Thursday, December 15, 2011

“The Gaze of Desire” as Seen in Psycho and Repulsion

Repulsion, Roman Polanski’s 1965 black & white thriller about a sexually repressed killer, opens with a close-up of a motionless and unblinking eye. The shot is a direct reference to Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 black & white thriller, also about a sexually repressed killer. However, in Psycho‘s famous close-up, the eye belongs to Marion, a female victim of the film’s male killer, while Repulsion’s eye is that of Carol, its female killer. Hitchcock’s film begins with the audience identifying with Marion, the victim, before it transfers a tenuous identification to Norman, the killer. But from the opening shot of Repulsion, the audience is made to identify with Carol. Polanski alters the narrative perspective used in Psycho and structures the entirety of his film from the standpoint of the psychotic killer. In Psycho, Marion is the female victim of Norman’s male gaze of desire, a gaze which sparks his psychosis and leads him to murder. Conversely, in Repulsion, being the object of the male gaze is what sparks Carol’s murderous psychosis. Carol is both victim and killer in Polanski’s film.

Psycho and Repulsion use the male “gaze of desire” to arouse the repressed sexuality of their killers. This gaze objectifies its chosen subject and arouses sexual conflict in its owner, who is both desirous of and repulsed by sex. In Psycho, when Norman’s gaze of desire has been activated, it arouses the shameful sexual thoughts he struggles to repress. His sexual psychosis demands that he must kill the object as a way to eliminate the source of the shame. In Repulsion however, being the female object-of-the-gaze arouses the conflicting sexual thoughts in Carol, who then isolates herself from the world, locking herself into her apartment in order to avoid the men who gaze at her. Only when men get too close, forcing their way into her apartment, will she kill them as a way to eliminate the threat to her repressed sexuality.

A side-by-side comparison of specific scenes from Psycho and Repulsion reveals how the films’ respective killers react when the gaze of desire cracks their repression. The lack of dialogue in the scenes (the scene from Psycho has none and the scene from Repulsion only features two short lines from the secondary character) leaves room for many individual interpretations. However, Polanski and Hitchcock’s specific use of film form, and a close analysis of each character’s focus of their gaze within these scenes, strongly supports the “gaze of desire being” the activating force that spurs their killers’ conflict with their repressed sexuality and leads them to violence.

The scene from Psycho follows Norman and Marion’s dinner scene in his motel’s parlor where they shared a conversation about their “private traps.” We see Norman, now alone in the parlor, as he contemplates his decision to spy on Marion. The scene ends with Norman sitting slouched and conflicted at the kitchen table in his mother’s house. The scene from Repulsion begins with Carol sitting in a parked car with Colin, a young man who has been persistently pursuing her. He has just given her a ride home from her job at a beauty salon – a job that is devoid of men (helping her avoid the male gaze), but is all about the beautification of women for their role as the objects of male desire. The scene ends with Carol in her bathroom, vigorously brushing her teeth after fleeing in horror from Colin’s kiss.

Both scenes feature symbolic elements of mise-en-scène. Psycho‘s scene begins in a medium close-up of Norman surrounded by the stuffed birds in the parlor. An owl of prey, with its wide all-seeing eyes, looms high on the wall above him and represents the “Mother” part of Norman’s dual identity – the violent and controlling half of his personality. The dead and stuffed owl watches over Norman in the parlor, much like Mother (a dead and stuffed corpse) sits watching over the motel from her bedroom window, ready to attack when necessary. In contrast to the small and delicate birds, which are shown in the previous scene to represent Marion, the large pheasant in front of Norman in this scene represents the other half of his identity –timid and harmless. Norman stands caught between the two opposing forces of his fractured personality. Repulsion‘s scene begins with a wide shot from across the street of Carol’s building that contains the whole of Colin’s double-parked car, and features a street sign that reads, “one way street.” The message of the sign could be read several ways, but most strongly indicates Carol’s descent into madness, a direction that Colin will help push her towards with his persistent advances.

