The Isolation and Madness of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy

*contains spoilers

So you think self-isolation is driving you crazy? The film Repulsion (1965) begins with the sight of a woman’s eye as the credits appear along with the heartbeat-like sound of a drum. Actress Catherine Deneuve (1943-) is staring into space at work, detached from her surroundings as a manicurist in a private room of a large beauty salon. She is holding the hand of a female customer who asks if she has fallen asleep as fingers then play a flute on a soundtrack.

The eye-opening film Repulsion (1965)

Deneuve is a young French woman in London in the swinging 60s. She can be termed strange but in reality, she has a mental illness, something which she possibly has had since she was a child. And it is getting worse as she turns around 23 and lives with her older sister in a rundown apartment.

She is beautiful and there is a man interested in her. She is also a virgin.

“I can’t,” says Deneuve as her male friend makes advances, touching her.

Catherine Deneuve still appears in movies over 50 years after the release of Repulsion

The film’s name Repulsion is now obvious as Deneuve’s character Carol can’t stand the touch of men. Why? Was she molested by one as a child? Someone has suggested in another review that is was her father. Anyway, it has affected her and she is frigid. This physical isolation of the self, plus being a foreigner, plus being mentally ill… it doesn’t help that she is left alone for long stretches in her apartment. But I jump ahead…

Poster for Repulsion. The first in the Apartment Trilogy.

Director Roman Polanski’s (1933-) latest film was picketed by the #MeToo movement for being nominated at the recent French Oscars, due to the statutory rape charges he plea bargained but fled before sentencing in the United States in the late 1970s. Polanski is Polish and short. In fact, he is known in the business as the four-foot Pole you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. However, he is a brilliant director of such films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974). Despite his fleeing the US, Oscar gave him the Best Director nod for The Pianist (2002). They expelled him in 2018. I guess any sympathy he garnered for being married to the pregnant Sharon Tate (1943-69) who was subsequently murdered by the Manson family has totally evaporated.

Chinatown (1974) trailer

Polanski’s first feature was Knife on the Water (1962) which is in Polish and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. His first English language film is Repulsion, which he made for a reputed budget of 65,000 pounds. Major distributors refused to back the film, so Polanski used a distributor that usually dealt in soft-core porn.

Sharon Tate with her then husband Roman Polanski in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

It paid off as the film raked in a few million dollars which is not surprising because Repulsion is a ground-breaking film. Yes, it deals with mental illness, possibly schizophrenia and because Deneuve commits murder after losing contact with reality it is probably not surprising that people with that illness get a bad rap, even though many wouldn’t harm a fly, especially when medicated… No Mrs Bates jokes please!

A poster for Knife in the Water (1962)

That the seeds of mental illness are often planted as a child, or teenager, often through sexual abuse or whatever and that schizophrenia usually occurs in people around the age of 23, when society says they are no longer teenagers and must let go of their parents and family home and stand on their own two feet, meet a person of the opposite sex (or now same), settle down and have children… or more or less conform to society… some people are not up to it or they are ill-prepared for it due to being slightly disturbed as a child.

Deneuve has a self-centred sister who doesn’t realise her true condition

Especially Deneuve in Repulsion as she suffers her illness while living with a self-centred sister and her sister’s none too sensitive boyfriend. This boyfriend leaves his toothbrush and razor in Deneuve’s glass in the bathroom. She also has to listen to her sister reaching orgasm in the next bedroom during the night.

Incidentally, it was the first female orgasm, albeit only on the soundtrack, allowed by censors in a British film.

Deneuve suffers the unwanted sexual advances of her ‘boyfriend’

Deneuve also has to suffer as a beautiful blonde, the unwanted attention of men who find her, as a virgin in her 20s, ripe for the picking. They are predators, although the ‘boyfriend’ she has seems decent enough… But when he suddenly kisses her as they sit in his car, she is repulsed… whether it’s the tobacco smell on his breath… or just the fact he is a man or even another person, she goes straight to her bathroom and washes her mouth out. In reality, there is no way this girl will ever have a relationship with a man… there is mention of lesbians in the movie which must be one of the first time the term was used, but Deneuve is not interested in them either, as she remains detached in her all female work environment.

Polanski directs Deneuve in a scene for Repulsion

Her apartment overlooks what appears to be a convent which she looks at sometimes with wonder. Perhaps she would have made a good nun, listening to the church bell as she tries to sleep, but when it ceases, it gives way to her sister’s orgasm. Perhaps in the next cell if she really was a nun.

