The descent into madness in Repulsion (1965): dream states and the stages of movie madness.

rev., January 7, 2016.

This is part 2 of a treatment of Repulsion; see previous post for part 1.

At the beginning, over the titles, of Repulsion (1965), there is a close-up of a human eye, presumably the eye of Catherine Deneuve, who plays Carol, a young woman of impossible beauty, who goes insane. This places all the movie, visually, inside the entoptic universe of the mind’s eye, or rather, the eye as projected through by personal mentality.

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This device is then reaffirmed time and again by POV shots in which we see, but don’t see, the world in which Carol walks, from behind her head. In all these shots, her blonde hair represents the static stage of hypnagogy, that she is just seeing a random run on of abstract patterns, and not connecting with any of the reality. She moves mechanically through the world, seeing nothing

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what she does see, the purkinjee tree substitute of her hair and the back of her head says, shoots right back to her deep memory, and POV related to deep mental trauma, not seeing the thing before it, but it only as it reflects on some trigger meme fixed in the back of the brain, triggering re-experienced trauma

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she stares at the world, or gawks at it, makes no sense of it, doesn’t engage it. In this shot, she is looking out the window, but really gawking aimlessly out of it. The picture of the flowers, an oval with an innocuous spray of floral patterns, again, as suggested before, represents the vacuousness and emptiness of her particular POV

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at one point, her hair’s presence, or what one might call her “hairy eye,” that is, the eye blinded by internal fears and concerns, to see only what it wants to see, to not see the real, only the projected unreal, links up to a classic landscape painting in the main room of her sister’s apartment, and it is, oddly, visually aligned with her blonde hair, it too has an aloof look about it

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reinforcing the notion that her hair is a cover or an effacement which blocks out the world is that when she is shy out in social situations she uses her hair to hide in

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this is in fact the “hairy eye” right here. Again, one eye is blank, staring ahead, not paying attention, the other eye is blocked by hair, indicating a eye blinded by inner entoptic obsessions

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one of the most interesting dissociative elements of the movie is that she obviously knows how beautiful her hair is, what effect it has on others, when she brushes it, she has complete girl control of the brush, her brushes are done with casual expertise. She positions it and treats it just so, but automatically, as if not appreciating it. The fact that in this shot she is profiled against a phalanx of cameo pictures of Mary Shelley type ladies indicates that she has indeed been groomed in princess culture, and knows how to be a lady, but somehow it all means nothing to her

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it is perhaps arguable that Polanski made too much use of her hair as a symbol of her psychosis, but this only indicates that he had to work hard early on to convince the viewer that we were in her reality, not objective reality.

But it is also true that Polanski had the problem of having to represent on screen the progression of a mental breakdown, in a visual way without dialog. In this regard, after having made use of the hair to simply displace us from active waking consciousness to her rather dreamy entoptic level of vigilogogic waking state, that is not quite a waking state, he then appears to begin to muss it up and tossle it for it and its strands to represent the whooshing wormhole/spiral down into a deeper level of dream imagery.

A few comments. The model that I have derived for the use of hypnagogic imagery to capture altered states of consciousness in horror movies, developed from watching those movies, involves five stages, as noted before: the entoptic, the glass onion, the lattice, the whoosh wormhole/spiral and the REM deep dream (classic dream) state. In the modernist period, most thinkers went straight to dream, and thought that the entoptic was accessible only by way of drugs. Not true in horror, the representation of hypnagogic states on the way to dream is part of the basic vocabulary, developed to represent haunting.

