People don't understand mental illness is probably the simplest way to describe Roman Polanski's Repulsion. The film, which is currently being revived at Film Forum, is an essay in at least two forms of subjectivity: that of the omniscient viewer of Carol, the disturbed woman played with such enigmatic brilliance by the youthful Catherine Deneuve, and of Carol herself. Carol is not some urban neurotic out of a Woody Allen film. She exhibits the kind of symptoms (she hallucinates and hears voices) that cause sufferers to jump out of windows. In her case, the violence is unleashed on those around her, an infatuated young man Colin (John Fraser), a greedy and lustful landlord (Patrick Wymark) and her sister's husband Michael (Ian Hendry), the only one who escapes unscathed. Deneuve's beauty is a perfect foil for the subjective states of those around her since she is such a cynosure (particularly when she walks around wraithlike in her diaphanous nightgown). This is epitomized in the scene when the landlord, her second victim, comes into the apartment, looks around at the disarray, which unbeknownst to him already includes a corpse in a tub, and says it looks like a "nuthouse," a piece of humor worthy of Hitchcock. Before coming to his own end as he attempts to rape Carol, he tells her "a cup of hot tea and an aspirin and you'll be as right as rain." The world of insanity is where Polanski is expert and the film was oddly prescient since the director himself would come home to face the carnage wreaked by the Manson gang on his own home only a few years later. The iconography of madness begins with an eyeball, segues to a beauty salon customer receiving a mud facial and ends with the camera closing in on the eyes of the already distant Carol in family snapshot from childhood. A rotting piece of rabbit is the centerpiece of the decay, but roots of sprouting potatoes soon replace the ticking of the clock as indicators of time passing. Polanski has at least as good a grip on the subject of subjectivity as Bishop Berkeley and maybe better, but the Bishop's universe had built-in insurance against implosion in the form of God. Repulsion, shot in wonderfully stark black and white, was made one year before Blow Up and much of the shooting took place in what looks like Chelsea's Sloane Square, the epicenter of the swinging London that Antonioni would capture in Technicolor a year later. La Dolce Vita (l960) is also referenced in the form of a mocking Leaning Tower of Pisa postcard Carol receives from her sister's boyfriend. But Carol's episodes, the famous crack in the wall, the fantasy of being molested, the "repulsion," she experiences, all center on sexuality and in that sense, for all Polanski's reputation, the film functions as a kind of psychiatric jeremiad against the liberties of the era in which it's situated. Repulsion also antedated Bergman's Persona, another film which dealt with the break from reality, by one year, though perhaps the character closest to Carol is Shakespeare's Ophelia who was created almost four centuries before.
This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture,