Analysis of “Repulsion”

Repulsion is a 1965 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski and written by him, Gérard Brach, and David Stone (these latter two having written the screenplay). It is the first of Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’ of films, the second being Rosemary’s Baby and the third being The Tenant. Repulsion is considered one of his best films.

It stars Catherine Deneuve as Carol Ledoux, a socially withdrawn Belgian living in London with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol is suffering from the effects of psychological trauma, the cause of which is never explicitly stated, though one finds it safe to assume that she’s been raped, in all likelihood during her childhood, the abuser having been her father.

Because of this trauma, she feels a repulsion towards men, especially those with a sexual or romantic interest in her. When Helen leaves with her boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry), on a vacation to Italy, Carol–all alone in her apartment–spirals into madness.

Here are some quotes:

Mrs. Rendlesham: Have you fallen asleep?
Carol: Oh, I’m sorry.
Mrs. Rendlesham: I think you must be in love or something.

“We must get this crack mended.” –Carol

Carol: I’m having dinner with my sister.
Colin: Is she a good cook?
Carol: I never even thought about it.
Colin: Well, at least it can’t be any worse than fish and chips.
Carol: I think we are having rabbit.
Colin: Rabbit? Oh. I thought they’d all been killed off.
Carol: No. She has a friend.
Colin: A rabbit?
Carol: No, I think the friend has rabbits.
Colin: Poor bunny.

“Just the sound of his voice makes my flesh creep! Money! Money! Money! That’s all he ever thinks about.” –Helen, after hanging up the phone with the landlord

“I better go and see what that old bitch wants. Now, you go back to work. I’ll talk to you later. And, Carol, do something about your hair.” –Madame Denise

“I wish I could find the proper words to say. They just keep going around and around in my head. I just – I want to be – to be with you – all the time.” –Colin

“There’s no need to be alone, you know. Poor little girl. All by herself. All shaking like a little frightened animal.” –landlord, to Carol

[Convent bells heard ringing] “I could be a very good friend to you, you know. You look after me and you can forget about the rent. Come on. Come on. Just a little kiss between us. Huh? Come on.” –landlord, to Carol

Carol works as a manicurist for a beauty salon. Added to this, she’s very pretty (with the young Deneuve playing her, beauty is unavoidable). When we consider her repulsion towards men’s sexual advances, we might wonder why she makes no attempt to spoil her looks through, for example, intentionally gaining weight (though her hair is a bit disheveled at times); we also might ask why she has chosen to work in a place that would be a daily reminder to her of the pressure put on women to be beautiful.

Perhaps part of the answer to this riddle is in how many rape victims carry in their minds the badge of ‘sex object’ or ‘slut‘ as part of their trauma; such labels can accompany the compulsion to repeat the traumatizing states as part of an attempt to process the pain. So her staying beautiful can perhaps be seen as a moderate position on the trauma continuum, at the more extreme of which some rape victims would engage in promiscuous sex.

On the other hand, the decision to have a job helping other women to be beautiful could be part of an attempt to project her ‘sex object’ status onto other women. Furthermore, her manicures (which include cutting fingernails) could represent an unconscious wish to castrate symbolically phallic fingers, a point that should be obvious in the scene when she injures a woman’s hand (here at 57:20).

She often has a dazed, far away look in her eyes, almost as if she were in a catatonic stupor. Such dissociation is common with trauma victims: these people are typically living in their heads rather than in the physical moment, either going over traumatic memories, again and again, in an attempt to process them, or they’re trying to find a mental escape from the pain.

The woman she’s serving at the beginning of the film assumes she’s daydreaming because she’s in love: oh, how wildly off the mark our assumptions can be! As for Colin (John Fraser), the man Carol is ‘dating,’ she completely forgets a date with him, and she would do anything to get rid of him. (After he kisses her, she’s so grossed out that she rushes into her apartment and frantically brushes her teeth.) Carol can’t even stand Helen’s boyfriend Michael. She hates the sight of his toothbrush in her glass in the bathroom (symbolic of a phallus inside a yoni), so she throws it in the garbage. The sound of him and her sister making love in the other room is intolerable to Carol. She will, however, find a use for (Michael’s?) phallic razor…

The three of them plan to have rabbit for dinner, but Michael and Helen decide instead to go out to eat. Later, we see the unsightly remains of the hairless, uncooked animal. It can remind one of a rape victim, in a way: a sweet, innocent living thing uncovered and ruined, all for the satisfaction of one’s appetite; then, once discarded after no longer serving any use, we see the remains. Small wonder Carol carries the rabbit’s head in her purse later in the movie. She can identify with its victimization.

