The film Repulsion (1965) directed by Roman Polanski contains influences of German expressionism and surrealism. This can be observed in various elements of mise-en-scene. These effects combine to produce a film that provokes a stream of unconscious thoughts in the viewer. To illustrate this I will attempt an analysis of a scene that occurs towards the end of the film, after the main character Carol (Catherine Deneuve) has committed two acts of murder.
The scene begins with Carol writing on a glass pane with a nail. The camera films her from the other side of the glass. She smiles and mouths the words she is writing while the nail squeaks. She stands up and it is revealed that she is standing at the French doors of the living room.
The camera moves behind her as she enters the living room. Music begins. The room appears hugely cavernous. It’s very dark. The only light comes from two windows. It appears to be night time because light shines from the windows in the opposite flats. Thick shafts of light paint horizontal lines along the ceiling and floor.
There is debris on the floor and an upturned couch in the centre of the room. Carol walks toward it and back and then turns around on the spot three times. The camera moves down to shoot her from the floor and the light shade and ceiling rose come into view looking like a two dimensional baroque drawing.
Carol stops and stares out at the hallway, walks back out of the living room to the hall and stands facing the wall. Her blonde hair and pale skin are luminescent. Suddenly there is a clash of cymbals as two pairs of hands seem to burst out through the wall towards her. The wall appears to stretch like a balloon.
Carol jumps in fright and the next shot shows her trying to walk and crawl down the hallway in silhouette while lots of hands reach from both sides grasping at her body, face and hair. The drums and piano play a grim marching tune while the cymbals keep loudly clashing.
This sound continues as the film then cuts to a shot of her lying on her sister’s newspaper covered bed staring up into the camera as it zooms down to a close-up of her face.
There is a cut to the directly opposite angle where the camera has her profile in the right hand side of the shot while it is also aligned with her gaze up to the ceiling. The camera appears to dolly up to the ceiling while keeping her profile in the shot. This conveys the effect of her floating up to the light shade and ceiling rose. The patterns made by the light on the ceiling blur and dissolve.
The directors used mise en scene to add depth to the narratives in their films, particularly before the addition of sound in the 1930s. One element of mise en scene used was juxtaposition within the frame. This was created by a defined contrast of light and dark areas. Polanski has incorporated these elements into Repulsion by most importantly filming it in black and white. In this scene Carol’s white skin, hair and costume is contrasted with the dark, poorly lit spaces of the flat. The lighting (and lack of it) is emphasised. This use of light also appears to give the film a painterly effect. In this scene the whole set appears to be two dimensional as line and shape are emphasised in the ceiling roses and light shades, the walls seem to melt and merge and the furniture takes on a cartoon - like appearance.
Another element of mise-en-scene used by German expressionist directors was shadows. German and Scandinavian folktales often included the Dammerung – a world created by twilight in which objects could suddenly spring to life. (Titford 21) The flat with its low lighting and large patches of darkness appears to be a strange reality where the objects inside it and the building itself become eerily alive. Polanski uses a lot of shadow in the rooms and hall as well as the shadows on the ceiling cast by the light shades in the living room and bedroom. This gives a visual effect of shapes merging from the darkness, of the shadows becoming alive.
All the scenes inside the flat were shot in a specially made studio set. ( Butler 75) Polanski said “What I like is an extremely realistic setting in which there is something that does not fit with the real. This is what gives it an atmosphere.”(Butler 179) He had the living room and the bathroom reconstructed on a much larger scale for the later scenes. (Butler 76) This gives the audience the effect of seeing the room from Carol’s personal perspective. It is an attempt to show a character’s subjective reality on film. Representation of the subjective experience as art was one of the primary aims of Expressionism. It is interesting to note that the two rooms that were reconstructed at this point in the movie both contained dead bodies. Polanski could also have been trying to represent the audience’s changed view of the room based upon the knowledge it contains a cadaver. Carl Dreyer, the director of Vampyr (1932) stated
“Imagine that we are in a very ordinary room, and that someone suddenly tells us that a dead body is behind the door. Immediately, the room in which we find ourselves becomes totally transformed; everything in it takes on a different appearance. The light and the atmosphere will seem to change, though they remain physically unaltered. All this will come about because we shall have changed, and objects are what we conceive them to be.”
(qtd. in Titford 20)
Somnambulists, vampires and zombies were frequent characters in German expressionist films. ( Butler Horror in the cinema 19-27) Their purpose served to invert the relationship between human and object. Humans were portrayed as dead (objects) while objects were animated with life through the use of light, shadow and close-up shots. The purpose of these actions was to create a paradox in the mind of the audience that made them see the film (a dead object) as imbued with life. (Titford 20) Carol appears to be almost sleepwalking around the flat. She has very limited expression on her face and doesn’t speak in this scene. She has an extremely attractive doll-like face. She looks like a mannequin.
Conversely the flat (an object) becomes more life-like. Hands are shown reaching out from the walls in the corridor, first as a shocking surprise and then in a shot of Carol walking down the hallway. The hallway appears to become like a person or group of people through the appearance of multiple hands emerging from its walls. This dreamlike image is also reminiscent of surrealism.
Polanski indicated that he was influenced by surrealism in his film making. (Butler 175) Surrealist cinema used the technique of juxtaposition to achieve a reaction of astonishment in the viewer. (Lyon 45) This technique was aimed at jolting the viewer into their unconscious mind which would then blend with the conscious images in the film. (Butler 175) The hands bursting out of the wall is a juxtaposition of two separate realities – hand (human) and wall (object). It is also introduced suddenly to startle the audience. There is also juxtaposition in the contrast of action, Carol calmly walking around the living room before being brutally confronted with the hands in the corridor. Another juxtaposition is of character, the appearance of an extraordinarily beautiful woman as a murderously insane figure.
The image of Carol writing on glass is also a juxtaposition of two opposing realities. Writing is usually done on a texture with opaque qualities like paper. Both the viewer and Carol can’t see what she is writing. This creates an inversion because Carol’s thoughts are the only repository for her text. Another significance of this image is that surrealists also used automatic writing as a method to gain access to their unconscious thoughts. (Ades 21)
The surrealists also used juxtaposition of sound to jolt perception. (Lyon 47) A strange, yet also almost seductive piece of music accompanies Carol while she wanders around the living room. The music is then joined by the loud clashing of cymbals at the introduction of the hands and as she walks down the hallway. This sound provides continuity between shots as it then accompanies her simulated rise towards the ceiling while she is in her bed. This rising effect is also a juxtaposition of space and movement.
In summary the examined scene uses German expressionist and surrealistic elements of mise-en-scene firstly to give depth to the narrative, secondly to make the film come alive and thirdly to produce an effect that jolts the viewer into the unconscious part of their mind. Matters raised that are beyond the scope of this work but would be worth investigation are themes of expressionism and surrealism in Roman Polanski's body of work. Significantly the analysis of this scene highlights its depth of production and meaning. Repulsion is a richly layered work of art and imagination.
Ades, Dawn. “Surrealism as Art.” Surrealism: Revolution by Night .exhibition catalogue.
Butler, Ivan. The cinema of Roman Polanski.
Butler, Ivan. Horror in the cinema.
Titford, John. S. “Object-Subject relationships in German expressionist cinema.” Cinema Journal Vol 13 No 1 (Autumn 1973): 17-24.
Repulsion. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneax, John Fraser and Michael Hendry. Compton-Cameo, 1965.