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Big Lenses for Small Acting: Catherine Deneuve’s Understated Performance in Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion”

I love horror films, but there are some film-buffs who make me feel ashamed about this fact.  They argue that horror films are misogynistic, pointing out that the body count of a typical “slasher” film has a lopsided male-to-female ratio.  They’re also quick to add that these murdered women usually indulge in recreational drug use and promiscuity prior to their executions.  What’s the message, these astute movie lovers ask?  The answer: Girls who enjoy themselves are condemned to die an awful, violent death.  Extremely punitive measures for moral sin—the ultimate form of “slut shaming.”

These critics go so far as to remind us that even when the main protagonist is a “good girl” who abstains from carnal transgressions and soul-tainting libations—and thusly survives the killer’s murderous onslaught—she’s often put through the wringer. Physically and emotionally brutalized beyond all comprehension, her body’s battered and her psyche’s pummelled.  She may have temporarily defeated the villain but she’s permanently transformed, from a perky little prig to a disheveled and fearful mess.

To a certain extent, I agree with these pro-feminist film historians.  Horror films rely on the viewer’s heightened arousal for their effectiveness—and teasing us sexually, as well as playing on our fears, is part of the experience.  But maybe it’s time for a change.

I’d like to proffer an examination of a film where the typical male/female scenarios aren’t merely flipped, but scrapped all together.

So vulnerable, she makes me sexist.

But… is there really a film that alters these situations significantly?  Is it possible for the narrative to deviate from the archaic woman-is-victim-to-man formula and still retain fresh, exciting surprises that’ll thrill audiences?  Can these male/female roles be inverted?

I know—what if the pure, virginal damsel-in-distress and the deranged homicidal maniac were the same person?  Hmmm…

How could such a tricky maneuver be executed on film?  How would an actress tackle the roles of both scream-queen and psycho-killer?  And, could there still be some aspects of misogyny thrown into the mix, just for old times sake?

We get all of this (and much more) in Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological-horror film Repulsion, his first English-speaking film.

Yes, I know.  I’m suggesting that Roman Polnaski—the infamous and polarizing director whose love life could’ve been written by the Marquis de Sade—has made a film that does justice to the societal pressures placed on women, while also addressing the imbalance of sexual power in horror films.  (Please don’t laugh.)

Polanski’s Repulsion depicts the mental deterioration of Carol Ledoux, a beautiful yet disturbed young woman who simply cannot assume ownership of her emerging sexuality.  Despite a handful of moments where Carol displays a fleeting fascination with her blossoming impulses, she finds male expressions of sexual interest undesirable due to an intense fear of physical intimacy and a disgust for men.  Carol’s a virgin who represses her natural urges while struggling to stifle the deep-seated anxieties produced by these unfulfilled desires.  This hyper-vigilant denial causes her already unhealthy mental state to fracture, driving her to madness and, eventually, murder.

A manicurist who anxiously bites her own nails, Carol is a quiet Belgian girl who appears out-of-touch with her environment.  Her remote personality and blank, expressionless face make her seem entranced at times, even hypnotized.  Walking the streets of London like a zombie, she scuttles back and forth between her ironic job at a beauty salon and the apartment she shares with her sexually-active sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux).  Initially, Carol appears to be shy, particularly around men; she seldom makes eye-contact, rarely acknowledges others, and doesn’t speak very often or coherently.  However, when Helen begins an affair with Michael (Ian Hendry), a married man who visits for loud afternoon love-making sessions, Carol begins to display a severe emotional detachment with the outside world.

From there, she begins treating men who approach her—such as her amiable, would-be suitor Colin (John Fraser), or the leering, sexually-aggressive construction workers on the street—as white noise. Their voices are the static hum of unwanted attention, buzzing somewhere beyond her scope of consciousness.  Yet rather than politely rebuff Colin by stating a lack of interest or protesting the construction workers’ ribald appreciation, Carol opts to mentally remove herself from these uncomfortable moments.  This “checking-out” suggests that, despite her distaste and revulsion towards their predatory advances, Carol actually enjoys attention from males, on some level.

After all, rejecting Colin’s overtures would put an end to his persistent courting, just as an assertive dismissal of the construction workers’ flagrant appraisals would make them reconsider their approach.  By extension, these confrontations would force Carol to acknowledge her purposefully oblique awareness of sex—which is absolutely the last thing she wants to do. Retreating into herself, Carol can receive attention from Colin and the construction workers without having to reciprocate or, even worse, admit to the sexual nature of their intentions.

Carol is portrayed by the French actress Catherine Deneuve, whose natural loveliness and understated mannerisms add a sense of realism to this otherwise surreal exploration of feminine identity in-crisis.  The choice to cast Deneuve is what makes Repulsion work—her muted performance allows the audience to experience Carol’s ambiguous yearnings and repressed sexuality.  By getting her personality out of the way, Deneuve creates an unrelenting tension between her attractiveness and Carol’s intense fear of sex.  (Her beauty also makes the film’s vivid plunge into carnage and insanity just a tad bit easier to digest, too.)

