in the age of Coronavirus
Alex Secker discusses how Roman Polanski’s 1965 horror has been recontextualised by the Coronavirus pandemic...
When it was released in 1965, Roman Polanski’s first English-language feature, Repulsion, was met with positive reviews and praised for its technical mastery. Writing for The New York Times, film critic Bosely Crowther called it ‘An absolute knockout of a movie in the psychological horror line’, while it has since made its way onto countless best-of lists and its influence in the subgenre can be seen in everything from Possession (Andrzej Zulaski, 1981) through to Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). No matter your thoughts on the film itself, it is hard to deny its cultural impact.
Telling the story of Carol, played by an excellent Catherine Deneuve, a young woman who begins to experience nightmarish visions when her sister leaves her alone in their flat, Repulsion deals with the themes of repression, sexuality, isolation, and paranoia. Carol’s descent into madness is slow, taking place across the entire runtime of the film, and the movie increasingly takes on the point of view of its protagonist, adopting more and more nightmarish qualities as it does.
It’s a film that has oft been discussed and analysed, with many academics pointing to its exploration of the impact toxic male attitudes have on young women and the repulsion Carol feels toward the concept of sex and, in a broader sense, sexuality. The film alludes to the potential abuse she has experienced as a child at the hands of an older man, potentially her father, and multiple moments can be read clearly as a commentary on this. Whether it be the groping hand penetrating the walls of the apartment or the more overt images of men forcing themselves upon her, there is a lot to mine within the film.
I first saw Repulsion many years ago and watched it for the sole reason that I like Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). I had only ever watched it once, and while I enjoyed it I’d never been too fussed about returning to it. However, during the first lockdown, while being forced to self-isolate in my bedroom due to my displaying symptoms of coronavirus, I turned my attention to Repulsion once more. Given the film is available to view on Amazon Prime, and given I wanted to utilise this sudden influx of free time to fill certain gaps in my viewing, it was an obvious choice. I was expecting it to be just another film in my long list of films watched during that period, but I found it was much, much more.
There is a lot to be said about the circumstances in which you watch a film. I may have seen Repulsion before, but in any meaningful sense, it was a first-time watch, and viewing it locked in a small room, unable to venture out to see your partner or your kids, needing to deep clean the bathroom anytime you go to the toilet, and feeling kind of rubbish because you’ve got the symptoms of a deadly virus is one hell of a way to watch it! See, as I sat there engrossed in the nightmare on screen, it occurred to me that the pandemic has recontextualised the film. Of course, it wasn’t the intent when making the film, but Repulsion kind of works as a take on the horrors of COVID-19 enforced lockdown.
The film begins with Carol, our protagonist, at work. She leaves work and heads on out into the streets of ‘60s London. The film seems to make use of the outside location, shooting from low angles to show the buildings all around, and hanging back while conversations take place. This is notable of course because the film will slowly confine itself to the apartment and will mirror this restriction in its shooting style, and while this of course is for the story, like many things in Repulsion is also captures something incredibly relatable here in COVID-19 land. The slow confinement we have all felt while the various lockdowns have come into effect seems to be mirrored in the film somehow, the big, open spaces of the outside world being replaced by the ever closing-in four walls of our homes.
The confinement isn’t the only aspect of Repulsion that seems to fit nicely into the pandemic, it also has a preoccupation with the concept of health. Early in the film Helen, Carol’s sister, tells a story about the Minister of Health finding eels in his sink. This idea of the head of the health department finding his own home invaded by slimy creatures had an interesting effect on my viewing of the movie in the age of Coronavirus. Especially given Matt Hancock, our own Minister of Health, had coronavirus himself. Moreover, the film continues throughout the sequence to draw our attention back to this story, making it a point of note, as Helen’s boyfriend then excitedly brings it up when he arrives and later still chuckles about it to himself.
This story about the Minister of Health comes along at the same point that Carol is complaining to her sister about her boyfriend’s habit of leaving his razor and toothbrush in the same cup she uses to keep hers. It’s an early hint toward her growing unease around sharing her space, but of course, in our hyper-aware times, we too are fearful of sharing space. I found myself agreeing whole-heartedly with Carol’s disgust at the presence of the razor and the toothbrush and was legitimately frustrated when her sister, Helen, simply brushes it off.
Of course, the slowly decomposing corpse of the rabbit leftover from an unfinished meal is one of the film’s most famous recurring motifs. In the film, it serves to highlight the time that has passed, but also Carol’s mental state, as the walls of her reality slowly break down much like the rabbit itself. Polanski returns to the rabbit time and time again, but now, with coronavirus on the mind, it takes on a new meaning; it reminds us of the growing death rate, it highlights the feeling of hopelessness and of being trapped, and the way the filmmaker shoots it, almost always from a similar angle with the same movement, reminds us of the never-ending repetitiveness of it all. We are the rabbit, trapped on the plate and left to rot, but so too is the rabbit the disease, festering, bloating, its smell spreading and infecting.
Likewise, the iconic crack in the wall takes on a new meaning here in 2021. No longer does it only represent the cracks in Carol’s mind, now it becomes the gaps in our safety. While the Government continues to break down the ‘walls’ we have gone through so much to build up, moving too quickly into an easing from the restrictions or encouraging people to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, the outside begins to break its way in through the cracks in our barriers.
Furthering this metaphor for a moment, the groping hands act like the virus itself, bursting through into the home, invading the same, and violating us. We are unable to prevent it or fight back against it, it is bigger than we can manage. The way Carol’s hands leave imprints on the wall reminded me too of a sort of visual representation of the spread of germs. We are now all so aware of what we touch and what others have touched, and the imprints on the wall felt oddly pertinent to me. Like a permanent mark of the spreading of disease.
Perhaps the biggest fear though, here in our pandemic age, is that of other people. Fear of contact and infection. Repulsion shows Carol’s fear of men, of the way men treat her, as invasive and aggressive, but this too can be seen as a stand-in for our current state, both for the virus and for those dreaded COVID-deniers we must share our space with.
The lasting impact of Polanski’s first English-language film is well known. I pointed to it earlier, but something is fascinating about the film now that, for me at least, seems to have given it a new meaning. It has remained relevant since its release, of course, but with our new outlook on the world in the age of Coronavirus, it somehow enhances and enriches the movie. It offers up a whole new way of reading it and allows us to perhaps relate a little better with the lead character.
No doubt there will be plenty of films that can be recontextualised now that we have all been through this horror together, but Repulsion felt especially noteworthy given the circumstances in which I returned to it and that it was the first I was able to truly watch with this new viewpoint fresh in my mind. The film was highly regarded when it was first released, but it seems it is still able to offer a new and relevant experience some 55 years later.