Both scenes start out with a very similar progression in their use of the male gaze of desire. In Psycho, as Norman silently stands next to the wall that separates him in his parlor from Marion in her cabin, he debates his next move, and turns his eyes towards the wall. His gaze is directed toward the thought of Marion on the other side, knowing that she must be undressing as she prepares for bed. Marion occupies her motel room with an assumption of privacy, but is under the control of Norman who has chosen this room for her, allowing him observe her like a caged bird.

In Repulsion, Colin and Carol sit in silence, looking straight ahead, not at each other, until a cut to a two shot from Carol’s front left side of the car shows Colin turn his head to direct his gaze at Carol. Debating his next move, Colin’s eyes move up and down several times, alternating their focus between Carol’s eyes and her lips. Carol, however, continues to stare blankly ahead, silent and motionless. Similar to Norman ensnaring Marion in a room of his motel, Colin has Carol captured within the net of his car. He is both literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat and has Carol within the confines of his possession. Seeing as she sits next to Colin in the open space of his convertible, Carol can have no real expectation of privacy, yet she still attempts to shut out Colin and maintain her personal space; by not looking at or talking to Colin, she denies his desire any encouragement. Additionally, in contrast to Marion, Carol appears able to escape from Colin if she chooses. Marion stands little chance of getting away from Norman.

Colin decides to take action and leans over into the personal space of Carol in an attempt to kiss her. Carol closes her eyes and turns her head slightly down and away from Colin to deflect his advance. Similarly in Psycho, after Norman has decided to spy on Marion, he takes action and removes the painting from the wall to reveal a peephole. He then leans in towards the hole and gazes through – violating the private space of Marion with his gaze of desire. He sees her in her undergarments, but she quickly slips on her robe and exits the frame. Norman’s aggressive gaze is denied its object in much the same way that Colin’s aggressive gaze took action and was denied its sexual advance on Carol. Colin now removes his gaze from Carol as he returns to his position on his side of the car and lights a cigarette – an oral substitute for the sex he wants, but is denied. While in Psycho, Norman removes his gaze from Marion and replaces the painting on the wall.

Thus far, the two scenes have shown more parallels between Norman and Colin’s actions, but there are similarities to be found between Norman and Carol as well; although, Carol’s are revealed more by her choice of inaction than action. She remains in the car, even though she knows Colin is sexually attracted to her and may make an advance towards her. And when he does, she doesn’t run, but remains seated in the car. As demonstrated throughout Polanski’s film, Carol is torn between desire and repulsion, much like Norman is in Psycho. Having repressed their sexuality for so long, neither character knows how to respond to their sexual desires when they surface. Carol may long for a relationship, like that of her sister and her boyfriend, but there is something she has repressed, some event or trauma, that causes her to find men and sex repellant. This inner turmoil brews beneath Carol’s stoic surface.

An additional connection between Norman and Carol arrives later in Repulsion, just prior to her first murder, and shows Polanski referencing Psycho‘s use of the peephole. When Colin arrives at Carol’s apartment and she refuses to let him in, Carol looks out her front door’s peephole to see Colin on the other side. In Psycho, Norman peers through a peephole with his gaze of desire, which leads him to murder Marion. Repulsion reverses the positions; Carol – who fears becoming the victim of the male aggressor – peers through a peephole at Colin with a gaze of repulsion. When Colin forces the door open and enters Carol’s apartment, he violates Carol’s private space. His intrusion leads Carol to bludgeon him to death with a candlestick. In her advanced psychotic state, Carol feels as threatened by Colin’s presence in her apartment as Marion must have felt by Norman/Mother’s presence in her bathroom. With the tables turned – the female victim of the male gaze being the psychotic killer – and with her resemblance to the Hitchcockian blonde, Carol could be seen as the psychotic reincarnation of a vengeful Marion. Carol enacts Marion’s retribution on the dominant and objectifying male gaze of desire.