There is no release even though her fingers and hand are hinted in a childlike way as she holds the hand of the customer while staring into space… there is no hint of masturbation, although later in the film she lies almost naked on the bedroom floor after one disturbing night covered in a sheet… She is aloof to herself and her body as well as others… and visited by madness.

One of Deneuve’s nightmarish hallucinations

Repulsion contrasts the nunnery and the beauty parlour while her apartment is some sort of limbo.

“There’s only one way to deal with men and that’s treat them as though you don’t give a damn about them. I’ve told you this before…,” says a customer in Deneuve’s presence as if the power of suggestion has more than taken a hold of her.

She sits in the corner of one of the parlour rooms almost catatonic… and her boss sends her home. This is probably not the best idea as there is nobody there except for a skinned rabbit which was meant for dinner with her sister the previous night but her sister’s flight of fancy saw her take off. The dead rabbit could be symbolic of the rabbit test for pregnancy as well as it possibly resembling a newborn baby. Deneuve doesn’t want it.

The dead rabbit rots away in the apartment

Poor Deneuve is becoming obsessed with the razor in the bathroom, perhaps suicide, but this is not really hinted at as we are watching a psychological horror film and so we know this razor has other ramifications.

I’m sorry but there’s nobody there

When Deneuve is in the street sitting aimlessly on a park bench, she stares at a Y-shaped crack on the sidewalk as if it begs the question: “Why?”. This Y-shaped crack appears in the apartment upside-down almost like an upturned crucifix. This hints as the hell of the apartment and the inner hell of our character. There is a topsy turvy feel to Deneuve’s world, one which is part of another dimension, as time seems to pass at an unmeasurable rate in the narrative.

The cracks are showing in Deneuve’s psyche in more ways than one

She overflows the bath, then hits the streets almost picking her nose but instead almost compulsively brushing her hair with her hand… public civilisation as opposed to private hell, returning to the rotting dead rabbit and what she imagines are gigantic cracks suddenly appearing in the walls of the apartment. She is holding it together just, but sadly she has no close friends to see or call on the telephone. As people with mental illness do, they often retreat from the world perhaps even to the bedroom alone… but Deneuve doesn’t even have a television or a radio going in the background such is her detachment.

Deneuve imagines she has been raped. Is it something from her past?

She can’t even escape in sleep as she dreams of being raped by a faceless older stranger in her bed… something which of course doesn’t help her passive existence. She turns up to work after three days…

“I can’t help if you won’t tell me what’s the matter,” says her boss, who is an anti-Mother Superior and says she went back to work two days after having her first baby.

Deneuve won’t tell her, it goes too deep and perhaps she is ashamed – she’s mentally ill after all and this is the 1960s when even today the stigma remains. She lies and says an aunt came to stay.

Deneuve’s beauty belies the horror she is suffering and what it then causes

Then she badly slashes a customer’s cuticles and is told to leave… laughing with a fellow co-worker as the changes from her anti-habit uniform into street clothes and for a moment they are like innocent girls. We know that Deneuve needs more of this contact and it could possibly save her… the mentally ill are often so isolated… but her friend then discovers the rotting head of the rabbit in her handbag and the laughs dry up.

She goes home to the empty apartment now that her sister has gone to Italy for a holiday with her boyfriend. Meanwhile Deneuve’s ‘boyfriend’ is getting sexually frustrated which will lead to a confrontation and his murder at the hands of Deneuve with a candlestick.

Behind the scenes of 1925’s Metropolis. Repulsion is also behind the scenes of city life.

When she does watch teevee, it is apparently the silent film Metropolis (1926) with its mechanical engines pumping away. We are all just a cog in the engine of the world and if we don’t do our job and make it work and mix with our fellows and have relationships… anyway it’s all lost on Deneuve, who after killing her boyfriend since he busted down the door to get to her is left to go even more spare as the phone rings and there is nobody there.

The landlord offers more than just a helping hand

Then the landlord turns up for the rent and seeing that she’s a bit of a poor thing offers her a glass of water before attempting to sexually molest her. She takes care of him with the razor.

Deneuve strikes out

The slow build of Repulsion and its eventual pay-off show that Polanski was already a master before he made Rosemary’s Baby. He would follow Repulsion with the more personal Cul-De-Sac (1966), which he wrote with Gerard Brach (1927-2006). Polanski and Brach would collaborate again throughout Polanski’s career on Tess (1979) and Pirates (1986).

