Repulsion – Metamorphic Cinema

Thoughts On: Repulsion

Arguably, Polanski’s greatest film.

Repulsion 2

Repulsion is a film that has great influence over me as a writer and is one I’ve covered before. But, whilst I talked about the psychological distortion of Carole, essentially pulling apart the film’s subtextual narrative in the last post, here I want to pick up on the form of the story Polanski tells us. In doing such, I want to focus on the final image…

This image not only identifies Carole as a character struggling with a complex past, but transforms the film entirely. It’s this image that speaks as something much more than a plot twist or a crucial revelation in the story. We see films transformed across a plethora of films with endings like these…


But, as mentioned, the ending to Repulsion isn’t just a mere plot twist, it’s not really comparable to many of the films above or those like them. The endings to Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Dr. Caligari and  The Usual Suspects all change the physical spaces of their films. To clarify, once we know Tyler is a projection of The Narrator, we rewatch the film knowing that he talks to himself, that he sabotages his own operations. Once we know who Keyser Söze actually is in The Usual Suspects we look at the interactions of characters differently. The rest becomes obvious from this point. Plot twists are there to act like the punch line of a long and elaborate joke. Take for example this one (which I stole from here)…

Little April was not the best student in Sunday school. Usually she slept through the class. One day the teacher called on her while she was napping, “Tell me, April, who created the universe?” When April didn’t stir, little Johnny, a boy seated in the chair behind her, took a pin and jabbed her in the rear. “GOD ALMIGHTY!” shouted April and the teacher said, “Very good” and April fell back asleep. A while later the teacher asked April, “Who is our Lord and Saviour,” But, April didn’t even stir from her slumber. Once again, Johnny came to the rescue and stuck her again. “JESUS CHRIST!” shouted April and the teacher said, “very good,” and April fell back to sleep. Then the teacher asked April a third question. “What did Eve say to Adam after she had her twenty-third child?” And again, Johnny jabbed her with the pin. This time April jumped up and shouted, “IF YOU STICK THAT F*****G THING IN ME ONE MORE TIME, I’LL BREAK IT IN HALF AND STICK IT UP YOUR ARSE!” The Teacher fainted.

What we see here is a slow build to a heightened point. Essentially, we see the same comedic beat repeated three times, only emphasised. In other words, the same joke is told to us over and over and over – a girl is jabbed with a pin, inadvertently answering a teacher’s question – but each version of the joke is better than the last. Films with plot twists aren’t exactly like this in that they don’t repeat themselves in form, but they are incredibly similar in the way they repeat the points they make. For example, all the hints of Keyser’s identity throughout the film, or all the scenes with Crowe not knowing he’s a ghost in The Sixth Sense, hint at the final reveal, the final point. This means we see both plot twist films and jokes as having very similar rhythms. The audience is emotionally or mentally warmed up before being hit with the final punchline, resulting in shock/laughter. For me, this is a huge distinguishing factor between the likes of Repulsion and the films mentioned. Whilst Repulsion has something you could call a twist ending, it doesn’t adhere very strictly to this rhythm. Repulsion doesn’t really want to lead you anywhere, it doesn’t set up the reveal, neither does it make you feel like there has to be one. The final revelatory image is there not to spark an emotional reaction or the feeling of being duped, the final image is there to solidify the narrative. This concept combined with the next thus defines what kind of ‘twist’ Repulsion holds.

We’ve touched on the idea of physical spaces in The Usual Suspects and Fight Club being changed because of the ending. Things such as a film telling us a character was never there or that they weren’t who they told us they were is a physical manipulation of space and thus tantamount to a magic trick played out before your face. We know a person with a ‘magic pack of cards’ is using sleight of hand to fool our eye though. The same thing happens as we’re told Tyler was never there in Fight Club – there is a deception. However, there is a cheapness to this trick in cinema. As Méliès teaches us…