Returning to the peephole scene in Psycho, Norman’s choice to stoke the fires of his sexual repression and spy on Marion as she undressed has raised his desire to alarming rates. He must take action to subvert it, or to eliminate it if possible. He turns his gaze in the direction of the house, towards Mother. “Mother” holds the solution. In the Repulsion scene, Carol decides to face her fears and engage with her own sexual repression. As Colin smokes his cigarette in the seat next to her, Carol’s rigid state begins to shift. She had resumed her forward-facing stare after Colin attempted to kiss her, but now turns her gaze downwards and then furtively glances towards Colin. She exhales slightly, causing her shoulders to drop from their tense and protective position. Colin now returns his gaze to Carol with a questioning look. Carol turns to answer his gaze. Colin’s face softens as he rests his cigarette in the ashtray (he may not need an oral substitute after all), smiles, and then leans forward for a second attempt at a kiss. Carol allows the kiss, but remains wooden. Polanski now cuts to a 180-degree reverse shot from Colin’s side of the car, revealing Carol’s blank and unblinking stare during the kiss. With no reciprocation from Carol, Colin disengages, but pauses to witness the empty eyes of Carol’s dead gaze as he leans back into his seat and faces forward.

As Colin pulls away, the sound of an approaching car becomes audible and grows louder during the next two cuts. First, Polanski cuts to a close-up of the ashtray in the car’s dashboard, which is positioned between a fuel gauge that registers empty and a temperature gauge whose dial rests on low. Colin takes his cigarette that burns there and stubs it out, symbolically stubbing out the smoldering fire of his own desire in an ashtray surrounded by gauges that register the low “fuel” and low “temperature” of Carol’s kiss. Next, Polanski cuts back to the previous shot, and we see Carol open the door to Colin’s car, causing it to nearly get hit by the passing car that has been audibly approaching. The driver slams on his brakes, honks his horn, and yells at Carol as she runs away, calling her a bitch – a verbal addition that adds to Carol feeling assaulted. Colin turns towards Carol and calls after her.

During this sequence, the prior calm and quiet of the scene, which featured only diegetic elements of traffic sounds from a nearby street, a barking dog, a couple pedestrians walking by, and a barely audible piano being played somewhere in the vicinity, is torn to shreds by a quick succession of violent sounds, which are joined by Chico Hamilton’s discordant, drum and cymbal heavy soundtrack. This audio design underscores the inner panic felt by Carol when the stimulation of her repressed sexuality finally cracks her outward stoicism. Carol runs away from the source of her sexual anxiety and heads to the safety of her apartment.

Back at the Bates Motel, Norman leaves the source of his sexual anxiety and runs home to (become) “Mother.” He determinedly exits the office with his jaw clenched, pauses in the doorway, and looks towards the house. Hitchcock positions the camera outside the office door to catch Norman’s exit. When Norman turns his head towards the house, the camera anticipates his next move and trucks ahead of Norman in the direction of the house, while panning slightly to stay focused on him. This distinct camera move seems to encourage Norman to take his next step by almost beckoning him to his mother. Hitchcock then cuts to a wide shot, looking up to the house, showing Norman’s ascent on the stairs as ominous clouds float by in the moon lit sky. Cutting to the interior of the house, we see Norman resolutely enter, only to hesitate at the bottom of the stairs. Shot from behind, Norman looks towards the top of the stairs as he places his hand on the banister, takes one step up and then suddenly stops. As he removes his hand, his head slowly drops down and his body seems to deflate. His confidence in his mission appears to have abandoned him. Placing one hand on the lower inside of the banister and stepping to the outside of the stairs, he boyishly swing-steps into the hallway and then places both hands into his pockets as he proceeds to the kitchen.

With all of this being shot from behind, Hitchcock denies us any reading of Norman’s facial expressions, but Anthony Perkins does an amazing job of conveying Norman’s emotions through the change in his body’s tension, posture and gait. We can see Norman change from a confident adult to an insecure child in the body language of Perkins. Entering the home, Norman seemed well on his way to becoming Mother until he reached the stairs. A possible awareness of violence resulting from telling/becoming “Mother” may have seeped into the “Norman” half of his consciousness and short-circuited his resolve. Torn between the violent and the harmless halves of his dual nature, Norman isolates himself in the kitchen and sits hunched over the table, fidgeting with a sugar dish. Shot from the hallway looking into the kitchen, Hitchcock uses the double internal framing of an outer passageway’s doorframe and the kitchen’s inner doorway to highlight the isolation, confinement, and immobility of Norman. Additionally, the dark curtains that hang on the wall behind him create a vertical bar pattern, resembling the bars of a cage and supplying further emphasis of Norman’s trapped nature. Polanski echoes elements of this shot for an earlier scene in Repulsion that features Carol sitting in her kitchen as she gazes at her reflection in a tea kettle; her distorted reflection working as a visual metaphor for Carol’s increasingly distorted view of herself and the world around her.