But then there is the additional challenge of linking this dream model to the model, also derived from horror, of a psychotic breakdown. This is a six phase model, starts with a 1) genius, then, when something goes wrong, he develops a sense of 2) himself victimized, in that state he rebuilds to become 3) an avatar of his former self, to enact his vengeance he then takes on a 4) golem, but that golem inevitably gets carried away and becomes 5) a monster that consumes even him, and then the monster morphs one more time into 6) the beast of the apocalypse, a berserker run amok (I call this the Konga model, developed based on that movie). Thus far, Carol represents a lesser or subordinate model of madness that also persisted in modern horror, not the genius, but the supershy, sensitive girl, who doesn’t quite blossom as a person, that is, a nonstarter. That state of being is represented in the static of her hair, and in her behavior around others. But then her victimization is internalized, and it is in the experiencing of her rape fantasies that she becomes an avatar of her former self. These stages were covered in part one to this note. Now, the job is to see how she moves on into the golem state, and from there to the monster, and then even to the bezerker state, if she does.

Is it possible, then, to link vigilogogic states  (waking states comparable to hypnagogic states) with mental states in this movie?


Glass onion—victim/avatar



Deep dream-bezerker.

It is probable that, though not consciously working with these particular models, Polanski was aware of some sort of transitional model (Huxley had one), and sought to represent the transition from state to state.  As a modernist filmmaker, one way to do this was by the structuralist device of having one central symbol epitomize the whole proceedings. Here, then, the stage model is represented by  the rabbit, once 1) edible delicacy, then left out to 2) rot, then to turn into a 3) disgusting thing, then noted by the landlord as a 5)monster to be disposed of–and then ending up as 6) garbage. But, in any case, at this point, she sees the rabbit, but through her hair, representing her psychotic backofbrain self, she sees a repulsive physical being, a weird sort of embryo too (as Polanski mentioned in commentary). That is, it is the lattice image of the movie, announcing descent to the golem stage

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The lattice stage is most often represented by, in fact, a mental lattice, a kind of chandelier, or arborized mesh of lines, and then the lattice image, the heavy persistent image weighs it down.  If the rabbit is the trigger image that weighs down, then the cracking up of the apartment would provide the mesh that is being cracked open by it. That is, it is by her hairy eye, that she sees the apartment begin to crack up, the cracks being more or less lattice element

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and again

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In the same place, the cracks rearrange the sightings of the golem, the fantasy rapist. She has previously madly called up the rapist, to act as a golem for/against her (somehow getting some sexual satisfaction from it) in her avatar phase. It is with her back turned to us, and her hair, that, Polanski exploiting a bathroom mirror startle effect so common in horror, and with a loud clang of score too, that we saw earlier through her eye the first manifestation of the invading bogeyman rapist

repu 12But now, on a deeper level, she has begun to crack up the apartment with her telekinetic force, her alienation propelled against the walls. In this phase, her inner turmoil is figured out by a fantasy golem turned monster, embodied by  the apartment itself, and the sexual threat embodied by it as a whole (going back to hearing sex noises through the walls, see part one), taking the form of a mob of bogeyman rapists. At the lattice stage, the apartment begins to manifest fully, and figuratively, as an externalization of her inner breakdown

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The movie really is remarkable for its phased creativity in tending to every dimension of the descent into madness. Formerly, before she had killed, she had imagined rape fantasies coming through the wall. Now, strolling the corridor, she imagines the walls become the rapists, groping her (this out of Beauty and the Beast).

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they even grope her breasts

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But if she simply remained in her earlier golem-creator warring against her bogeymen stage, she might, as the avatar of a new self, have survived. However, this is a full-scale collapse, and so now we tumble down the whoosh wormhole/spiral stage, which is equivalent to the monster turning against her stage. That is, having in her mind created a vision of the apartment as a living being harboring rapists which she must fight against, the apartment now turns against even this formulation, it is out of control, and she is lost in it.

This  is represented by the remarkable camera work in the last third of the movie where the apartment, with a focus lens on the camera switched, zooms off into an eerie distance, as if by miscropsia, to represent her as haunted through and through, and feeling lost in space. This first happens in the bathroom, in a classic lattice shot, close-up profile of character in foreground, eerily combined with a whoosh-away shot

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but reaches its peak in the living room, where Polanski not only had the lens changed, but asked the art director to rebuild the set at a stretched dimension.

