The Functions of Sound in ‘Repulsion’

Roman Polanski’s 1965 horror film Repulsion is considered to be the first of his “Apartment Trilogy,” along with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976), which is a collection of movies that deal with various frightful events taking place within apartment complexes.

Repulsion claims distinction from the others on that list for the fact that there is no visible adversary wreaking distress upon the unwilling protagonists in the plot. It merely captures the gradual decline of a young woman named Carol’s sanity as she stays by herself in her sister’s apartment while she goes on a twelve-day trip with her boyfriend.

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The still quiet of empty rooms allows her inner thoughts to echo with a resonating trauma of past abuse. As the days progress, so does Carol’s catatonic depression over memories of being sexually assaulted as a child. She becomes guarded around other people —  especially men — and traps herself in a dangerous cycle of anti-social behaviors. It is within this desolate apartment that her inner rage manifests into something bizarre and sinister, with only the cracking drywalls bearing witness to the bloodshed.

Even through the poignant silence of Carol’s living space, there are certain sounds that penetrate the powerful barrier of calm and punctuate her suppressed desires. These particular sounds act as aesthetic catalysts to aid in the clarification and intensification of Carol’s hidden motivations and forgotten nightmares where words cannot. In order to reveal more information about the plot itself and to illustrate the relapsed state of mind Carol enters, Repulsion incorporates various outer orientation functions of sound, including orientation in space, in time, and to situation.

First, the outer sound orientation in space featured in Repulsion emphasizes the enclosed area that Carol inhabits, both physically and in her mind. Spacial orientation is characterized as specific sounds that reveal and define the location of an event and its spatial environment. One of the most prominent instances of spacial orientation is the loud, incessant ticking of the clock in Carol’s bedroom. Even though the noise comes from a small contraption, it overtakes the meagre size of the apartment dwelling, and captures all of Carol’s attention to the point that it is all she can hear. Having to roam each room as the sole occupant, she is able to tune in to the sound of passing seconds, so much so that it echoes the desolation she feels in her solitude.

On an even darker note, the clock’s infernal noise symbolizes the ticking time bomb that lives inside Carol’s brain, counting down to the moment when all her pent up aggression manifests in the form of a psychological breakdown. Another example of spacial sound orientation is the way the apartment walls begin cracking and leaving visible tears behind. The upkeep of Carol’s apartment is a metaphorical representation of her emotionally stability: at first it is rather tidy and organized, just as Carol is initially a reserved, well-mannered girl, but as the days go on without her sister to keep her company, Carol starts to enter a state of mental psychosis and neglects basic household chores.

In a hallucinatory stupor, Carol sees the walls of the apartment begin to crack with a shocking sound like that of lightning striking. The foundations of her home begin to tear, much like her mental stability, and with every crack comes a sickening creak to accompany the demolishment of the property. These sounds frighten Carol and she is uncertain of what is real and what is simply a distorted figment of her imagination.

Second, certain pieces of sound outline the orientation in time within the progressing plot of Repulsion. There are several points in the film when Carol looks out from one of the apartment windows to observe the ringing of bells from the church next door. The bells ring early morning and mid-afternoon, and while Carol feels inclined to peer from the window each time she hears them, she also stares at the nuns who walk along the grounds and the children laughing on their way to their lessons. This acts as juxtaposition with any impurity that Carol might attribute to herself because of her past sexual abuse. Those ringing church bells connote a peaceful clarity and a call to faithful action, while Carol has no seemingly hopeful prospects in her life and instead can only look down on the young children who will not likely experience the same ordeal she went through at their age.

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Another instance of sound orientation in time is the gradual buzzing of flies around an uncooked rabbit carcass. Before Carol’s sister left for her holiday, she had prepared to cook rabbit for dinner but never got around to eating it with Carol. Once she is alone in the apartment, Carol takes the plate of skinned rabbit out of the refrigerator and places it on a table in the living room, where she proceeds to leave it there until her sister returns. As the days pass, the sounds of flies buzzing around the rotting meat increases in volume and the noise paired with the foul image of the spoiled specimen mirrors the decaying nature of Carol’s own mental stability. Whoever visits the apartment, whether it be a disgruntled suitor or the building’s landlord, notices the disgusting sight and swarm of flies buzzing around the plate and point it out to Carol, but she is non-responsive and unaffected by the rotten rabbit.

Finally, outer orientation of sound gives special emphasis to important situations in Repulsion. It has been noted that sounds can describe a specific situation and how it is important to listen to the various sounds of specific events. One such event in the film occurs when Carol is woken by the sound of her sister making love to her boyfriend in the room next to hers. As the moans of pleasure escalate into a resounding climax, Carol can only lay still in bed and contemplate how that level of intimacy must feel like between two lovers. This moment accentuates the literal barrier that separates Carol from getting close enough to form lasting relationships — in this case, a wall, but in her daily life, a deeply-rooted trauma that resulted in lost innocence. Her sexual repression is something of a mystery even to herself, as she is extremely fearful to explore it and the only experience she has with it is from a tainted, forced experience.

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Another case of orientation of situation via sound appears when a would-be suitor of Carol’s named Michael comes to her apartment to confront her about not answering his calls. Michael’s attention makes Carol feel sickeningly uncomfortable because of her warped perception of men and their romantic advances towards her, so she had been seeking refuge in her apartment in an emotionally despondent state. When Michael breaks her door down and tries to tell her how much he needs to be with her, Carol prepares to defend herself with a large candlestick. However, her psychotic inclinations get the best of her and she fatally attacks Michael with it. Although the kill is off-screen, the sounds of Michael’s groans of pain are heard as blood splatters on the door he stood next to. His gargled breaths are also loud and clear as his final moments of life pass quickly with each blow to the head.

Sometimes a person’s innermost thoughts and fears can ring louder than a crowd of a thousand people. The claustrophobic sensation of harvesting years’ worth of traumatic tension and hidden turmoil is bound to take an emotional toll on anyone who experiences it. But the questions rests on how those secret feelings are unleashed from within a tormented soul. The various uses of the outer orientation functions of sound in Repulsion encompass these ideas and add a frantic pulse to an already suspenseful story about a girl who died on the inside a long time ago.

By implementing certain sounds within the fabric of the movie’s plot, more in-depth detail and stylistic flair is revealed in terms of space, time, and situation. The way Carol haunts the quiet halls of her own apartment like a lonely apparition only accentuates the variety of sounds that hold great meaning to the story. The constant ticking hand of a clock mimics the biological boiling point inside a meek woman. Walls crack and tear as though they were struck by a malevolent force at work. A church bell rings to summon the laughing, untouched children inside its chapel. Flies swarm the tainted meat of a rabbit like a sacrifice to an effigy of man. And the sounds of human pleasure accompany cries of death all behind the door of Carol’s apartment.

The spectrum of sound amplifies the pain and suffering she endured since her youth, all compiled into a soundtrack that none shall ever hear unless they too become trapped in a void of psychotic rage. The outer orientation functions of sound present in this film clarify and intensify the struggle Carol endures to fight a battle within herself. These bursts of sound also lend a hand in creating and maintaining the picture’s overall aesthetic quality—one that stuns viewers with rhythmic flair and unexpected overtures of vulnerability.

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