Next-door horror

Pub date July 15, 2009
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

CULT DVD As the first, and likely most underrated, film in Roman Polanski’s so-called apartment trilogy, Repulsion (1965) has often been judged by critics as a nascent work of distaff psychodrama that would achieve greater heights in the satanic majesty of Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But with this month’s deluxe DVD re-release of Repulsion by Criterion, another, more modern, evaluation might elevate Polanski’s gothic "prequel" into the archetype of an unrecognized genre — cellular guignol.

Released after Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) — two other lynchpins of 1960s Anglo horror — Polanski’s document of Belgian agoraphobe Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and the emotional decay of swinging London signified a certain migration in the horror setting from the bucolic to the urban. Utilizing the confinement of the apartment — a setting indicative of the encroachment of the urban into the haunted estates and vast laboratories of earlier Grand Guignol — Polanski’s new type of horror responded to the rapid industrialization and segmentation of the postwar metropolis. Conceivably about a young woman’s breakdown amid the overwhelming urban expansion of London, Repulsion could certainly have mirrored Polanski’s own prickly feelings toward Western Europe after having grown up in the vast graveyards of Nazi-controlled Krakow.

In a recent Harvard lecture on his three volume work Sphären [Spheres], German critic Peter Sloterdijk explains the modern regime of apartment living this way: "Modern apartment construction rests on a celibate-based ontology … Everything is drawn into the inner sphere of the apartment. World and household blend. If a one-person existence can succeed at all, it is only because there is architectural support that turns the apartment itself into an entire world prosthetic." From Sloterdijk’s perspective, Carol’s mental deterioration in Repulsion was not so much the psychoanalytic signs of transference and sexual frigidity (as has been offered by most critics) but a physiological response to a new ecology — namely, the loss of a universal house for what Sloterdijk calls "the stacking of cells [into] an architectural foam, a multichambered system made of relatively stabilized personal worlds."

Such an interpretation would also reverse the contention that Carol’s deterioration stemmed from an apparent agoraphobia. Rather, her paranoia is an affective condition, precipitated by an "apartmental" way of living that locked the urbanite into a personalized cell (in both senses of the word — both biologically constitutive and punitive) not unlike the prisoner or medieval monk. So whatever critiques have immured Repulsion in traditional psychodrama fail to read the film as the paradigm of a new urban imperative.