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But to get to this last phase, there must be yet another crisis incident, to, at the bottom of the whoosh, drop us down to the final phase, and, sure enough, this movie, so carefully parsed, provides one. It involves the great scene where the landlord comes calling for the rent, then finds her in her night gown only, and makes a pass at her, only to get sliced open for his troubles. He of course cannot possibly understand why a girl like that would be walking all over an apartment in chaos in that get up, and then, even when she sits, now, is entirely uninterested in her modesty, and its effect on him. That is, she is now deep in the whoosh down the spiral-monster state, kind of disembodied, the evil apartment force has overrun her, she is not really there, and just reacting mechanically to menace

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tragically, having fought off boys and then imaginary rapists for the whole movie, she unconsciously, overwhelmed by the monster stage of madness, strikes by far her sexiest pose in this context, to give the sleazy landlord his nasty idea

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the most impressive insight in this scene is that, at the bottom of the wormhole whoosh, it is a quiet pause, a chamber of consideration, at the bottom of madness, in which Polanski regroups to stage an actual dramatic scene, to show how psycho she now is–and it involves again the landscape painting. Traditionally, in horror, a landscape painting symbolizes trouble coming this way. As explained elsewhere, a landscape with a meandering central zigzag road or river, as here, additionally indicates a running down the wormhole, but, then, this an exaggerated version of that, so here it is, remarkably, ably placed in exactly the right place in the psychological breakdown model as projected by the apartment.

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but it is in addition to all that, situated over a record player, the rotating record of which also symbolizes the wormhole (a needle let run on vinyl after the groove ends symbolizes, in modern film, death), but, then it also appears to be a modern ersatz mockup of a Chinese landscape, which makes it not only relate more to the  static to her blondeness and her aloofness and her askant listening to him, here, in the sunlight, symbol of her visionary state, it also distances things, it is the landscape equivalent of the micropsia’d lens that enlarged the room, reporting that, serving as a property with meaning with regard to her, no one is home anymore. It promises, that is, complete chaos

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And in this murder, a new symbol comes into play, as, out of her mind, appalled even at herself, she stabs and stabs him, her blank horrified eye profiled by the open underside view of a lamp

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the lamp then shining a light on the fact that she has upturned the couch she was molested on to punish him in kind, under it, making it his coffin

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and then when she, in a completely mentally gone state, the whole thing having been overcome by deep dream state surreality, and its out of control bezerker momentum, she stares, and stares, and the lamp blinds her, and reaching to turn it off, she knocks it over

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and we get a straight on final whoosh, down the very symbol of destruction, in the parlor lingua franca of modern film, the fallen lamp (also see in Legend of Hell House, for example), into the bezerker state

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in this state, we have arrived at rock bottom surreality, the deep dream REM state, but, in this model, the stage of totally out of control madness, the madness as all but a natural force entirely in control. And, sure enough, there IS a further refined progression to this lower state, as Polanski stretched out the room once again, in a wonderfully weird effect

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especially when she walks through it

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Then the walls, all of them, are entirely alive, a hecatonchir of pulling, tearing her apart

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the hall becomes a destroying gauntlet

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and the ceiling lowers down, crushing her

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leaving her to die seeking coverage and protection from the monster that her madness has become, embodied in the apartment out to kill her, under the bed

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Polanksi in his commentary lamented that in retrospect he thought some of the shots in the movie were rather too arty. I guess I would classify as that the final pan over the mantel, remarking finally what was not apparent in previous treatment of them, that everything about the artifacts of the place are childish, as if not grown out of childhood, (a doll, a manikin pi, from Brussels, a toy)

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and then the carpet, in the living room, the sign of utter abjection

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bringing us round to an image, on a bureau, we have seen a few times before, Wymark as landlord in particular involving it in the haunting of her in her overcome state, a family picture, and while in thee general view it looked like she was part of the picture, a final closeup shows that she was somehow outcast and lonely and not part of the family, and even at that age looked like a killer to be

