I’d heard of Repulsion before, but never had the chance to see it. Good thing I keep relatively close eye on the TCM schedule.
Repulsion is the story of Carol, a young woman who works at a salon and lives with her older sister. Carol comes across as quiet and shy. We also learn, very early on, that she seems to have some kind of problem with men. Her luminous beauty may attract the opposite sex, but she seems completely disinterested in any of their advances. When her sister leaves her alone for several days to go on vacation with her boyfriend, Carol’s tenuous grip on reality begins to unravel and she starts a slow, spiraling nosedive into insanity.
Repulsion is like a shining beacon of the slow-burn, psychological horror genre. There is little to no action for over an hour, but that time is not used idly, using those early scenes to focus on Carol and getting you to relate to her despite her slow decent into madness. And it is a slow decent. Carol is clearly the protagonist here and the viewer follows her every meticulously measured step of the way, drawing closer and closer to her not just from a narrative standpoint, but visually as well.
By the time her sister leaves, the vantage point has zoomed in so much on her that we see things through Carol’s eyes, not so much through a typical first person perspective, but more like through the eyes of an omnipresent voyeur.
As the film goes on, the atmosphere in the apartment goes from calm and cozy, to claustrophobic and downright ominous, to the point where the dwelling itself, in Carols frayed state of mind, turns into a physical antagonist who either assaults her at night or tries to grab her and pull her into the very walls of the apartment itself.
See, this is the point where you’re supposed to call the building manager…
The deterioration of her mental state is shown visually through other, more obvious ways as well, such as the uncooked rabbit she pulls out of the fridge not long after her sister leaves that she allows to fester and rot until the end of the film.
All these are visual representations of her mind as she slowly snaps and grows increasingly unstable and paranoid, though it’s never overtly stated what has caused this mental break. It is vaguely suggested that she might have been abused as a child, perhaps by her father as that would explain her, ahem, ‘repulsion’ to men, but it’s never clearly stated. Perhaps it was that trauma coupled with the unwanted advances of the man who is currently perusing her? We just don’t know.
What we do know, from the very beginning of the film, is that there is clearly something not right with Carol. Around women she seems relatively fine, quite and meek, maybe, but perfectly functional. On the other hand, around men she barely speaks or acknowledges their presence to the point where she all but shuts down at their mere mention. Unless they make their way into the apartment. Woe and betide any non-figment-of-my-imagination man that walks into that apartment after the sister goes on holiday.
The nosey neighbor, though, somehow manages to get away scot-free.
As the film goes on, other things stand out. She comes across as nervous when she shouldn’t, she twitches, she brushes at her face, she’s often caught starring off into nothing and previous statements take on new meaning. For instance, at the beginning of the movie, Carol mentions to her sister about ‘mending a crack’, presumably in the kitchen wall she’s starring off into. Her sister doesn’t hear her (not really her fault, she does talk very softly), but we do. What features prominently later in the film?
Cracks. Lots of them.
Point being, nothing in this film is really done without reason, neither from a spoken or visual standpoint.
Overall, Repulsion is a great example of psychological horror. Its slow, steady plot builds up a great sense of unease, paranoia and nervousness and makes you feel genuine empathy for a character, even after she’s already knocked-off her first victim. Its distorted, stunning visuals and disjointed music make it a fascinating look into one young woman’s psyche. Not to mention being in Carols severely addled brain will make you question the events you’re witnessing until the final illumination at the end. Though I think it portrays some questionable ideas about women, it’s definitely recommended unless you just can not handle movies that take a while to build up.
Repulsion is currently available to rent on Amazon.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.