Oh my goodness. You know, I think I’d go as far as to say that this is one of my favourite films of all time. This is partly for personal reasons, and partly because the film is just so goddamn beautiful.
It tells the story of Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a young Belgian beautician who has come to live in London with her sister. Carole is incredibly high-strung, and has an intense phobia of any kind of intimacy with men. When her sister goes on holiday with her married boyfriend, leaving Carole alone in their apartment, she begins a slow descent into madness.
Okay, so I think it’s only fair at this point to give a little bit of information about myself, just to make it clearer why this film moves me so deeply, and why I find it, at times, profoundly terrifying. Since I hit my teens, I have suffered from bouts of severe depression. After several failed and frustrating attempts to get help, I was recently diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder, and I’m now on mood stabilisers and antidepressants. I know it’s not the done thing to talk about mental illness, or to downplay it, but screw that. I’m not ashamed of my condition, it’s just something frustrating that I have to live with. I think that silence is just as damaging as the illness itself. But enough about that. I would go as far as to say that at my worst I am actually crazy. It’s like something else takes over my mind and makes me do or say things I would never, in my rational state, say and do. Sometimes I hear things that aren’t there. Sometimes I see things in my peripheral vision that aren’t there. I stop being able to relate to the world around me. Needless to say, it’s fucking terrifying. And so when I see Carole going slowly mad, it scares me because I can recognise parts of myself in her. I relate to some of her odd little quirks (drifting off into daydreams, intolerance of loud noises, nervous ticks), and I think, bloody hell, could this happen to me? Could I go to those extremes if I’m not careful? It’s a disquieting thought.
So now I’m going to discuss some of the elements that make this film so bloody brilliant. I can’t go into it all because honestly an entire thesis could be written on Repulsion, but this is what stood out to me on my most recent viewing.
I love how the opening and closing shots are close-ups of Carole’s eye. The film begins with the camera zooming out as Carole day-dreams at work, and ends with it zooming in on the child Carole in a family portrait. We, as an audience, are brought close to Carole, brought inside her disturbed mind. We remain close to her throughout the film. We see what she sees. We become subject to the same threats, the same hallucinations. We witness the cracks in the wall appearing, rooms expanding and contracting, and the rabbit that should have served as dinner, which Carole leaves out to rot just as her psyche disintegrates.
There’s a lot of debate concerning what Carole’s actual problem is. Is she just acutely repressed? If so, why isn’t her sister affected? There are hints that she may have suffered sexual abuse as a child, but it’s never explicitly stated. We are left ambiguous clues, and it’s very much up to us what we choose to believe. Perhaps she’s simply introspective enough to perceive how she, as an attractive young woman, is generally perceived. Perhaps she notices more than most people, takes more to heart. Think of the scene, near the beginning, when we follow Carole as she walks down the street, and is leered at by workmen. The camera angle makes it seem like we are being leered at. We are subjected to the same scrutiny and objectification. And then there’s the friends of Carole’s would-be suitor Colin, who are in fact complete dick-wads. They repeatedly badger Colin about Carole, encouraging him to give up on her when she rejects his advances, and find another girl with whom he will ‘get his money’s worth’. And think of the language used when discussing men in the beauty parlour where Carole works – an exclusively feminine arena. Middle-aged clients advise that men are only after one thing, and women routinely describe the opposite sex as ‘sordid’, ‘filthy’, ‘beasts’. Surely with Carole’s temperament, it’s understandable that she’d internalise that?
Her fear of men manifests itself in extreme disgust. She’s horrified that her sister’s boyfriend has left some of his things in the bathroom, and throws them away. Later, the smell of the vest he had been wearing makes her actually vomit. And then there’s her horror at being able to hear her sister having sex in the next room. There’s that one really sweet moment with her friend where they’re talking about a Charlie Chaplin film, and Carole is so animated, laughing and playing around, but then as soon as the friend mentions that she saw the film with her boyfriend, Carole freezes. It’s such a sad moment, because you get a glimpse at what could have been, and you think that this was a chance for her to be saved. Of course this is followed by the friend looking in Carole’s purse to see this:
As her mind unravels, her terror of men deepens to the point where she has nightly hallucinations of being raped, triggered by the ringing of a bell in a neighbouring yard (which ironically comes from a convent). Arms reach out from the walls to grab at her. Her terror makes her capable of increasingly extreme measures in attempts to defend herself.
And as for the elements that freaked me out the most… they’re all things I can identify with, things I can recognise in my own behaviour. Firstly, the way that Carole is always picking at things. She bites her nails, she chews her hair, she fiddles with things. I do this all the time. I’m constantly picking at myself. And then of course there are those cracks that start to appear everywhere as Carole gets steadily crazier.
There’s also the way she sees herself. Carole is stunning. Catherine Deneuve was at the height of her sex kitten status at the time, and the film does a fantastic job of showing that Carole not only doesn’t flaunt this sexuality, she sees it as a threat. She peers anxiously into mirrors. She examines her distorted reflection in a kettle, like this is how she truly sees herself. She knows that her beauty isn’t an asset. She knows it’s the thing that objectifies her and makes her a target for sexual violence.
Another thing I related to is the relationship Carole has with her sister, especially her fear of being left alone. In my own experience, I can always tell when I’m about to have a downward spiral. I can feel it coming on, like an approaching storm, and I become terrified of being on my own, because I don’t trust myself. I don’t know what I might do if left to my own devices. Also the way the sister reacted to the her boyfriend’s suggestion that Carole sees a doctor. I think it’s natural for loved ones to be defensive and go down the there’s nothing wrong with you!!! route. But you know, it’s really not helpful. And it’s so sad, because Carole needed a doctor, and she needed her family’s support. Instead she was left alone, and she wasn’t strong enough to fight the monsters in her head.
Another thing that freaked me out, which probably seems quite random, is Carole forgetting to pay the rent. Or just choosing not to deal with it. Because holy shit, I do that! If I’m going through a bad patch, I just can’t deal with the mundane chores of everyday life. This is embarrassing, but I once didn’t pay an electricity bill until they actually threatened to take me to court, just because I simply couldn’t face opening my mail.
I realise I’ve rambled on for ages here, but I’m just going to mention one more thing, and that’s the silence. This is such a quiet movie. I’m not just talking about the long gaps with no dialogue, I’m talking about the suffocating silence of the apartment itself, a silence that Carole cultivates. We become accustomed to the quiet, and so things like the ringing of the telephone and the doorbell become just as invasive and jarring for us as it is for her. So many little things wearing away at her. Her descent into madness was sudden, but also very gradual. There was no big breakdown, no one moment of crisis. And that’s the thing. Madness isn’t noisy. It doesn’t announce itself with a fanfare. It’s a slow, creeping, insidious thing. And it’s deathly quiet.