I’ve never read John Gray‘s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and I probably never will, but watching Roman Polanski‘s haunting Repulsion (1965), I imagine some of the spirit of that book was invoked thirty years before its time. Polanski’s first feature in the English language, after his Polish debut Knife in the Water (1962), is set against the backdrop of swinging 60s London, in which society was emerging from the austerity and pre-war values of the day into a more rebellious and racier culture.
The story centres on an awkward young Belgian girl named Carole, played brilliantly by a stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who lives with her sister Helene (Yvonne Furneaux) and works in a beauty salon. She encounters chauvinistic men who ogle her and are after “a bit of the other”. She is pursued by a zealous admirer named Colin (John Fraser) to whom she pays scant interest. When Helene and her boyfriend leave her alone to to go on holiday, her repulsion with men and consequent isolation propel her into an insular world whereby her life and psyche literally and figuratively crack up.
The opening credit sequence is evocative of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), with its close-up of a flickering eye, perhaps even the Psycho (1960) shower scene as well. Polanski is free from any Hollywood shackles of the pre-modern era which enabled him to add a European sensibility for added shock. Chico Hamilton provides a foreboding score, through ambient tones, atmospheric noises and sound effects. The film moves at a pace that will not be to everybody’s liking, but Polanski is simply happy to build the tension. Some may also describe it as a genre film, either a horror or a thriller, but I think that is incidental. It is a detailed psychological profile of a mental breakdown, with thrilling and horrific moments. It is a great film – just ask Darren Aronofsky.
Carole’s behaviour is very child like throughout. She observes Nuns playing outside here window. Maybe she just wants a simple life, free from from the pressures of the modern sex-obsessed world. Deneuve says little by way of actual dialogue but the detail is in her body language. She constantly bites her nails, for which she is rebuked by her employer, and wipes her face as if she is cleansing herself of germs. It’s as if she has an undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder, but I am no psychiatrist. She has a constant look of nervousness and anxiety, while always fidgeting. We gradually learn that she is very fearful of men, and cannot stand to be touched by them. In one scene, she shows no interest in being kissed by Colin, and when she does relent, she has a look of horror before abruptly departing and washing her face. She cannot even tolerate Helene’s boyfriend placing his toiletries in her glass. She tries to escape the sound of sex from her sister’s room next door at night. She is not going to open herself up to a man.
Carole’s lack of expressiveness is communicated by other characters who express opinions about her. Her sister, with whom she has a fractious relationship, accuses her of sulking amongst other things. She barely argues back like a young child who almost entirely depends upon her sibling due to a strong sense of sisterly love. The boyfriend refers to her as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘strung up’, a clear reference to her frigid and solitary nature.
It is clear that Carole is extremely sensitive and cannot cope on her own. She doesn’t appear to have many female friends. She listens to the advice of patrons at the salon, who claim that men are all the same and only want one thing, while a female colleague with whom she seems to have some rapport with is equally cynical. There is a moment of light comic relief as tears over men turn into laughter when a shared love of Charlie Chaplin is discovered. It is a rare moment of openness from the central protagonist, in which her guard is dropped. Her performance at work declines from this point onwards.
>Carole’s relationship with Colin is distant at best. They seem to be on too completely different wavelengths, with the male overly keen and the female totally indifferent. Colin does not conform to a stereotypical bloke, he genuinely cares and has a deep affection for Carole, so much so that he defends his love in front of his mates, who spout anti-women cliches in order to make him forget her, before taking his ardour to an extreme level. Colin directly penetrates her frosty exterior and pays a heavy price. Maybe she just didn’t want to be helped, but what you want and what you need are entirely distinct. The other key relationship Carole has is with herself.
The film changes when she is left alone and her world begins to fall apart. She cuts herself off and barricades herself in. Her imagination runs wild. Things are seen and heard. There are scenes of sexual violence which perhaps hark back to past events. We do not know precisely what her troubles are or what is in her head but she is definitely dazed. Walls begin to crack, an eerie prophecy fulfilled after an earlier shot of her sitting on a bench looking over cracks in the pavement. We enter into a world where reality and fantasy are inextricably intertwined.
There is a scene reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bete (1946) where Carole is confronted in a hallway by hands which emerge from the walls and grope her seductively with non-fairytale creepiness. Her actions become very sinister, but she is fending off danger from that which she fears. Polanski creates a frightening sense of agoraphobia. When Carole’s nightmare reaches its conclusion, the situation is handled with sensitivity. The film ends on an ambiguous note. We do not know her past, but perhaps she has been this way for a long time?
Ultimately, I believe that Repulsion is a film about two distinct species who do not understand each other. Of course, I do not buy fully into the idea that men and women are in reality that different from each other, we are are individuals after all with our own idiosyncratic charms. Nevertheless, after everyone has had their say, men and women do have related stereotypes, and an unsettling adversarial battle of the sexes ensues. No wonder Carole is confused.