Cul-De-Sac is a weird movie and at double the budget of Repulsion, I’m sure didn’t make as much money back at the box-office as it’s certainly no mainstream film. It has been compared to the works of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter as it too deals with frustrated sexuality and alienation… But perhaps not as well as Repulsion.

Cul-De-Sac (1966) trailer

The title Repulsion like mental illness and the sufferer themselves are repulsive to the average Joe who don’t mind using the term “nutter” when describing them. They, like frigid virgins, are little more than a dirty joke at the pub as hinted at in an earlier scene in the film.

Deneuve’s affected family photo hints at an early disturbance. The final shot of Repulsion.

Hands come out of the wall and grab Deneuve as part of her hallucinations… and when it’s all over, the camera follows the crumbs on the floor to a photo of Deneuve as a girl with her family. It is a normal domestic scene in the garden, except for an almost queer stare in the girl’s eye as she looks into space… and the camera zooms in on the eyes of a child, indeed the single eye just as the film begins with Deneuve’s adult eye. There was something wrong with that child… and we gather it was not her fault which is usually the case.

Repulsion (1965) trailer

Repulsion is a part of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant (1976).

In Repulsion, there are no real neighbours in terms of community although a woman with a dog stands outside Deneuve’s apartment when her boyfriend breaks the door down. She is merely a watchdog and in no way a friend.

The neighbours throw a party in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

In Rosemary’s Baby, the neighbours in the next apartment are Satanists who have an eventual hold on Mia Farrow’s (1945-) character. It’s interesting that Farrow worked with Polanski when she also worked with former partner Woody Allen who is also now a social and artistic pariah due to underage sexual allegations. I’ll skip the much discussed Rosemary’s Baby and focus on the last movie in the Apartment Trilogy.

Polanski’s tenant is faced with a wall and mounting problems

The Tenant was a project which Polanski picked up in the later stages and he would also star in it. So only by chance does it help form the Apartment Trilogy.

The Tenant takes isolation, sexual frustration and paranoia to Kafkaesque heights as Polanski’s moves into an apartment where the previous tenant attempted suicide…

“You won’t be able to jerk off without him coming to your door,” says a housewarming guest at Polanski’s apartment which goes on too loud and too late, causing a neighbour to come and complain.

A neighbour complains about excess noise in The Tenant (1976)

Later Polanski tells someone: “You know there is something odd going on in my building” after witnessing strange things going on in the building’s toilet – they have to share one – which he can see into across from his apartment. Odd things happen there…

The Tenant is based on a novel by writer and illustrator Roland Topor (1938-97 cerebral haemorrhage) who like Polanski was Polish. Topor was responsible for that surreal and dazzling animated movie Fantastic Planet (1973).

A scene from the remarkable Fantastic Planet (1973)

The Tenant was a film I had avoided after a first viewing – it was so disturbing. But having watched it again, I can see it is a quality study of neighbours ganging up against a tenant, even if it is only paranoia in the mind of the tenant alone, or both. It is still not a pleasant experience to watch. But it’ll make you feel better if you have similar problems as Polanski’s seem much worse. He too is growing mentally ill.

“You have yourself to blame,” says the concierge, played by Shelley Winters (1920-2006 heart failure) to Polanski about his place being robbed and other goings on.

Concierge Winters shows Polanski where the previous tenant jumped

Earlier, Polanski has had a fit of paranoia at the local church and flees as if he is almost becoming alienated in front of our very eyes as the priest’s sermon gnaws at his mind.

The Tenant is a cautionary tale about not being respectable in an apartment block and in the end probably insists you mind your own business. It’s a quandary of modern-day society which creates suspicion and paranoia when instead there could be community. But, hell, it’s a big city.

Polanski watches himself in the toilet in a twist of paranoia and eventual madness

The moment when Polanski watches himself from his apartment window in the toilet across the way though opera glasses is one of the most disturbing moments in the film. Is this the moment when the non-respectable realises his own, dare I say, perversion but not yet the illness? He has almost become a peeping tom – yet on himself. Or was this entire scene imagined?

Then there is the moment when Polanski finds a tooth secreted in the wall of his apartment and he realises it could belong the previous tenant who has since died in hospital. It goes to show the psychic element of “within these walls” with Polanski reaching a kind of perverted madness for peeping on himself and others in the toilet, even if the neighbours just stand in the toilet for hours looking back at him. He is drawn to look rather than draw the curtains. Or does he imagine this also?

The totally random Neighbors (1981) trailer. An underrated black comedy.

