Thoughts On: Repulsion - Internality Complex


Repulsion - Internality Complex

Before we get started, a quick announcement. As you might have seen, I've just released book 5 of The DSU, Receptacle Infinity. In celebration of this, and as a chance to explore some films I've wanted to for ages, but also as to add a little more depth to the story itself, I've opened up the...

... there will be two types of posts in this series. There will be peripheral films that are loosely connected to the story and central ones that are crucial to its narrative. I hope you stick around for all the posts and make sure you read the story itself for free on the blog (links at the end). Thanks.

Thoughts On: Repulsion

A young woman, Carole, is left home alone when her sister goes on holiday to face personal inner turmoil, realised.

This is an undeniable classic. Whether you want to call it a horror film or not, it has one of the eeriest atmospheres, some of the strongest sense of direction, pacing and surreal meaning in all of cinema. To get into this meaning, it's easiest to follow along with the narrative as this film is essentially a culmination of events and feelings that cause Carole to break down entirely. In other words, we, like the film, will build up to a climactic idea of why Carole is the way she is. This of course means SPOILERS. If you haven't seen this film, what's wrong with you? Go see it. If you have, well, let's get going. So, we'll start as the film does, with the beginning. The film opens with drums reminiscent of an old movie monster movie, something like King Kong, a simple BOM-BOM, BOM-BOM. This is layered over the crucial image of...

... Carole's eye. This isn't just a haunting image, but the key visual metaphor of the movie. This is all about bodies as a medium between which the outside world interacts with the inner one. Most poignantly, this is a film about how what Carole sees being irrevocably controlled and contorted by memory. With the added monster movie-esque sound track over this metaphor it's clear that something ominous lies within her, that something is going to break out. But, with a pull away, we realise that Carole is at work, and that she's a beautician. This is very interesting for quite a few reasons. Firstly, beauty is all about judgement, about looking at something that's probably imperfect and then trying to fix it. What this means is that Carole wipes mush and slathers paint on old people all day. This job seems to suite Carole as she's clearly very analytical. We later on find out that she has some form of OCD, OCPD or hypochondria. To be fixated with things being 'perfect' in this regard would allow her to fix things, paint nails, push back cuticles, present someone as she'd like to see them as a beautician. This would be a great job, if Carole didn't detest imperfections such as cracks (a very important image we'll come back to later). All this means that she gets to soothe her OCD, but must endure a hypochondriac's nightmare of being around uncleanliness and people. The most important thing about Carole's work though are the people. Most descriptions of this film will describe Carole as androphobic which means she's afraid of men. This is true to a certain extent, but doesn't make complete sense. She's repelled by men as the title suggests, but still has a muted fascination or attraction. This means that being in the beauty parlor all day ensure that she's constantly around women, so she doesn't have to endure the stress of being around men. However, there's a but. And this 'but' is that she makes herself and others beautiful, but that inevitably draws the attention of men. This is her opening and most enduring conflict. It's the image of the eye and the implimence of her work place. She walks a thin line between comfort, discomfort and horror with her convoluted relationship with men and cleanliness. This keeps her in a place that allows her to make the unclean and unkempt better and keeps her away from men, but only momentarily. It's this conflict that stagnates Carole's life. This is why she's often in a trance around others. She's both physically and mentally stuck between the outside world and internal one. Her body and mind seem to be working against her.

It's taking these images at hand that we can move on to a key idea of the film: food. Food is quite simply a tangible object that traverses the distance between the outside and inside worlds of a person (literally). The major importance of food though is that it's a sensory extreme in the opposite direction to eye sight. Taste is the last sensory barrier between you and your environment. You can hear and see things coming from miles away. You can smell things from quite the distance too. These are peripheral senses and so primary, but not really personal. If we stay with smell we can see why. The closer things get, the stronger their smell becomes. This is why it's an important social cue. If you stink, people will keep their distance. But, if you smell nice, you draw people in. Now, with the jump to touch things get even more personal. There are extremely strict social rules for touching. You may shake someone's hand, possibly hug them, possibly kiss them on the cheek if you're not well acquainted, but are meeting (say for the first time). Other than that, physical contact is quite rare between strangers in most places. We save that for friends and loved ones. Take this a step further and you come to the sense of taste, and the mouth. Yeah, this is where things get awkward. Putting your mouth on people is not something we're very adventurous about, especially beyond the lips. This all makes clear the stark difference, in social terms, between the eyes and mouth. Eyes are, in a certain sense, for everyone. The mouth, very few. It's in this regard that you can see food and eating as a strangely sensual thing. Especially with others. Maybe it gives reason as to why cooking for others, giving them food or even going to restaurants together is something inherent to dating. Nonetheless, when you apply this to Repulsion, Carole and this image...

... you get a clear juxtaposition with the previous eye. It's with this that you can recognise Carole's true repulsion is not exactly men, but things getting inside her. As awkward as it sounds, it's true. This will become all the clearer later on. But, before getting to that, it's best we move with the narrative and welcome a few character introductions.