She can’t stand being bothered by people, especially men, but she feels a strong attachment to, a need for the company of, her sister, who isn’t always particularly nice to her. Everybody needs at least one person to relate to, a kind of metaphorical mirror reflecting a face back to oneself, reminding us that we exist. Carol’s sister provides this for her, to anchor her in the real world.

But when Helen and Michael leave for Italy…

For such an emotionally fragile girl, even a mere week or two of being alone in her apartment can feel like an eternity; it can feel like total abandonment.

For Carol, Helen is thus a transference of their mother, who when available is what Melanie Klein called the ‘good mother.’ The unavailable mother, as transferred onto and symbolized by Helen on her trip to Italy with Michael, is the frustrating ‘bad mother.’ And if Carol’s older sister has become her replacement mother, then Helen’s boyfriend has become Carol’s replacement father, again, a Kleinian ‘bad father,’ which is all the easier to see, given Carol’s feelings towards her actual father, as seen in that family photo, with her as a child staring at him in a kind of fixated hostility.

The feeling of abandonment she feels from her ‘mother’ and ‘father’ leaving her for Italy puts Carol in the paranoid-schizoid position, where objects (i.e., other people as represented in one’s mind) are split up into absolute good and bad (and she is experiencing only the bad here), and where she feels extreme persecutory anxiety, the threat of being raped again…even though now it’s all in her head.

She stays in her apartment for an extended time, missing work for three days and worrying her boss. She’s been seeing cracks in the walls of the apartment, including shocking hallucinations of them. These cracks symbolize two things: first, they represent tears in the vaginal walls of a rape victim; second, they represent what Wilfred Bion called beta elements, or external sensory stimuli that assail the brain and must be processed, through alpha function, in order to become normal thoughts, or alpha elements (see here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts). Carol rejects these excitations as intolerable intrusions into her mental life, and so the accumulated beta elements form a beta screen, as symbolized by the walls.

This constant rejecting of Knowledge, of new experience (beta elements, Bion’s K), this building up of walls around herself (the beta screen), is–needless to say–unhealthy. For as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a dialectical unity of self and other. Just as Carol is rejecting other people, so is she ejecting–splitting off–parts of herself.

Bion wrote (<<pages 47-48 here) of how the constant ejection of beta elements, building a beta screen from them, and the splitting-off of parts of one’s own personality–the bad internal objects–leads to the creation of bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts of the self.

Whenever Carol hallucinates of cracks in the walls, of men suddenly appearing in her apartment, of men raping her, and of men’s groping hands coming out of the walls and grabbing her, these are all examples of her bizarre objects. These hallucinations are manifestations of what Fairbairn called the return of bad objects (<<<see Part 5). On the first occasion of her hallucinating of a man’s presence in her apartment, it’s in the mirror reflection, a clear sign of a bizarre object projected from inside her.

Colin seems like a nice enough man; there’s nothing in his manner to suggest that his interest in Carol is merely lecherous. His two teasing male friends in the local pub note that he must be in love. What is it about Carol that could possibly make Colin fall in love with her, apart from her beauty? There are many other beauties the handsome young man could fall for…why this icy cold, rejecting androphobe? Could he be sensing her inner pain? Could he be empathizing with her, even without knowing what’s happened to her (i.e., the presumed child sexual abuse)? Does her pain make her all the more beautiful to him?

Even inside her apartment, she doesn’t feel safe. A woman speaks abusively to her on the telephone, driving her to cut the landline cord with the straight razor. Indeed, that razor will give her a special power, making her a kind of phallic woman, as we’ll see below.

Colin, unable to bear her rejections anymore, goes to her apartment and rings the doorbell. She gasps audibly at the thought of him entering; he, now knowing someone’s at home but won’t open the door, rams into it and breaks it open. It doesn’t matter that he’s really a nice guy; it doesn’t matter how many times he says he’s sorry. His breaking open the door and entering the room, where those cracked walls are–those torn vaginal walls–is a symbolic rape, triggering her traumas.

With an old lady neighbour outside, watching them from down the hall like a personified superego, neither of them can do much. His closing the door is like a disregarding of the morality of the superego; this allows Carol, holding a phallic candlestick, to sneak up behind him and club him to death with it.

She disposes of his body in a bathtub that she’s previously filled to the brim with water, having absent-mindedly left it (the full tub is a symbolic yoni filled with symbolic semen she’s neglected for what by now should be obvious reasons); then she barricades the door in an attempt to keep more potential rapists (real and imagined) out, to keep out those agitating beta elements.