When I mention the psychic element, it seems that Polanski is slowly taking on the personality of the dead woman and it is though it is being forced on him by others in the building. They are not necessarily Satanists like in Rosemary’s Baby but they dominate his thoughts just the same and perhaps wish him to hit the road or in the case of suicide, the pavement.

It’s enough to drive a man mad! Or at least to cross dress as Polanski dresses in the dress of the previous tenant left behind in the closet in some strange route towards copying her suicide. Such seems the wishes of the other tenants. Perhaps the dress was left deliberately, or so it seems for Polanski. Did I mention that Polanski also puts his front tooth into the wall of his apartment! Something is seriously wrong. And you thought you had problems!

The previous tenant appears to have left her front tooth in the wall of the apartment

To be alienated from your own self is almost normal for some today but Polanski’s character is obviously mentally ill and is treated by the neighbours like the physically disabled child invalid who lives with her mother and is avoided for not being normal. Something which is possibly only gossip in the apartment block. This disabled child stares at him when he has the panic attack in the church as if akin in some way. 

I guess what The Tenant says is if neighbours treat their other neighbours with disregard and ignore and ultimately alienate, then the isolated and lonely who are trapped in the closet of their existence inside their apartments can warp an already slightly warped person on a larger and larger scale until that person cannot live with themselves… That’s a mouthful.

Poor Polanski is driven to cross dressing and suicide. Perversion or sickness?

“They’re trying to kill me. Drive me to suicide,” says Polanski of his neighbours.

Is he mad? Or do the wishes of neighbours have a psychic effect on the warped… even if it is not necessarily the tenant’s fault that they have reached that state of mind… in other words madness. There are mind-bending possibilities beyond the witchcraft of Rosemary’s Baby in The Tenant. And I am leaving out many plot points.

The Tenant (1976) trailer. Some people aren’t and are meant to be alone!

The film begins with Polanski lying to a friend of the suicide he meets in hospital when he visits her and it is through this friendship and the behaviour of the neighbours that he begins to break down. The friend’s name is Stella which means star in Latin who Polanski is drawn to sexually. Polanski revolves around Stella as did the previous tenant in an ultimately self-destructive way, and in a universal sense the Earth as planet revolves around a star alienated within itself to the point of self-destruction. It’s an interesting comparison.

The very end is in some ways more horrifying than Polanski’s suicide attempts

There is also a recurring image on the streets of La Peinturie Lure written above the image of a beggar. The meaning is painting lures. Does it suggest an exhibition like the parade of people in the apartment toilet, the beggar or homeless not having one of his own? The lure of the artist or the public to study art? And the viewer lured to art as peeping tom? Thus, artist watching artist, human watching human, it is the built-in genius of Polanski’s character’s self which ultimately leads to paranoia and madness – caused, initially, by the neurosis of the self watching the self. It’s a little mind-boggling. And perhaps bog it is, as everyone should have their own private bog/toilet is probably the crappiest reading you could otherwise give The Tenant.

A desert Aboriginal Bora-ring or initiation site

The Tenant has great depth because Polanski is a master. But compared to Topor’s fictional character, the director turns out in real life to be a lustful, arrogant and insensitive prick when he committed the crime from which he fled the United States. The Tenant fled by attempting suicide through a window, Polanski probably stared through a first class window on a jet. There is irony when you put the two films together along with his crime which occurred after he made the Apartment Trilogy. It is like an almost evil culmination. He continues to work in Europe. I won’t review a film made after his crime but his best films came before that anyway.

Polanski outside an L.A. court in 1977 where he pleaded guilty before he fled the country

“I knew there was something wrong with him the first time I saw him,” says a neighbour after Polanski jumps from his window dressed like the previous tenant with dress, wig and all. I guess some buildings even rooms, especially with teeth in their walls have bad karma.

The original theme song from the long running Aussie soapie Neighbours. Yes, with a you/u.

I can relate to that aspect as the apartment building where I have lived for over 20 years is apparently built upon what was once a sacred Aboriginal Bora-ring or initiation site and legend says an Aboriginal massacre happened here when the Europeans arrived. It is apparently cursed.

Repulsion shows us the limbo and inner turmoil which the mad and psychotic live in… even in the privacy of their own apartment, while The Tenant shows this from a male point of view, where people are groomed either to become a part of society, or live apart from it but still keep society’s tenets within… the other option is possibly to go insane.

And maybe it is not the girl’s fault in Repulsion, but it may be partly the fault of the character in The Tenant, finally, under the suggestion of his alien neighbours. Monster’s ball!

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