In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's seminal short story 'The Yellow Wallpaper', a young woman's descent into madness is conveyed through a sparse minimalist prose, and in these simple strings of words there is more subtext than in most complex literate flair. Where Gilman's short piece of fiction achieved a hallucinatory fever pitch with muted simplicity, our focus film of this week, Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1966) achieves similar heights with its subtle use of sporadic, desolate imagery.

Polanski surely looked to the short when assembling Repulsion, a film that shares both a similar basic premise and intense claustrophobic tone. The film stalks its victim Carol (Catherine Deneuve) walking the thin line between lucidity and insanity over the course of a week spent in her sister's London apartment, and in an almost identical manner to that of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' the visual style is one that gathers momentum through restrained, simplistic and powerful beats.

Polanski here deals in binaries, two polar opposites with no points between, sane and insane, hostile and sedated, and corrupt and innocent. There was no budgetary demand to shoot in primitive black and white, and brilliantly vivid colour stock was becoming increasingly popular at the time, but the simple divide between colours is used to devastating effect and establishes itself as the film's most prominent stylistic device.

Fig 1. Carol illuminated

Fig 2. Carol steps into the dark


The above two images are taken from the same scene just moments apart, and, in blunt, cold terms, instantly create a division between the character's sanity and madness. This scene comes close to the end of the film, when Carol is about to start hallucinating arms reaching from walls and after the body count has risen to two, but even during the build up there have been hints at the impending breakdown.

The use of light and dark is used here to signify Carol's psyche as she alternates between the two states of mind, and she repeatedly weaves throughout the beams of light to symbolise the transition. However in previous scenes, we have also observed it being used to act as a visual representation of Carol's perspective, most notably in the two scenes that depict the apparent source of her trauma - the sexual advances of men.

Fig 3. Carol's suitor is obscured by shadows

Fig 4. The silhouette of the landlord who attempts to rape Carol


In both examples light is utilised as an effective window into her psyche, the men who visit her in the apartment, both entering by force, are bathed in darkness and their faces invisible. Carol cannot differentiate between the threat of the landlord and the brash advances of an overzealous admirer and neither can the audience viewing the world through her eyes.

Both are killed in a grisly manner and these actions usher in Carol's final descent. Much like in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' where sentences such as "But what is one to do?" act as poignant, harrowing milestones along the decline into mental illness, Repulsion depicts its subjects downward trajectory through sparse individual frames and powerful single images.

Most notable is the penultimate sequence, in which the Carol's transformation takes place and the aforementioned arms reach from the walls. The scene becomes possibly the most disturbing use of this simple, bleak style of aesthetics throughout the film and encapsulates why Polanski's horror is still studied and imitated today.

Fig 5. Carol's face and its separate silhouette

Fig 6. Carol's face covered by a mask of shadows


Fig 5 is taken from roughly a third of the way through the film. She lies in bed and hears her sister loudly having sex in the room adjacent. She tries to ignore it but her apparent disgust at the act and reluctance to engage in it forces itself into her consciousness. Polanski uses this moment to play a horrific trick on second-time viewers, where he foreshadows the transition by silhouetting Carol's face on the wall next to her, creating an outline of her profile in darkness.

Later, as Carol walks the hall of groping, caressing arms reaching from a membrane-like wall, and her insanity reaches its peak, her face is completely obscured by the darkness, and the mask that we saw as a separate entity earlier on smothers her features and engulfs her identity.

Carol becomes what she is repulsed by, sexualised and charged by sexuality, engaging in a physical act her face is covered much in the same way the males of the film had been previously. The mask manifests itself on her face and both her and her audience cannot separate the identity of Carol from what she fears, the true essence of madness.