Norman’s house is both his refuge and his trap. It’s the only place where he and “Mother” can be safe to continue their bizarre existence, and where he can remain safe from the “cruel eyes” of the outside world. His home may be his cage, but he feels safe there. In Repulsion, Carol’s apartment is also her refuge, the place where she is able to avoid the gaze of desire that haunts her in the outside world. Although, as Polanski’s film progresses, Carol’s apartment will torment her as it begins to physically manifest symbolic elements of her psychosis – walls begin to crack, turn to clay, or sprout arms that grasp at her. Other hallucinations will include nightly sexual attacks by a man who forces his way into in her bedroom. Carol appears terrified and fights against his assaults, but is later shown putting on lipstick as she anticipates the rapist’s arrival – reinforcing the idea that she both desires and is frightened by sex.

Currently, at the moment in the film when Carol flees Colin’s car, she is both running to the safety of her apartment and seeking to rid herself of the disgusting taste left in her mouth from the kiss. Unlike Norman in Psycho, she doesn’t yet require the removal of the source of her aroused sexuality, but only seeks to remove any lasting reminder of the event that sparked it. She is seen violently wiping Colin’s kiss from her mouth as she rides the elevator to her floor. Like Norman’s walk to the stairs, Carol’s ascent in the elevator is shot from behind, and provides a disturbing perspective as we see her turn her head and forcefully use her whole hand and wrist to wipe her open mouth.

From the shot of Carol’s flight from the car, Polanski used an ellipsis when cutting straight to Carol in the elevator. The previous two shot of Carol and Colin before the kiss lasts over sixty seconds and comprises over half of the scene’s total running time. From the moment Carol lets Colin kiss her, the edits increase and correspond to Carol’s inner panic and frenzy. Using only one edit in the first half of the scene, Polanski now applies five edits in quick succession for the final forty-two seconds of the scene. Polanski employs a second ellipsis from the elevator shot to Carol in her bathroom. She is framed from a low angle with the camera close to the wall and slightly higher than the sink. In the foreground, Carol’s drinking glass rests on a wall shelf. In it are seen the toothbrush and razor of Carol’s sister’s boyfriend who often stays over at Carol and her sister’s apartment. Earlier in the film, Carol shows annoyance at this man’s use of her glass for his toiletries. There’s an obvious sexual metaphor in his placement of his dirty and private “phallic” items in her empty and pure glass. Of particular significance is the straight razor, a sharp and deadly object that threatens the fragility of her glass “vessel.” Carol vigorously brushes her teeth and then reaches for her glass. Just as she about to grasp the glass, her hand pauses as she spots the toothbrush and razor. She then grabs it and pours the offensive items into the trashcan. The camera follows the downward movement of her hand and captures Carol’s foot as she steps on the trashcan’s pedal to open the lid. The non-diegetic music ends sharply as the items land in the bin, allowing the clang of its closing lid to be heard in isolation, and signaling the end of the traumatic sequence – both for the audience and Carol. She has cleansed herself of the taste of the repulsive kiss and the sight of the phallic objects, all of which were reminders of her conflicted sexuality. Closing the lid on the trashcan, Carol metaphorically represses and closes up her desires. However, that won’t be the last sight of the razor. It will become Carol’s next weapon in her second murder. Like the knife Norman wields as “Mother” in Psycho, Polanski has chosen phallic objects as Carol’s instruments of punishment – first a candlestick and then a razor. The objects, as phallic symbols, represent man’s dominance and violation of women. Carol, threatened by the reality of the male penis, kills men with symbolic versions of what she fears. In effect, she removes their dominance and murders them with it.

