film, before we’ve even glimpsed the nightmarish apartment where loneliness turns into terror. In it, Carol simply walks through London almost floating through the screen with her ethereal beauty that is augmented by the contrasting black and white cinematography, almost turning her into a luminous and inhuman spirit.
Catherine Deneuve’s beauty and her icy persona are essential to the success of Repulsion. The actress has been often considered an Ice Queen of the screens, her beauty rather than calling for our touch or devotion seems to position the audience at a distance from its radiance, Deneuve is a goddess of the screen and as a divinity she must be adored and venerated from afar, but never sullied by our unworthy touch. All of this is quite odd of me to say when Repulsion is one of the actress’s most vulnerable performances. Carol possesses Deneuve’s chilly and beautiful presence, but in this character it’s not a goddess we observe but a cold porcelain doll, with cracks subtly appearing and threatening to shatter the entirety of her existence at any given moment.
Polanski’s gaze is distant, voyeuristic and almost perverse in its unblinking intensity, but it’s the tempest of beauty, innocence and coldness that is Deneuve as Carol that really turns the film into the strange and brilliantly discomforting experience that it is in the end.
And that’s why this is my best shot. Because Deneuve as rarely been more beautiful than when floating through London’s streets, seeming like she’s in a fashion editorial but without the confidence or pose of a model. Because the cinematography completely turns her into something distant and impenetrable, a spirit or an idea rather than a human, And because, despite all the technical brilliance of the film, we can see the shadow of the camera, completely making us aware of the act of distantly watching a person. To me, Repulsion isn’t about experiencing the horror of loneliness and possible mental illness, but rather about distantly watching it in all its incomprehensible spectacle and terror.