Repulsion at Catherine Deneuve and Roman Polanski
It always struck me as ironic that Roman Polanski, convicted rapist, could have ever written and directed such an intensely empathetic and socially enlightened film as Repulsion (1964) – a movie that focuses on how societal pressures around sex and gender drive one woman to madness, murder, and then a catatonic state. Now in the past couple months, Catherine Deneuve made waves of her own over having signed an open letter that calls the #MeToo movement a “witch hunt” towards men. When I read the letter I couldn’t help but laugh in bewilderment; now that makes for two people that somehow made the movie Repulsion but didn’t seem to understand the point of it.
Catherine Deneuve was only 22 when she starred as Carol, the nervous and quiet young woman that works as a manicurist. She’s stunningly beautiful and is constantly hounded by men, including a young man named Colin (John Fraser) who repeatedly chases her down on the street in order to ask her out. She lives with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), who spends her time having loud sex with her boyfriend and chastising Carol for not being more tolerant of his boorish behavior.
After Helen and her boyfriend leave for a short trip, Carol’s mental health falls quickly downhill as her agoraphobia starts to turn into paranoia. She begins to hallucinate cracks in the walls of her apartment, as well as have visions of a man who appears in her bedroom to rape her. She loses track of time and reality; she's covered the windows with blackout sheets, water spills over from a forgotten running faucet, and food left out on the counter rots around her. In a brief moment of clarity she shows up to work again, only to be confronted by a coworker sobbing over being dumped. This experience, juxtaposed by being once again perused intensely by Colin, seems to cement her desire to be alone.
She retreats back to her apartment, but Colin follows her and aggressively pushes his way inside. He claims to be concerned for her, but it's also clearly tied in with anger at being rejected repeatedly. In a moment of terror and clarity, Carol stabs him to death, only to be interrupted again when her lecherous landlord stops by asking for rent. After he attempts to force himself on her, she murders him too, falling deeper into madness. Her sister turns to find her apartment wrecked, with dead bodies strewn about, and Carol herself lying catatonic under the bed. The final scene of the film is a photograph of the two sisters when they were much younger; the camera zooms in for a close up on Carol’s face, with an unsettled expression, staring towards an older male relative.
As always there are multiple ways to interpret Repulsion. You could accept it as a straight film about a woman who succumbs to schizophrenia, or even buy it’s tone-deaf tagline (“The nightmare world of a Virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!!”) that sounds more like a soft-core porno flick than a psychological horror. Heck, Polanski himself never seemed to venture any further from implying that Carol suffered from a “problem.” Yet the film is so much larger than any of these explanations. Carol does have a problem, though I’d actually call it more of a “condition” – specifically the condition of being female in society.
The entire film is drenched in symbols of patriarchal aggression. Repulsion is chock full of the sort of “male pestering,” from well-intentioned to aggressive, that Deneuve recently sought to defend. There's the catcallers on the street, older men who leer at her like a piece of meat. There's also her sister's boyfriend, who has no respect for personal space; he displaces Carol's things in the bathroom, leaves his clothing on the floor, and he teases her for being a "strung-up princess" who never smiles for him.
Then there’s Colin, whose barfly friends muse that Carol must be an “ice queen” or a virgin because there's no other explanation as to why she won't respond to his advances. Never mind that Carol is exceedingly polite to him; she never tells him off but it’s always clear she’s not interested. Yet Colin is conditioned to see a “not yes” response as “not no" – he expects a kiss for driving her home after she has a fainting spell or, even more overtly, he literally breaks down her door when she refuses to let him in.
Repulsion seems to yearn for more. It's exactly that badgering and being consistently put on a stage as an object of desire that truly drives Carol to madness. To simply call her schizophrenic is to dismiss all of the direct outside influences clearly reflected in her experience and hallucinations. While we don't know if she is or is not a direct victim of sexual assault, though it’s seemingly implied by the final shot, the intense social pressure that she receives from both men and women in her life to conform to a subservient role is more than enough to do psychological damage. Towards the end of the film we see her putting lipstick on in the mirror as she's awaiting her rapist. It's a chilling and heartbreaking scene that shows her in a moment of desperation trying to find any degree of autonomy; she's hoping it won't feel like rape if she embraces and caters to her role as the receiver. She lies down in the bed with full makeup and an empty smile, and yet she still screams in terror as her tormentor takes her.
That she later becomes catatonic seems more like a logical conclusion than an involuntary result of mental illness. If she's unable to conform to the pressure, then she's unable to function in society and is almost better off a vegetable. It's a terrifying realization, and yet sadly one we see happen over and over again. I think of the story of Patricia Douglas, the subject of the documentary Girl 27, who was gang raped at an MGM party and had her life systematically destroyed from that one experience. That Repulsion's Carol kills her aggressors seems downright secondary to the what she has to look forward to for the rest of her life in male society.
It's baffling to me that two key people so close to a project, especially a project that helped build their careers, could somehow miss this point so entirely. Yet there's Deneuve stating that she believes men have the freedom to pester women because seduction is not a crime. A generous interpretation of her comments would be to put her in context of having experienced this sort of attention her entire life, and yet still living to tell the tale without much reflection. As a woman who managed to build her career in large part on being an object of sexual desire, I can see how she might misinterpret the #MeToo movement as the world wanting to take her accomplishments away from her. If we say that this type of male behavior is 'bad,' she might take that to mean that her career was somehow equally guilty and shameful for having catered to it. Either way, it certainly lacks a level of empathy. You'd hope that somebody who had this experience would want to shield others from it, but apparently not. More often than not this seems to be the case unfortunately, ending up as more of a "if I had to deal with it, so can you" selfishness.
Polanski's story is not black and white either of course, but I personally have no interest in awarding him too much sympathy for a crime he's already been convicted of. Especially with the other allegations against him from multiple women who were underaged at the time. Trying to reconcile the content of his film with this complete lack of self-awareness on both his and Deneuve's parts just leaves me dumbfounded. It's not a matter of playing the "eternal victims," as Deneuve said, it's a matter of women literally being victimized from birth until death – you can't escape the stranglehold of the type of toxic masculinity that society is driven on. Men can't seem to interact with women without expecting something from them.
If Repulsion shows us anything in light of these denouncements, it’s that men are just as terrified of themselves as women are. I mean, two men wrote the screenplay – Polanski and Gérard Brach – so whether or not these topics and symbols were consciously or subconsciously chosen is beside the point. I suspect the latter as Polanski openly doesn't think highly of Repulsion; perhaps he's too focused on the directing style to think too deeply about the imagery and commentary he reinforced. Perhaps he sees himself in the specter of the rapist that haunts this film. I have less insight into how Deneuve managed to miss it, other than pure selfishness and inability to understand her position of privilege as an international sex symbol. Or maybe a degree of misdirection and misinterpretation by its own director helped to blind her to thinking too deeply on it – it wouldn't be the first time. At the end of the day, they both owe their careers to the success of Repulsion, as well as the experience of women that they drew upon to help built their fame.