It's with Carole's sister, Helen, that we can dive deeper into social behaviours as touched on before. Carole's sister is the only person she feels comfortable with, she's the only family she seems to have. Combine this with Carole's job, the fact that she only seems kind of comfortable around women, but then throw a boyfriend into the mix and you're bound to run into conflict. Primarily, the sister and boyfriend relationship is an interaction for the film that is in spite of Carole. The boyfriend not only takes Helen away from her, but does so in the most repellent way (to Carole). The question then raised here is of why Carole doesn't just live on her own. The answer is never made explicit, but is implied to be another contradiction of her character. She can't stand people, but needs affection - something only people can supply. It's for this reason that we can recognise that Carole isn't androphobic - she entertains the idea of a boyfriend. Colin and his intentions with Carole are another relationship in spite of her. (I think it's fair to assume all are). But, we can't get into this just yet. To wrap up the film's introduction, it's best to bring together what we've been over with the rabbit. Helen prepares to cook this for herself, boyfriend and sister. This is a social scene that, despite being uncomfortable for Carole, is bearable. However, the boyfriend negates this by taking Helen out himself. Moreover, he marks his place in her home with the razor and tooth brush (in Carole's cup - another reference to the mouth). And to round this off, he sleeps with Helen - quite audibly so. This is everything Carole cannot take, but it's all rounded off with a nice euphemism: 'the minister of health found eels coming from his sink'. A fake news item with sexual implimence that also makes you cringe in disgust. I mean...

The last thing to touch on before moving into the film's second act is the church bells that ring night and day. The nuns that live across the way from Carole are an image of abstinence and purity. We can assume that through Carole's eyes living with only women and not having to interact with many people would be more than satisfactory. The bells are then a reminder of this religious idea of purity and also marriage. The latter is important as Helen's boyfriend is cheating on his wife to be with her. This would sully Carole's view of her, again convoluting the relationship. Now, I can find no reason as to why the nuns or campanologists of the church would ring the bell at midnight. The only grounded reason I could find through a bit of Googling is that they might be practicing. Beyond tangible reasoning, the bells ring at night as a reminder to Carole, Helen and Michael (the boyfriend) that what is going on is wrong. But, again, this is made fun of with Michael suggesting he nuns having a party when the bell is ringing at night. This lets us see a pattern. All of Carole's major conflicts are revised through comedic quips that cite an 'us vs them' idea. It's the extramarital relationship in face of the church, Carole's sexuality in face of her apprehension toward men and Carole's anti-social behaviors and OCPD in face of the need for affection. What has been resoundingly set up here is an external world vs an internal world. Specifically, from Carole's perspective we're talking about things trying to get inside her. trying to pass a personal barrier in metaphorical and physical terms. It's through the first act that we can clearly see this set up to her characters. We understand that she perceives many external forces from food to customers to church bells as a threat.

It should now be transparent what sets Carole into a downward spiral and why. It's the old woman in the cosmetics chair talking to Carole's friend about men.To paraphrase, she says that they are like children. You are to treat them as if you don't give a damn about them as that's what they want. They want to be spanked but then given sweets. This is a culmination of Carole's conflicts considering she just refused to kiss Colin the previous day. She thinks he sees her as playing hard to get - and that that's what he wants. There seems to be no way she can communicate her actual apprehension without leading him on. With her sister gone she is also alone. She's also with an old crone with shit on her face, her lips specifically, who also wants something to eat.

This is freaking Carole the fuck out! Men, food, unsanitary mouths, control is everything Carole can't deal with. And so, she retreats. She goes home, welcoming act 2.

Carol comes home to three things. There's the money, the rabbit and the ringing phone. The money is representative of financial security, of Carole's home with her sister essentially. The rabbit is a symbol of her relationship (and it's rotting). And the phone, yeah, I know, a trope...



... but why? Why is the phone the scariest thing to ring at night, when it's dark and you're alone? Well, there's two things. The fist comes back to senses. If sounds are peripheral sensual cues, then they imply something is coming. And what device better translate that idea than a phone? It takes a distant voice and puts it right up to your ear, leaving you completely unaware as to where it originates from. But, more than this, the phone is a social cue. For Carole it would imply a social exchange is about to be had, whether it's with Colin, the apartment manager, whoever, she probably doesn't look forward to it. This is all payed off when the interaction with the apartment manager does occur - and it doesn't go well.

Now, returning to the rabbit, it's important to echo a previous comment in reference to the outbreak of myxomatosis, as disease that is highly infectious and wiped out approximately 99% of the rabbits in England in the 1950s. Myxomatosis isn't a threat to humans, but serves as a nice metaphor toward the rabbit as a symbol of social interaction (a meal). Carole probably questions if it's diseased, refuses to cook it, but in doing so lets it rot. The same may be said for how she treats her friends and possible boyfriend. She keeps them distant, running the risk of sullying the relationship - and all because she falsely assumed it was infectious. Her conflict is thus a problem of self, of how she perceives the world and her self. In other words:

She assumes that the world around her is twisted, but it turns out that it's really her view of it that is distorted.