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So, the models do work rather well. As the visuality of the movie drops down to deeper and deeper vigilogogic dream-equivalent waking states, each stage does seem to parallel a deepening stage of her descent into madness, passing from golem, to monster, to gone, in the presence of a bezerker madness which has taken over everything, destroying her in the process. It’s a terrific work of film, and even better that it does seem to provide evidence of having internalized on an instinctive level some of the basic tropes and models of madness and dreaming in modern horror. While critics praise art house films as abstract exercises of pure film-making that transcended the low-down conventions of genre movies, this analysis suggests that Polanski knew of the conventions of the horror genre, in terms of representing madness through altered states of consciousness, and worked with them, with the art residing in the fact that he worked with them in a masterly, inspired way.

The repulsiveness of sex on the other side of the wall in Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).

rev. January 7, 2016.

Note: this is Part 1 of a 2 part treatment of Repulsion, see Part 2, next post.

In Roman Polanski’s early masterpiece, Repulsion (1965), Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, an extremely shy, even neurotic beauty who entices every man who sees her, but then turns them all away, aloof. Though generally described as a horror movie, it remains one only on the flimsy connection of the motifs of home invasion as imagined by a mad woman, and the going mad of the woman, where there is no supernatural presence of any kind, to the conventions of the genre. But the movie is famous for portraying her descent into madness so perfectly. Indeed, in his commentary on the movie, Polanski reports that psychologists of the time were amazed at the research that went into creating a perfect rendition of a schizophrenic, when in fact, he admits, there was no research, it was all only being observant and instinctive (a statement which more or less confirms my notion that most films are made by way of the unconscious fed through routine working within a genre with conventions). The challenge, then, in explaining the meaning of the devices of the movie is not to so much trace her descent into madness, but determine how well or not Polanski’ made use of the conventions of horror in new ways to convey new shocks.

Let’s start, then, with the clichés, and see what happens. In one scene, Carol comes home, and, as per the cliché of the horror movie, and the notion that all men with voyeuristic tendencies know to be true, the first thing she does, right in the door, is strip. We see her at the front door

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Then she goes right to her room (she lives with her sister, who is rather unkindly conducting a love affair on the other side of her bedroom wall). But, already, the odd thing is that we get this shot from the floor level, looking up, not from the viewer level.

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The kicking off of her shows signifies her carelessness about her physical being, and her body, and her beauty, she is reckless with her youth, not caring at all about it. Since I have formerly linked floor views, and particularly rug and carpet views to abjection, this is a kind of downtrod version of the convention. But, then, as expected by the triggers, in the next shot, she keeps going, and removes her dress

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If this was a conventional scene, she would now be stripping off entirely, showing us some nudity in the negotiation of a robe, and then she would go to the bathroom, to shower off the bad day she’s had. But, this time, she pauses to gawk out the window, and gawk at nuns in white playing in a far yard, it’s odd

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By contrast, she now gazes into her sister’s bedroom, I think, disgusted with her situation

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but, then, surprise, she DOES go into the bathroom, only this time all she gives of it is lifting her feet to the sink to wash them. While there is in this shot a sufficient sight of upskirt darkness to perhaps titillate the viewer, the fact that she is washing her feet, which is not very sexy, and that we don’t quite know why she is, one, were they just sore because she’d been standing on them all day long at her awful beautician job, or, two, was she suddenly, after seeing her situation, disgusted with having just earlier stepped barefoot on this disgusting floor? It is hard to say. But it is clear to me this is meant to indicate a somewhat OCD-oriented sense of cleanliness that has developed reactively against the situation she is living

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But then, this makes it all the more odd, that she walks around all over the place in her bra and slip, undressed. She even eats as she walks, and talks with her sister in her bedroom. In this shot, it is the sister in her underwear, all of this underlying the unacceptable intimacy of the whole setup. But at the same time her appearing like this so casually means that she can turn off the OCD and just prowl like an animal being, a beautiful young person who does not know her own effect on people, her beauty

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Here is when she talks to her sister in her underwear

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At one point, she walks in on the boyfriend (Ian Hendry) shaving, she is shocked, but also again disgusted, especially as she has discovered that he popped his toothbrush into the glass she uses to rinse her mouth out after having brushed her teeth. This violation of her space appalls her, and she confronts her sister, this time in a fluffier, but in some ways more revealing gown.