Returning to where we began: the comparison of the close-up shots of Carol and Marion’s eyes, we can see that both eyes hold a similar dead gaze. Marion’s is truly dead, the victim of Norman’s aggressive gaze of desire. Carol’s is dead in a different sense. As a way to avoid knowledge of the male gaze that haunts her, and to avoid engagement with the gaze, as well as (in a broader sense) a way to deny the unsatisfying reality of her outer world, Carol represses her own vision. She turns her gaze inward, into the world of her mind. As the film progresses, Carol’s psychosis gives more and more power to her inner world until it takes over and begins to manifest itself in her outer world in the form of hallucinations.

What was the original cause of Carol’s sexual aversion that turned her mind inside-out and set her on the path to violence? Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski doesn’t try to explain Carol’s psychosis. Repulsion contains no psychiatrist, like the one found in Psycho, who appears in the film’s final moments to explain the killer’s madness to the audience. Polanski ends his film the same way it started, but in reverse. Repulsion begins with a zoom out from an extreme close-up of the adult Carol’s eye and ends with a zoom in on the young Carol’s eye. The closing shot is of an old family photo that shows Carol standing a few feet behind her seated family. The young Carol stands removed and detached from her family with her head tilted, gazing emotionlessly off into the distance. Polanski zooms into the photo until Carol’s eye fills the screen. It’s evident that Carol has possessed her same dead gaze as far back as childhood. Was she a victim of molestation? Did her father, in whose direction the young Carol faces, sexually abuse her? Polanski supplies no answers, but simply leaves you with young Carol’s eye, allowing you to speculate on the connection to her past and what those eyes may have seen that led her to madness.

In conclusion, Hitchcock and Polanski’s masterful command of film form adds layers of meaning to these scenes – scenes which are devoid of any dialogue that “tells” the viewer what they need to know. With intelligent choices in framing, editing, sound design, and mise-en-scène, the directors supply abundant information concerning Carol and Norman’s respective relationships to the “gaze of desire.” A side-by-side comparison of the specific scenes from Repulsion and Psycho reveals that, although both characters struggle to keep their sexuality repressed, both are torn between desire and repulsion. The scenes demonstrate how Carol and Norman tempt fate by engaging their desire – choosing to act on their longings, even though they know it will lead to the feelings that repulse them. Norman’s desire compels him to spy on Marion, while Carol allows her desire to surface long enough for a kiss from Colin – both actions have traumatic results. The scenes uncover how of Norman and Carol’s reaction to the “gaze of desire” results in the disturbance of their respective sexual repressions and leads them to violence.


  1. Very interesting reading. I am doing an essay on the very similar topic. Just wondering , if I may please request you for the reference used for this article!

  2. Thank you. And yes, I would love the reference.

  3. Fantastic, what would be convenient for you in terms of posting the reference? Post it here?

  4. I'm confused. What exactly do you mean by "posting a reference?"

  5. Like source material/ bibliography u used for writing your article? make sense?

  6. Oh! I thought you were going to reference what I wrote. Sorry.

    I didn't use any sources. But I have since found similar analysis concerning Psycho in "Psycho; A Casebook," edited by Robert Kolker, and "A Long Hard Look at Psycho," by Raymond Durgnat.

    Hope that helps.


    Can I ask your location and what kind of essay you are writing -- for school, a magazine, etc?

  7. Thank you very much!! Yes I am writing my term paper on the 'power of Gaze' by itself over gender. I am in NZ , Wellington. And Off course I am referencing your article too. Hope that's ok.


  8. Sounds great. Good luck on your paper. I hope all is well on your side of the world. Cheers.

  9. *an analytical essay on Gender representation in Classical Hollywood film

  10. I'd love to read your paper when it's done.

  11. Thank you , its pretty good here atm . Summer time!!

    I am also doing another research on Gangster film, so which ever gets to see the light of the day. You are most welcome to read!

    I hope things are going good at your end too.

  12. Things are busy here, but cold. In my final year of my Bachelor's. Working on grad school plans.

  13. I hope good busy. Yeah I got one more year to finish my Bachelor's too. Good luck with final year. :)