Repulsion’s Inversion of Psycho, or: The loss of narrative concern and the cracks in Polanski’s Code

By Daniel Spada

Just five short years after Alfred Hitchcock changed the discourse on the horror film with the release of Psycho (1960), Roman Polanski responded with a film containing more explicit sex and more explicit violence, not to forget an ending that was equally as disturbing but in a wholly different way. Repulsion (1965) was his first English language picture (as well as Catherine Deneuve’s), released by Compton Films, a small British film company specializing in soft-core pornography. At the time of its release, critics noted its surface similarities to Psycho, including Kenneth Tynan, writing for Life magazine, who said, “The difference between the two pictures is that Repulsion is Psycho, turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims–in Polanski’s our viewpoint is the killer’s” (22). There are parallels to be drawn between the oft-analyzed dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene with the landlord near the end of Repulsion. Norman and Carol’s vulnerability is turned outward and manifest in explicit acts of violence. Polanski understands this eruption of violence as consequential of a prolonged withdrawal from society, from oneself – this is reflected in his homages to Hitchcock, expressed in his ideological underpinnings, thematic preoccupations, and film form.

The other similarities between Repulsion and Psycho are very clear: the opening shot of Deneuve’s eye matches up with the shot of Marion’s after she is murdered, they are both blonde (which brings to mind the image of the “Hitchcock blonde”), there are two murders that occur throughout the duration of each film (Colin and the landlord in Repulsion, Marion and Arbogast in Psycho), and they both end with a “secret” being revealed to a community of people (a secret which brings great discomfort to each community in different ways[1]). Their differences are also easily noticeable: while Psycho could, and has been read as a mystery-thriller (the killer’s identity kept a secret until the end), Repulsion cannot be read as such (or in a similar way). There is a certain lack of narrative concern in Polanski’s film that does not exist in the world of Psycho, not to mention Polanski’s refusal to lighten the affair and offer a baseline diagnosis of Carol’s illness.[2] In both films, physical space is important (both of the major set pieces act as a literal and metaphorical prison, containing the action and the characters): Carol and Helen’s apartment in Repulsion, the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Although Kenneth Tynan is accurate in his description of Repulsion as an inversion of Psycho, it is only at a very basic level of narrative detail. His assertion that Polanski, “simply presents it [his heroine’s behavior], and if we choose to identify with her fears and her irrational ferocity that is our business, not his” comes off as resoundingly false if we look at the particulars of Polanski’s film form, and how he posits Carol as, what Ivan Butler calls, “authentically tragic” and “herself the most pitiable victim of the evil she does” (78). It is almost as if Tynan has completely overlooked the shots that bookend the film: the first, starting from such a close-up on a human eye (Carol’s) as to be indistinguishable until the zoom out, and the final shot, an extended zoom-in on a family photograph, the light cutting the photo up and a parallelogram enclosing a small girl in the background, until it zooms in all the way on her face, and then the darkness in the corner of her eye overtakes the frame. Throughout the film, the audience experiences all of Carol’s hallucinations with her, thus creating empathy for her character, even if it is simply the illusion of empathy. It is impossible not to identify with Carol, and it is absolutely Polanski’s job to make this identification possible.

There is rich thematic and visual analysis to be gleaned from the bizarre dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene at the end of Repulsion with the landlord; there is even richer analysis that can be read between the lines when comparing and contrasting the two. Rather than extending an invitation to enter Carol’s personal space (unlike Norman, who requests Marion to eat dinner with him, quickly bringing her to his lair filled with taxidermied animals), her landlord unlocks the door, forcefully moves her poorly constructed blockade (a single piece of wood), and begins to roam around the apartment, quickly happening upon Carol in a white dressing gown cowering in the doorway to her living room. Throughout the scene Carol does not say much, other than insisting her landlord to not open the window curtains, and in this way, it is dissimilar to the dinner and shower sequence in Psycho. Polanski’s restless camera is constantly following the landlord as he wanders around the apartment, unlike Hitchcock’s mostly stationary camera.

As for similarities between the two films, Marion’s comment about institutionalizing Mother parallels Helen’s boyfriend’s comment about Carol seeing a doctor, to which Helen responds “She’s just sensitive, that’s all.” There is a hint of understanding in her response to him (she even gets a little defensive), a hint that this might be the way Carol has always been. Norman’s response to Marion is much more defensive, before it devolves into him talking about how Mother needs him and how she just “goes a little mad sometimes.”

