After his one-two punch of Knife in the Water and the superior Repulsion, Roman Polanski appeared poised to become the contemporary answer to Hitchcock. Both are thrillers, minimalist in nature and depend on character development to increase the tension to a palpable degree, but Repulsion shows extraordinary maturity in the skill of its craftsman. A film that was quite controversial in its time, Repulsion focuses its narrow lens upon the fragile state of mind of its protagonist, who is twisted into painful knots of paranoid delusions whilst drowning in an ocean of sexual repression and fear of intimacy. As played by Catherine Deneuve, the character of Carole Ledoux is an opaque, blank-eyed cipher, withdrawn and fearful of the world around her– in particular, men.
As time progresses, and her mental state begins to decay during a harrowing weekend spent in near solitude in an apartment that appears to grow and shrink in Kafkaesque fashion, we are allowed to see deeper into her tortured psyche. The walls crack, maniacally grinning men lie in wait to assault her, and a skinned rabbit carcass progressively rots (only the most obvious of the visual metaphors). The violent end that approaches becomes almost sensible, and perhaps for the heroine, cathartic. As an atmospheric exploration of cerebral breakdown that is thankfully short on pat explanations, Repulsion excels.
There is something else going on here, though. The subtext is at first muted, but with time and the progression of the behavior of the male characters in the piece, Polanski’s hand shows all too clearly. The film is an exploration of contemporary marriage. Marriage itself functions mostly as a business arrangement designed to bring financial stability to the family structure, without which the first sleepless night spent changing the tenth shitty diaper would send any sane man packing pronto. The legal bond of marriage is not necessary for love or intimacy, but it is essential for the progressive mind games that resemble cabin fever in their intensity and requirement of close quarters. That women are somewhere between opportunistic and insane needs no further discussion, but in the manacles of wedded bliss the quality of complacency is added, and the fate of the man is sealed. Of course the man is equally to blame for being foolish enough to enter into a bargain whereby they stand to lose everything and gain only a dinner partner for the rest of their days. The man pursues the woman, and after a protracted fight with any inferior suitors, lands his prize, only to watch it bloat, bleat, and burst forth with innumerable spawn. In a majority of cases, the end result is divorce, only to be followed anew by the chase and capture of another wife, so that the same painful cycle can be repeated because men have the attention span of gnats.
In Repulsion, the heroine lacks several critical bolts that might have held her together. That she is afflicted with crippling paranoia is but one choice amidst a vast buffet of psychological perforations from which Polanski could have chosen. Carole exhibits primarily cluster A traits consistent with both paranoid and schizoid disorders given her extreme fears and suspicions. Whether the rapist who visits on a regular basis is a hallucination or an obsessive dream is up for debate. Carole appears to dance improbably across the personality disorder spectrum, with strong borderline symptoms (her world is fairly black and white, and her behavior deeply impulsive) and a mixture of avoidant and dependent personality disorder features. She has extreme social and sexual inhibition as well as a devastating dependence on her sister, whose mere absence from the apartment has driven Carole to the brink.
Though it is very rare for a psychiatric case to have symptoms this broad, it can be said that the character is meant to be representative rather than realistic. To wit, all women are this crazy. The only difference lies in which cluster of personality disorders they may have.
One young man is smitten with her, asks her out to dinner, and continues to push and chase her in the streets until he finally breaks down her door to make plain his obsession with her. When his brain is properly tenderized and his body dumped in the tub to decompose, it can be safely assumed that the ring is on her finger and vows have been exchanged. There is no need for the former romantic figure, brimming with optimism – that poor bastard can be left to the rats and roaches. At this point, the cynic is about to arrive. And arrive he does in the form of the landlord, who also breaks down the door (after boards have been nailed up as a fair warning) to make clear what the deal is. The primary issue is money, as it is with all nuptial agreements. Money then mutates into a power struggle, no doubt because little miss mindfuck has little earning potential while declining to bring any other skills to the table. This ends as it should, with the straight razor opening every exposed artery, and the man bleeds dry and the sofa is upturned on his lifeless body (fitting, as he has been sleeping on the sofa for the past several weeks). A better description of divorce would be difficult to come by, unless one prefers metaphors involving the rectum. Finally the door is broken down one last time by Carole’s sister, who discovers what the protagonist hath wrought. Her limp form is carried from the apartment by yet another man, who is keen to turn a blind eye to the devastation of the scene. In short, the divorcee, despite the alimony, child support, and literal and figurative scars, is ready for further punishment.
Now, bear in mind that this opinion is heavily shaded by my own experience, and my personal feeling that marriage is for those who feel that they were born with an excess of limbs and vital organs and can do without much of either. You may have the exact opposite of my opinion based upon your experiences – and we would both be correct. Such is the charm of truly solid cinema, that we can see what we view as our own truth, all the while enthralled by the story as laid out by a master of the craft.