The Emotion of Disgust: Repulsion (1965)

Director: Roman Polanski

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser

Release Date: June 1965 (UK)

Imagine the most disgusting thing you can think of. Next, imagine seeing this thing all the time. Now, imagine the thing that disgusts you is an ordinary, everyday object. Finally, think of feeling that sensation of disgust no matter what it is you look at, that it’s the everyday ordinariness of reality that nauseates you through your guts, turning your soul in some hellish oil slick. Next to this unstinting horror of everything, rotting corpses are just the background for a life in which a plain wall or door or ceiling can terrify you into madness. Welcome to the world of the psychotic depressive, a world portrayed with chilling accuracy in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.

I’ve watched a great many horror films, and Repulsion is by some way the scariest, and the irony is Polanski plays upon the sense of disgust which makes so many modern horror films, especially the slasher or torture porn flicks, unsuccessful in their desire to frighten. Once we’ve seen one head lopped off, we’ve seen ’em all and, unless we’ve had our limbs hacked to pieces with a chainsaw or found our face surgically attached to someone’s butt, it is difficult for a film to scare us – yes, it disgusts, or even shocks, but does not scare, at least not for long. The victims may have our sympathy, and we wish for their rescue, but we are not truly effected by their grisly, ingenious demise. A concentration on physical torment reduces cinema to a freakshow, a medieval dungeon opened to the public, the exhibits out of reach behind velvet ropes.

A good psychological horror film however, gets inside the viewer by violating that most whole and common part of ourselves, the mind. We do not imagine the day will come when a cackling fiend ties us to a rack or pushes us inside an iron maiden, but a film like Repulsion shows the experience of a mental breakdown as sickening, uncanny – and yet dismally plausible.

Repulsion depicts the psychical deterioration of a young Belgian manicurist, Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), who lives in a London apartment with her older and more worldly sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Sexually repressed, Carol is disturbed by the presence of Helen’s boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry), none more so when she hears the sound of their love-making as she lies alone in bed at night. Helen and Michael leave for a vacation and, unable to cope without her sister, Carol undergoes a gradual breakdown during which she murders two visitors to the apartment, the landlord (a suitably loathsome Patrick Whymark) and her suitor, Colin (John Fraser). Yet it is not the murders in themselves which appall the viewer, more the sense that the two deaths are somehow unavoidable, and even reasonable, given Carol’s decaying state of mind, and it is how Polanski conveys this sense to the viewer which is so disturbing.

In Carol’s demented world, it is the ordinary which becomes horrific; the way an old woman talks to her beautician; a man playing spoons in the street; Carol’s own inability to clear away a meal of roast rabbit; even the act of walking along the sidewalk is warped, as Chico Hamilton’s inventive score beats out a military march to Carol’s footsteps. Once cocooned inside the apartment, it isn’t the dead bodies which bother Carol (in itself disturbing), but the hands that reach out from walls that turn to clay at her touch, or the man who leaps out of nowhere to rape Carol in her room while a clock ticks so loudly it obliterates all other sound. Once this frame of mind is established, the murders of Colin and the landlord are seen as the acts of the person the depressive fears becoming most, someone capable of an horrific act the slightest trigger. In Carol’s instance, the triggers aren’t so innocent, sexual advances made by the landlord and her would-be boyfriend, but once we engage with Carol’s mental state, and Polanski ensures we’ve no choice, it is easy to imagine how it would be to live in a world where the only thing more disgusting than the world is the mind’s sense of itself and its continual, alarming, filtration of reality.

We are only offered one clue as to why Carol becomes this way: an old family photograph, placed innocuously on a sideboard. The camera lingers upon it twice, including the film’s final, quietly devastating close-up, by which time Carol has been discovered by Helen and Michael in a catatonic state underneath her bed. Our sense of disgust then shifts in time as well as place, just as Polanski’s film will pervade the viewer’s faculties for a long time afterwards.