There is a moment of resistance in Psycho when Norman enters the house and stops at the stairs for a second, then goes into the kitchen and sits at the table, in deep contemplation. This is mirrored in Repulsion when Carol stays seated on the couch up until the landlord has attempted to sexually violate her. Then, when she sees his second attempt coming, she does strike him, many times, hunched over like an animal with a razor blade in her hand, slice after slice, blood everywhere. The music becomes intense, like that in Psycho’s shower sequence and the camera cuts back and forth between Helen and the landlord, like the camera cutting back and forth between Marion and Mother.

Seeing is essential to cinema; both Repulsion and Psycho utilize the gaze, which ends up creating distinct graphic matches between them. There are two prominent instances of this, the first being in Psycho with Lila’s tracking gaze up to the Bates estate and in Repulsion with Carol’s walks around London’s South Kensington area. The second pronounced illustration of this gaze match is when Norman looks through the peephole at Marion undressing and when the landlord comes to Carol’s apartment to collect the money. These scenes, looked at against each other, show Hitchcock’s influence on Polanski, and their shared preoccupation with seeing and the gaze.

Hitchcock and Polanski alike refuse to make a conclusive statement on their characters’ conditions. Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski does not offer any solace in explaining away Carol’s behavior, even though the ending of Psycho alludes to a gender instability more frightening than the one espoused by the psychiatrist.

Psycho and Repulsion deal with the idea of sexual repression, but in very different ways. While it is explained that Norman’s sexual repression is somehow indebted to Mother, Carol’s is never explicated upon, but only shown visually. Norman and Carol are both incredibly lonely characters, their loneliness reflected in their living spaces. Norman’s maintenance of the ever vacant Bates Motel passes the time, but also traps him. With Repulsion, Polanski frequently shoots Carol’s apartment in a way that shows what a big empty space it is. Carol’s apartment is both that which is eating her alive and that which she cannot escape: the sound of her sister making love, which assists the audience in understanding her sexual repression at a deeper level, and her hallucinations of hands emerging from the walls and a man attempting to attack her are ways for Polanski to show her gradual mental disintegration.

It could be argued that both Hitchcock and Polanski subscribe to the Foucauldian conception of madness as changing and historically situated.[3] When the psychiatrist makes his speech at the end of Psycho, it is almost as if Hitchcock is poking fun at the idea of madness being eliminated on the basis of a principle of explanation or reduction external to the psychological dimensions of madness. With the following scene of overlapping a highly feminine voice and Anthony Perkin’s calm veneer, Hitchcock is drawing attention to the absurdity of that idea. Normality, in relation to mental illness, is less reflective of psychiatry or psychology than philosophy. Polanski’s approach to Carol’s condition is less clear because he never offers an explanation of her behavior, thus making the ending and film as a whole disturbing in a completely different way than Psycho. This refusal to diagnose her and also the refusal to explain her past could be an indication of his agreement with Foucault’s conclusion that psychology can never master madness.

The subversion of audience expectation is a tactical maneuver employed by both Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. With Psycho, it was killing off its star, Janet Leigh, within the first hour of the film and the refusal to restore order. With Repulsion, it was an aversion to the classic narrative structure, the lack of a character arc, and, like Psycho, the refusal to restore order (or even offer a baseline explanation of the chaos that ensues). Repulsion is clearly indebted to Psycho, however, it can be seen as bringing the horror film into a new direction: from the outside to the inside.

[1] In Psycho the community believes they understand Norman and his condition (as per the diagnosis by the psychiatrist), while in Repulsion there is no intervention by a doctor so there is an even greater discomfort within the community.

[2] Something I found particularly confounding when doing research for this essay was how more often than not critics and theorists alike did not understand the function of the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s condition in Psycho, mis-characterizing it as “glib”, “hasty”, “tacked-on”, etc.

[3] How ironic that for my birthday this past October a friend got me Foucault’s Madness: The Invention of An Idea. Who could have known I would be using it for this comparative essay between Repulsion and Psycho, really?

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Abject Bodies and Gender Instability in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

By Dan Spada, originally published on Raving Through Dark Nights. Republished with permission.

The way performance functions in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” reflects a deep, abiding preoccupation with gender roles and the truth economy that is generated therein. The oscillation between masculine and feminine, and the instability of gender is depicted in the construction of characters that do no satisfy ideal, conventional roles regarding sex and gender, but rather expose a profoundly unsettling inconsistency in respect to bodies, both abject and normalized. The gender role reversal in Psycho is blindingly obvious, particularly in the scene where Lila goes to explore the house and find Mrs. Bates, while Sam acts as a decoy to distract Norman. This scene and the following one, in which it is revealed that Norman has been preserving the skeleton of his mother and dressing up in her clothes, stress the transience of gender, and how it is not always in sync with biological sex. Sam’s aggressive homo-social taunting of Norman in this sequence, and Lila’s exploration of the house, leading up to the discovery of the skeleton and Norman’s performance as his mother, all hint towards an inherent gender instability within the characters of the film and a masculine/feminine malaise that is developed throughout the course of the film.