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later still, she undertakes another attack on the boyfriend, so much so that the sister, in her bath towel, for god’s sake, comes in in the middle of the night, while she is in bed, and warns you to butt out, to mind her own business. This is not only unbearably intimate, but in order for the sister to come in she had to turn the door knob, and so for the first time the door knob turns, but it really does deliver an intruder, in the nude too

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still later, she takes the boyfriend’s sleeping shirt, or t shirt, and, without touching it, drops it in the trash, in disgust

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and it is also in the bathroom that, having seen the boyfriend shaving, and with a straight razor no less, she sees it on the glass shelf, and wonders of it, how it might be used in her life

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the movie continues to tease us with the bathroom or shower sequence convention expectation. At a later point, she actually does turn on the bath, running it. As a trigger in horror, this says, naked woman coming

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but then for the second time she completely forgets about it, and it overflows, which she turns off again with her aloof who cares attitude, not in any other way bothering to clean up

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Of course, having a full bathtub waiting, affords her a place to get rid of the body of the young man courting her, after she kills him. We get, therefore, our shower or bath sequence, but her part in it is repressed, and the convention as a whole is negated inversely, to turn to death (murder in bathtubs is a quite common horror motif, and this is this movie’s version)

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this apparently is her mad revenge for him having the gall to try to kiss her against her will, earlier, she wipes the taste of his smoker mouth from her mouth, disgusted by his germs, but then she cleans him up good, he gets the bath

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her disgust with the physical and the body is only exacerbated by the fact that she has to work in the close quarters of a beauty shop attending to the impossible task of beautifying ugly old women. In this instance, she has the razor in hand, and cannot help but cut the woman in protest, but not, apparently, consciously

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So, all in all, there IS a shower sequence in Repulsion, and there is a bath, but in both cases it is repressed, and inverted to the negative, to signal, by response to conventions, and by turning the audience off her, her opposition to the norms of horror living.

But then we see that the major repulsion of the movie, the repulsion that triggers her breakdown, is her repulsion at sex. She is tormented in bed at night by hearing her sister moan and come in having sex. And it would seem that sister had sex every night, because it happens, in this telling, two nights in a row. This makes her hate her place, her apartment, her situation in it, and her sister and his boyfriend (Polanski again noted in commentary that early on, hearing a distant piano from a neighbor’s apartment was, for him, because of childhood memories, the deepest signal of haunting, but it is clear in the script that hearing sex on the other side of the wall is much more disgusting). What would a normal person do stuck in this situation? He or she would yell, knock it off, or they would walk away, and let them finish up, or they would put on earphones, or some evasive action to not make them listen to this. It is also true that some human beings (no!) might be tempted to exploit the titillation of the sounds of rising action sex moving toward female orgasm by masturbating to it. She does touch herself, hearing it

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but it is also true in this outfit, she looks even less bodily, and more angelic, and thus is figured out in property as a virgin, across the way, white, stone, virginal

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When the sex is occurring, and she lacks the resources to use earplugs, or somehow escape it, she allows herself to be drawn into it, and to be repulsed by it. And as she does, all aspects of her room at night close in on her. In this area, Polansky again moves into a terrain well worked out in horror, the seeing things aspect of creepy bedroom furnishings, perhaps the most common element of haunting. Here, as the boyfriend’s penis drives home, the molding and the ceiling lamp take on a sexual overtone, harassing her