… magic on the big screen is astounding at first, but a trick worn tired very quickly. Physical manipulation on a screen is almost a cheat because of editing, because you have tangible control of the film. This is something a street magician doesn’t have. A similar thing may be said of films such as Chinatown or Memento. There’s a cheapness in being able to use sleight of hand on screen. For this, it’s incredibly hard to find films with twist endings that work, that are worth rewatching. In fact, the distinguishing factor for the twist ending films that you watch once or twice for fun and those you watch over and over because they are simply great films is of the physical spaces we’ve been talking about. The best twist ending movies aren’t episodes of Scooby Doo with a nice little unmasking in the end. The best twist ending movies change how you look at intangible things such as the meaning of the film and the relationship between characters. It’s this added layer that brings the likes of Fight Club and Memento closer to Repulsion. The twist ending changes the way you look at the film not just in terms of the physical spaces, but the narratives and characters. But, whilst Memento holds commentary on the mind’s biases, on its incapacity to deal with the trauma it causes and Fight Club says a lot about the individual’s growth the films also strive toward an ‘A-HAH’ moment. This defines them as films with plot twists as well as narrative twists. We discussed the difference between narrative and plot in the previous post, but to recap, narratives hold plots (a specific sequence of things happening), but overlay artistic devices dependent on the medium – things like character arcs, metaphors, editing, camera movement. With Fight Club we are not only seeing the plot being twisted on its head by the physical space changing (Tyler not being there) but also the narrative being tuned on its elbow by the mental state of the Narrator being revealed as a means of commentating on the plot twist. In other words, the moment of the twist says more about the film overall than just the plot. And because there is much greater complexity in the narrative twist rather than the plot twist, we rewatch the films that have strong ones.

It’s here where we come straight back to Repulsion. Repulsion holds one of the most poignant and effective narrative twists. More than this, Repulsion hasn’t really got a plot twist – only a narrative one. This is what distinguishes it from the likes of Fight Club, Memento or The Sixth Sense. It focuses on changing the intangible aspects of the film, on imbuing the narrative with meaning, all whilst appealing to a very subtle version of a punchline-chasing format. This produces a complex, evolved kind of cinema that uses an idea of ‘meaning’ in an astounding way. Because it’s my belief that the best films both entertain and have something to say, I’m often faced with a question of where the line is drawn. I love films with symbolism, subtext and metaphors. However, most people don’t. For many, the existential themes of a Disney film don’t come through – and even when they’re explained, they don’t count towards much. However, what Polanski teaches us through Repulsion is how to turn the pretentious, artsy side of a film into the entertaining factor. He takes the idea of a twist ending and all the emotive power it can hold, but directs its momentum towards explaining Carole’s inner conflicts and the psychological horrors they hold. To me, this is what made my first viewing of this movie so poignant, so revelatory. It demonstrated how to emotionally play the audience as well as mentally challenge them. Moreover, Repulsion presents an artistic challenge. Through its last image, the film demonstrates that it’s capable of explaining itself through pure cinema, without words and with one image. The succinctness of this flawed me, the fact that there is so much behind such a simple image made clear the complete control a writer/filmmaker can have over their narrative, not just on physical plot-based terms, but intangible ones too. When you watch the likes of Eraserhead you’re left in awe. But, when you watch/read interviews with David Lynch on this film, you’re often left somewhat dissatisfied. You see so much depth in his film, but get nothing from him – which can be frustrating. More than this, it can suggest to you that art and artist must remained undefined, that their meaning has to be down to your interpretation, that there was no true conscious drive towards saying something specific. This doesn’t make films such as Eraserhead pure splatter paintings; there is a presentation in these movies of something ambiguous and because of this it doesn’t always make sense for their meaning/narrative movement to be concrete. Nonetheless, there’s something beautiful about a film that can be very artsy, but also conscious.

