November 1, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


[If and when the power is restored to lower Manhattan, Repulsion screens at Film Forum in a new 35mm print.]

Roman Polanski's Repulsion is, famously, a subjective depiction of one woman's hallucinatory slide into madness. The subject is Carol, embodied by Catherine Deneuve, a reluctantly transplanted Belgian in the middle of swinging London (working at Vidal Sassoon's salon, no less). The trances she falls into during working hours indicate Carol is less than stable long before the knives come out. "You must be in love," one of the salon's middle-aged harridan customers says, but it's actually the opposite: Carol just wants to be left alone, left to withdraw from the pressures of unwanted male sexual attention. Her failure and attendant homicidal insanity form the film's trajectory.

Carol's descent has generally been accepted as (at least in part) the result of inarticulable sexual attraction unable to express itself. Thus Kenneth Tynan, reviewing Repulsion in Life magazine in 1965, describing her as "a demure, psychotic young virgin who wants sex but hates it, and hates the opposite sex for making her want it." This interpretation is reasonable, even dominant, embodied potently in the film's famous symbolic rabbit, an unprepared dinner left in its preparation stages by sister Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux), who goes on vacation with her (married) boyfriend. Carol takes it out of the fridge, where it sits and decays, attracting flies, underlining how Carol's happier with even rotting rather than consumed flesh. Alone in her apartment, she hallucinates the walls sprouting groping arms (perhaps a dark parody of the more benevolent limbs in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast).


Viewed today, though, it's very tempting to take Repulsion at face value as a portrait of insanity. There are moments of overt hallucination—walls crack and fall apart, an imaginary stranger lurks in Carol's bed for nightly rapes—but the first half of the film takes place in broad daylight. Walking down the street, the camera floats behind and in front of the famously beautiful Deneuve: now tightly exclusionary of outside presences, now far enough back to take in loitering leering men as far as the eye can see. "'Ello darlin'," says one man willing to articulate his glances. "How about a bit of the other?"

If there's much doubt as to what's real and what's not, every depiction of male sexual aggression is unquestionably plausible, effectively rendering the question irrelevant. It's basically documentary footage of how London's men would react to Deneuve on the street if they didn't know who she was. It's also worth noting that while sequences of Carol writhing in agony to the sounds of her sister indicate a certain push-pull attraction to sexuality, her sister may also be acting like a pig by loudly copulating late at night in a thin-walled apartment.


The argument for relating to Carol, rather than diagnosing her, was extended in Polanski's 1976 The Tenant, in which the director/star dresses in drag as his mind falls apart. If this is a ham-handed idea—Polanski plays the victim by implying that to be a woman is itself a punishment—it's an extension of Repulsion, in which Deneuve's pulchritudinous qualities are the sole reason for all the unwanted attention she generates. Repulsion may be a horror film, one packed with shock cuts that still jar, but it's also an unlikely plea for empathy with the harassed, whose murderous snap is regrettable but far from inexplicable.

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Posted by ahillis at November 1, 2012 5:55 AM