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Then, the best part of Repulsion for me is that her room is accommodated by way of a sealed door. A sealed door is a door from one room to another in a flat, which, for reasons of privacy when more persons than the place was made to accommodate, live there, is sealed, and then normally blocked by a piece of furniture. The problem is, human beings cannot help but feel creeped out by this accommodation. If it was a door, it would serve as the function of a door, and in strength and shape keep others out. It’s true that door knob turnings, and knockings on door, and seeing people move in the light creeping in under the door, all make doors haunted, but the sealed door is a door that has been stripped of its strengths as door to become but a part of the new wall, and yet, in that capacity, it is inadequate, it is not wall, it is door, and even if sealed, and blockaded by an enormous bureau, it still can be pushed through, it makes one vulnerable (I know this from living near two sealed doors in brownstone Brooklyn, I sometimes think my interest in the secret wisdom of horror derives from my creepy relationships with those sealed doors).

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she begins to imagine that she sees light in back of the door, that there is someone in the room on the other side of the sealed door, and that if there is someone in there, and there is a door, and she is in here, that that someone is only there, to come through the door, to attack her. This same feeling of sudden porous unsafety invests her fireplace with the suspicion of offering access to a home invader too

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and then, as things progress, one night the light actually does go on, just like with the door knob and the sister, there IS someone in there, and they are pushing the bureau away, to come get her

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it finally happens, on a night when she is particularly upset, and sweaty

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And aroused, and we know this by seeing her body through her gown, a well-known device for exposure of female vulnerability (and which will progress as her descent continues)

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That the bureau, by the power of the light, transforms into the bogey man of a dark intruder

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she screams

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And then as she turns away from it, to do what kids might do when thus confronted, bury their heads in their pillows, pull the covers over her head, the bureau-man fantasized from the bogey willies of the sealed door symbolizing the weak protection she has by those thin walls from her disgust at the sex of her sister and her boyfriend, comes through and he falls on her, raping her from behind

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this happens a few times, and she always ends up on the floor

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in one famous shot, completely stripped and disheveled, waking up on the floor, which she has no trouble lying naked on in the morning.

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Hmm. How to explain what these are. Traditionally speaking, they are hag attacks, or, since a man is involved on a woman, guy attacks. More traditionally, they represent incubus male version attacks. What these are are psychological episodes of autoerotic arousal and sexual acting out based on repressed emotions and being unable to gain release from sexual frustration by more conventional means like masturbation. That is, ultimately, this is masturbation by a woman unable to allow herself, because of her mania, to masturbate. As a result, it comes out as a kind of sleep paralysis, where she imagines her imaginary lover to be real, and to attack her, and to take her terribly, violating her from behind. Note that in all cases she is face down in the pillow and on the bed, and on the floor. This represents a very early phase of masturbatory behavior, when, at a very young age, one discovers that lying on one’s tummy feels good. This is then how she masturbates, but it is all externalized in nightmare sleep paralysis. The symbolism here has a bit of a 60s tinge to it, indulging in rape fantasy theory, and also, in a broader sense, in the beached ashore, survivor style, which perhaps suggests daily life or waking life now existing on the other side of a crisis of sanity-stripping, but there it is, iconic shot of a woman taken apart by sexual repulsion, never looking sexier, the terrible paradox that Deneuve at that age embodied so perfectly

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it is only after these crises occur, where she is clearly now having psychological episodes, that she then experiences the strangest device of the movie, the cracking walls. What do they represent? On the surface, they represent simply cracking up, it’s that simple. She has seen one early on on the street, and sits and stares at it, worried by it.

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But it is also just as likely that it represent her own cracks, physically, that is, the physical aspect of her self, and the fact that the female version of the human body has openings that can be torn open

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It is also at the introduction of the cracks, and when the sister and boyfriend go off for ten days to Italy, so she is left alone, that her existing state of repulsion from her sexuality, as expressed by her repulsion of the sex going on in her surroundings, now, with them absent, implodes into the very apartment itself, which has been corrupted and sexualized all over by their sexual activity in it. And it is at this point that Repulsion steps up to a truly phenomenal level of artistry, in showing madness, as the apartment in which she bottoms out in over the course of ten days, completely implodes in on her. This will be the subject of my second note on Repulsion. Part 2 to come.