Film as an art form is in large part all about expression. This is because art is an emotional interaction between artist and audience. An artist feels a certain way and wants to share that with someone else via a medium. The medium between them is art – it is the grounds of communication. What we’ve just picked up on are two interpretations of this connective tunnel. With Eraserhead we see a leaning towards an idea that this channel between artist and audience mustn’t be recognised, that, by leaving the means of communication to its own devices, we can be sure that it works best. In other words, it’s because Eraserhead appeals so much towards your own opinions, biases, interpretations, that Lynch can say what he intends – even if that is something he refuses and or finds hard to articulate outside of the medium of film. But, whilst there is this kind of artists, this interpretation of artistic communication, there is an alternative. In films such as Repulsion, I see an artist who wants to be succinct and consciously articulate, I see an artist that means to be expressive, but also finds the fun, the joy, his/her reasoning for being an artist in having control over what they say. There is a complex beauty in this attempt towards conscious filmmaking, one that arises comparisons as cliched as those to Michelangelo’s David or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa…


In both pieces we see the fruits of years of work – 3 for the statue of David and 4 for the Mona Lisa. This doesn’t imply that art should take an awfully long time to create. The time is merely representative of a conscious effort to produce something great, is representative of a long and arduous struggle to control ones art, to present something intentional. With Repulsion’s final image, the great depths it implies, I see a similar struggle to control art, to articulate with knowing precision the intention of your movie. This then brings us further away from narrative twists and devicive cinema and into a much more complex concept of filmic art, however, the basic principal still stands. Through The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Dr. Caligari and The Usual Suspects, we see an attempt to tell great stories. And the key to telling stories is quite simple – it’s change. A story is a sequence of things, it’s a journey; it’s a movement from A to B, from emotions B to C, from state L to H to X to V – whatever your story dictates. All stories imply some kind of change – even those caught by singular images. The reason why the pivotal picture in Repulsion, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David, can be still items trapped in space without time is because there’s an implimence in their being that suggest something beyond themselves. With David we see an idea of beauty, of human form, stature and presence. For this, the stature captivates. With the Mona Lisa, we see the character behind the face that tells something of a story, that begins to imply something more than a blank space. With Carole’s childhood picture, we are seeing more than a sullen look, we are seeing her past in juxtaposition to her presence. In this idea, we see story, we see meaning, we see the attraction to art in the implimence of context – that banal imagery or physical presences are attached to something more than themselves, that through them we have stumbled upon a journey. What’s most important is that through these windows to journeys we are finding stories, we are finding change through the said idea of context. In such, you can understand how Polanski identifies such a poignant image. He picks up on a crucial idea of change in Carole’s life, he expresses how this was her years ago…

… but that this is her now…

What this does is build a story and an interest from the audience that invests them in seeing the film through, to allow their imagination to stretch beyond the physical confines that the art exists in and into the immaterial space it implies. In such we see the purpose of art to an audience as taking them on a journey, as implying some kind of movement from a here to there. Great art such as Repulsion not only takes the audience on the journey from the beauty salon with the spaced-out Carole to the sordid, festering apartment full of Carole’s projected fears, but opens up the world of the story and character to the audience. This is what facilitates my writings on the film. I’m lead to discuss the inner workings of Carole’s character, her past, the hidden subtext of the narrative by the implied grounds of the story that haven’t been physically put to film. That means the journey, the story, given by the film isn’t just a simple A to B tantamount to a singular level in a Mario game. This is what a lot of mediocre films are, they see art and story telling as a simplistic here to there, they express little more than a means to an end. What’s pivotal is that no matter how flashy you make the film with good acting, great cinematography, a good colour pallet, you are only upping the quality of the graphics card, or at most making the level of the Mario game more difficult. The beauty and evolution of gaming towards open worlds then speaks perfectly to the analogy at hand. Repulsion doesn’t have you hit the end of the level or walk into walls, transport back on track when you hit the water. Repulsion leaves the story and world it implies open for you to explore on a temporal and philosophical level. Whilst we can’t physically see all inches of Carole’s house, talk to her or the characters surrounding her, we can use the given information to understand something larger than that, that there is a two-way conversation between art and artist because the film contextualises itself in relation to ourselves by giving us a premise, by guiding us to see themes and ideas – but on our own terms.

In the end, it’s Repulsion that speaks most clearly of what stories can be, of how we can use an idea such as art to articulate an entertaining journey of change, but also a succinct point to an audience. Its final image is then a tangible representation of how you can bring stories into that higher dream space and grip the mic by the stand in preparation for your speech.

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