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Before Lila begins to look for Mrs. Bates and Sam distracts Norman, they search through the cabin one for any clues. They find a slip of paper Marion wrote on regarding the stolen money (just numbers and equation signs) that missed the toilet when she flushed the rest down. Lila becomes desperate to search the house and speak to Mrs. Bates, and Sam fulfills the typical role of male protector by saying, “I don’t like you going into that house alone.” This dialogue is in line with the heterosexist ideology of the time, and an ideology that Sam’s character clearly held true. He sounds resigned when he says that he’ll find Bates and keep him occupied.

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It is important to note that Sam’s gender performance, like everyone’s inside the world of the film (and outside, according to feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler), is a failure. He cannot provide for Marion in the way that she wants and needs him to (as evident from the first scene); ironically, right after Norman watches the swamp swallow the car with Marion’s body in it, Sam is seen writing a letter to Marion professing that he doesn’t care if they are poor, cramped, or miserable – at least they’ll be happy (and alive). This could be why he overcompensates when in pursuit of the truth about what really happened to her, and this overcompensation comes on particularly strong throughout the scene in which he keeps Norman occupied. His hyper-masculinity in this scene is almost to be expected, especially with someone as weak as Norman.

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However, Sam’s hyper-masculinity does not surface until after they enter the office. Norman is already suspicious of the couple, and Sam is clearly nervous, at first (before entering the office), to be diverting Norman’s attention. He knows that he is a potentially dangerous person, although he is not yet sure in what way. The sexual tension between the two is immediately felt in Norman’s body language. His confidence (both in body and speech) when he asks, “You looking for me?” slowly begins to dissipate shortly thereafter. His body then enters a visible state of unrest, and Sam’s teasing line, “I never can keep quiet enough for her, so I thought I’d look you up and talk”, with all its erotic undertones, hints towards a fluctuation between homo-social and homoerotic interaction – that also begins to dissipate after those few seconds.

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Sam then begins to try to bully the truth out of Norman, which, although it does not work (in regard to what he wants to hear – about the money and Marion), puts him in a progressively more distressed state over the duration of their conversation. It seems that Hitchcock implies that when Sam says “Buy a new one, in a new town, where you won’t have to hide your mother,” when talking about the hotel and the money, that Norman is actually thinking about himself and his gender identity. Hitchcock is also suggesting the possibility of Norman thinking Sam is aware of his secret, which makes him noticeably tense up – his jaw muscle begins to contract faster, and his speech begins to tremble.

In the office scene, the frame is split perfectly in two. Sam inhabits one side (the left – customer), Norman the other (the right – owner): one proper body, one abject; one (normalized) heterosexual identity, one (shamed) queer; one searching for what he will not find, and one hiding something everyone is looking for – but also the opposite, something no one expected to find. Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman also could be looked at as a gender role reversal – why is it Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman? Shouldn’t they use Lila’s female sexuality to keep Norman’s attention while Sam (born explorer, essence of man) searches the house? Or were they already unsure about Norman’s sexuality? They certainly were not given any clues to his gender trouble at that point.

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The revelation of Norman as Mrs. Bates is a different kind of performance when looked at against those outlined by Judith Butler. Butler offers drag as the ultimate portrayal of gender instability. However, almost always, drag offers some sort of comedic edge (whether it be inherent in the participants/the performance or reactionary from the audience) and her syllogism that if one understands drag as a portrayal of gender instability, then they must believe gender to be socially constructed, is reductive and unrealistic. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock offers his character’s gender trouble in a less deductive and more effective/affective way: Norman is not a sideshow, a circus act for the people from within the film or the audience to laugh at (up until the end, when a feeling of camp arises). Hitchcock is not setting it up so that once the audience witnesses the wig falling off Norman’s head in the big reveal that they will instantly be convinced of gender’s contingent foundations. Hitchcock is, however, offering a deeply troubling ambiguity that confounds the characters within the film, and finds the audience feeling a deep unease in regards to what they have just seen. It’s the slippage between masculine and feminine, the undeclared sexuality of Norman that is emphasized by Hitchcock and felt by the audience; it is that uncertainty which functions as the crux of the film and is the key to its understanding. With drag, you only get the performance. With “Psycho”, you get more: the visage of the boy next door and the spirit underneath the skin of Norman Bates – the creation of a monster a little too human for our liking.

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About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.