At various points during the film, she looks out the window and sees either nuns in a convent tossing a ball about, or she sees a trio of elderly male buskers walking on the sidewalk together and playing music. Her noting these harmless, male- or female-only groups seems to suggest her preferred way for society to be: a peaceful sexual apartheid, a Herland for women, and a Himland for men.

Because Helen has been late with the rent, the landlord (Patrick Wymark) has been a nag about it. He rings the doorbell and has to fight his way past Carol’s barricade to get in. This forcible entry is another symbolic rape. Add to this the fact that the building is his private property, and as I’ve said above, the walls of her apartment are symbolically her vaginal walls, we can see what a threatening presence he is to her, as the man with all the power, intruding on her private world, her ‘privates.’

He is shocked at the mess he sees in her place, which is legally his place. The uncooked rabbit, that symbolic rape victim, arouses his disgust in particular, though not his empathy. He’s happy to get the rent at last, but he’d be willing to forget about it in exchange for a sexual favour from the pretty girl.

He’s chosen the wrong woman to make moves on. She has that phallic razor hidden in her hand; and while he’d like to give her a phallic entry, she ends up doing a phallic entry (symbolically speaking) on him, by first cutting the back of his neck with the razor, then slashing at him, over and over again, until she’s killed him.

Bion’s theory of containment, normally applied either to the soothing of a baby or the treatment of a psychotic, can also have a negative version, allied to K (Bion, pages 95-99), the refusal to grow in Knowledge through human relationships, as is happening with Carol, leading not to soothing or a therapeutic cure, but instead to a nameless dread. Bion used the feminine symbol for the container and a masculine one for the contained, implying, respectively, yonic and phallic symbolism.

This sexual symbolism for the negative container/contained relationship is perfectly expressed in Carol’s PTSD reaction to having been raped. The trauma of her agitating beta elements must be ejected, especially when a man is trying to have his way with her, a man who–as her landlord–has all the more power over her. It’s only natural that she’d want ‘to rape him back,’ so to speak, by digging that phallic blade into his skin, making ‘yonic’ wounds in it. She wants to reverse the negative container/contained relationship and make a man feel a pain men have made women feel over the millennia.

(In this connection, it’s ironic that one of the creators of this story, presumably made sensitive to women’s victimization, would twelve years after making this film be charged with sexually assaulting a minor in the US; he then left the country and has never returned, out of a fear of facing deportation and imprisonment, for having plea bargained with an admission of statutory rape.)

Carol’s lashing out at and killing Colin and the landlord, of course, has given her no catharsis, for her bad internal object (her presumed rapist father) remains, haunting her mind like a ghost. Her continued hallucinations of hands grabbing at her from walls, and of men raping her, are the PTSD reliving of her trauma, a pain that, outside of psychotherapy, will never go away.

In her psychotic state, Carol acts in ways that, apart from their absurdity, would seem to be feminist parodies of a wife’s household duties. She is seen ‘ironing’ a shirt, but the cord isn’t plugged in, a Freudian parapraxis suggesting an unconscious defiance of the traditional roles of the patriarchal family. Soon after, she puts on lipstick, but sloppily, and then she just goes to bed, rather than going out and being sociable; again, this implies an unconscious refusal to be pretty for men’s pleasure.

Earlier in the film, Michael has noted that something’s wrong with her, and he tells Helen that Carol should see a doctor. Helen, averse to the social stigma of mental illness being associated with her family, is offended at Michael’s suggestion. When the couple return to her flat, and she sees the state that Carol has left the place in (not to mention the two bodies), hyperventilating Helen must now realize that she should have listened to her boyfriend.

Trauma must be confronted; it cannot be remedied through the usual defence mechanisms of repression or splitting. When repressed, trauma resurfaces in new and unrecognized forms; for Carol, the trauma of having been raped by, presumably, her father, resurfaces as a general androphobia. When bad internalized objects are split off and projected outwards, they can return as bizarre objects, as we see in Carol’s hallucinations of rapists and groping hands.

We don’t heal trauma by trying to erase it from our minds; we heal it by facing it, by feeling it, then telling the inner child in us that what happened to us was not our fault. It was the fault of the perpetrator…100% his fault.

Whenever anyone–Carol’s boss, for example–asks her what’s wrong, she cannot put her trauma into words. All she can do is sit and stare, as she does when a little girl in that old family photo, her staring at her presumed rapist father. It was all his fault…yet she cannot come out and just say it, when talking about her trauma is crucial to curing it. She can only relive it in her mind, and feel repulsion at any male reminder of what happened to her.

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