“It is very fashionable for good-looking ladies to say how hard it is to be beautiful, but that’s not true. There are times when it depresses and bothers me to see just how easy things are made for a beautiful woman.”  Catherine Deneuve

Deneuve’s physical perfection also exacerbates the protagonist’s conflict: The heightened suspense created from contrasting Carol’s exterior beauty with her inner ugliness is palpable, and simmers in every scene.  Her arresting attractiveness gives Carol’s plight an immediacy; because of her perfect features, she cannot avoid the attention of men, no matter where she goes. Therefore, Carol’s stunning and innate femininity makes her perpetually vulnerable—which ratchets up her paranoiac dread, along with the viewer’s anticipation for gory disaster.

Even more striking contrasts are achieved when shots of Deneuve’s ethereal beauty are inter-cut with horrific and disgusting images: a rancid dead rabbit, skinned and covered with flies; Colin’s dead body, submerged in a bathtub full of bloody water, and an imagined rape at the hands of greasy and grotesque intruders… These juxtapositions allow the audience to see what dark ugliness percolates behind such a pretty face.

For the filming of Repulsion, Polanski hired renowned cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night and Star Wars, among others), whose wide-angle lenses and extreme close-ups allow Deneuve to “act small.”  This means that while her angelic visage dominates the screen, Deneuve can softly puncture her aloof composure with subtle gestures indicating a deranged state of mind.

“I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,” said Gil Taylor,  BSC,  of shooting Deneuve according to Polanski’s instructions.  Taylor’s work on Repulsion garnered him a BAFTA nomination.

Avoiding caricature of lunacy, Deneuve’s understated performance actually gives Carol more depth.  By eschewing the obvious, clichéd gesticulations associated with portrayals of disturbed people, Carol’s disordered mental state goes unnoticed by those around her, making her extremely dangerous.  This creates a more believable portrait of insanity while providing a realistic counter-point to the surreal and bizarre hallucinations that threaten her—like the dozens of demonic hands that reach out from the plaster walls of her apartment to fondle the milky flesh of her soft body.

Taylor’s extreme close-ups take over the consciousness of the viewer, forcefully putting us in a few different places, simultaneously.  The close proximity of the camera to Carol’s face means the audience can carefully examine her isolated nature, giving us a clear idea of her panicked and deranged mental state.  We also vicariously feel the violation of her personal space during the hand-held shots; we can easily imagine Taylor’s massive, phallic lens up in Deneuve’s face, as if Polanski himself is gleefully wagging his Polish member in his star’s face.

Taylor’s intrusive camera-work hinders any broad sense of perspective or location for the viewer. It’s as if our heads are being pushed under water; the audience’s frame-of-reference is limited to Carol and her point-of-view, and we’re contained—trapped, even—by the self-centeredness of her pathology.  With Deneuve’s face occupying most of the shots, the audience is also shoved into the same position as the smarmy, lust-filled men who constantly stare and come-on to her.  Unable to avoid identifying with her supposed tormentors, we’ve become just as culpable as these cat-callers and ultimately play a role in her demise.  Alas, we are ghoulish voyeurs too.

Nice work, Polanski—now we’re all sexist.  Great… (Well, I guess I was drooling over Deneuve a little bit…)

 “I think that now offering flowers to a lady becomes indecent, that’s how I feel about it. I think to level the genders—it’s purely idiotic… it’s a result of progress in medicine. I think that the Pill has changed greatly the woman of our times, ‘masculinizing’ her. [It] chases away the romance from our lives and that’s a great pity.”  Roman Polanski at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

I’m sure there’s a handful of Polanski’s detractors who’ll take issue with this assessment, and will undoubtedly pounce on his notoriety—like the multiple charges of statutory rape for which he fled to France in 1977, or his relationship with Natasha Kinski, who was only fifteen years-old when their affair began (Polanski was in his forties).  Still, others might defend him, suggesting his mother’s untimely death at Auschwitz left an indelible scar on young Roman, one that was deepened by the tragic loss of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, who was brutally slain in their Los Angeles home by the Manson Family in 1969.

Don’t get me wrong: I neither condemn nor condone and, like you folks, I’m well aware of the contradiction that I’m offering.  Regardless of the warped mechanisms activating his genius and vision, however, Polanski did manage to make a film that has the ability to put men in the shoes of someone they’d otherwise scrutinize, mainly by allowing them to over-scrutinize her.

Thanks to Polanski’s directing, Taylor’s cinematography and Deneuve’s acting, Repulsion has held up over the years; however, the film also owes part of its success to Alfred Hitchcock.  Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho (1960), paved the way for filmmakers wishing to examine damaged psyches, twisted sexual urges, and subsequent grizzly murders.

And Hitchcock, whose work isn’t “pro-feminist” by any stretch, had the nefarious Ed Gein—the psychotic murderer and deviant body snatcher from Wisconsin—to thank for inspiration.

And Ed Gein?  Well… he had his mother to thank for his desire to stitch belts made of human nipples, and for his massive and unrivaled collection of hacked-off vulvae.  (Thanks, Mom!)

See?  No matter how you slice it, it’s always a woman’s fault…

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