It's having gone over all of this that we return to the image of the nuns after Carole smells Michael's vest. This is another reference to both men and senses in juxtaposition to purity. This is rounded off with the image of the old woman across the way with her dog. This is an idea of loneliness and isolation that tempts Carole, but, as smelling Michael's vest implies, Carole's curiosity is growing. And it's for that reason that the scene ends with a crack forming in the wall. What this makes clear is that we are moving int o a different narrative realm. The house is now explicitly representative of Carole herself. It's sanctity becomes her sanctity, it's destruction becomes her destruction. The effects of the old woman's yammerings on Carole are the triggering of multiple fears and indulgences. She is becoming more curious of men as her fear of what they can do intensifies. Moreover, the idea of loneliness, purity through religion and cleanliness go awry. And this is all because Carole's mind is being laced over reality, blinding her to rationality.

Now, it's after picking apart the house itself that we'll be able too fast track through the film. What we simply have to realise is the importance of the numerous trinkets lining the shelves and cupboards of the house. They are seemingly all memorabilia from her childhood. The most important of these items would be the picture:

This is the crux of the film. It's the family Carole has left behind. What we end on is a zoom in...

... that clearly shows some kind of fear or disdain in Carole directed toward what we can assume to be her father. This is implied to be the source of all her fear of men. But, this is not what the final image, the last zoom in captures. We can understand this with the opening 30 mins alone. It's over the course of the remaining narrative that we see the complexity of Carole's condition. This then leaves two things to break down. There's Carole's violent fantasies and then there's the murders. These are intrinsically linked as reactions to one another that call back to the catalysing statement of control given by...

In short, the man that attacks her at night is Carole allowing someone to take complete control and the two murders are her reclaiming that control. She denies sexual advances and responds with violence. Before getting into this, this idea is probably the film's greatest critique. It paints female sexuality as an insistent need to be dominated, a demonised and scary concept even to the woman herself. There are more relevant critiques such as the sounds design (especially dialogue) but we'll stick with this one. This critique is connected to the fact that a man made this film, and that that man is Roman Polanski. So, yeah. But, looking beyond that, I would say that the poignancy of this film comes not with seeing Carole as a woman, as all women, but as a hyperbolised character who cannot get a grip on her perception of the external world in respect to self. Seeing her as this archetypal hypochondriac brings about the core philosophy of the film. It's all about the inner-self being a product of memory and the body being a protective bubble. Again, internal worlds and external worlds. You see this realised best with the murders and the contradictions inherent within them. The first with Colin being left in the bath is clear. It's the repugnancy of men (in Carole's perception) meeting an idea of cleanliness. This scene is supposed to be Collin's chance to be the hero. Something equivalent to the end of Hitch, or any romantic comedy where the guy just won't give up.

This doesn't work with Carole though because she's dealing with the power balance of a relationship. As is implied with the final image, Carole may be the victim of sexual abuse - and as a child. This would seriously convolute the love of a father with, dominance, sexuality and confusion. This gives reason for this:

She has no healthy idea of love and affection. Her killing Micheal is an attempt towards both ending what she feels is an inherently violent act, but also wash her hands (literally) with him. With the murder of the apartment manager, we get a call back to the very beginning with Michael's straight razor. She uses a symbol of external maintenance (link to her being a beautician) an image bound to men and uses it to both destroy a life and save herself. The contradiction in this is bound to the end with Michael carrying Carole out of the home - an apparent hero. This is all in emphasis of Carole's distorted image of the world. It's hard to say if Michael is a nice guy in this film, but maybe he's the only person Helen can be with. If she sustained any abuse like Carole, or experienced a family breaking up, it gives reasoning as to why she'd only find comfort in a destructive relationship.

The core takeaway from the surreal sequences is that the film eventually flips on itself. Not only does Carole withdraw completely from socialising with women, not only does she, as a hypochondriac, end up living in her own filth, but her internal world is put external. The house becomes her anxieties. It cracks, hands break through the walls, it's never a safe place, somewhere men are always trying to invade, church bells ringing on the outside, help too distant. And of course memory is framed for all to see. This leaves Carole a shell of a person, a zombie. All that's left to identify her character is this single image:

A memory. She struggles with so much over the course of the film and for untold reasons. We can infer that food represents social acts, that she is afraid of men, that she has OCD, but for what purpose? What is the message of the film under these circumstances? It hasn't got one, nothing with concrete evidence. The meaning of this film all comes down to an inherently human idea of self. Who are we, but the genes that organised our bodies, the experiences that molded our minds? If we are a product of the external world, of external forces, why are we almost never completely understood by it, by the world around us? We a product of extremities but are neglected by them. left trapped in a cage of self. And that's it, we are trapped. We are vessels of memory, forced to behave by our coded biases, the only sense that manages the internal and external, voiceless...

... perception an idea never truly under our control.

All in all, Repulsion is a film about insurmountable conflicts that drill away inside us. It's about a sensory disconnect. It gives us so much that means nothing without truly walking in Carole's shoes, without truly knowing her memories. Something we never get to do, and something impossible to do in life. To see see how this inspired me in my writings, please check out:

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