The Female Perspective of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural, under a pen name.
I had been reluctant to watch Roman Polanski’s Repulsion for a few years now. Something about the idea of a thriller made in the 1960s about a woman afraid of sex, directed by a man, dissuaded me; I could too easily visualize all the sexist roads the film could travel down. But I am not unfamiliar with Polanski’s work; if there is anything to take away from his oeuvre, it is that he is a champion of feminist cinema. I do not mean to be controversial. His drugging and subsequent rape of a thirteen-year-old girl is abhorrent, and it is without any justification. His films tell a similar story, one of female suffering at the hands of men. From Rosemary’s Baby to Tess to Chinatown, his women are eternal victims to both the men in their lives and the society they live in; even in The Tenant, Polanski plays the leading man who, upon persecution, essentially becomes a woman. After reflecting upon his films, I decided to watch Repulsion.
I had seriously misjudged it. I would say it is misleading to describe the main character, Carol (played by Catherine Deneuve), as afraid of sex; she is afraid of rape and, in this instance, sex and rape are inevitably tangled. The film follows her over a two-week period, centering on her apartment (this is, indeed, the first of Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy). She lives with her sister, Helen, in London, though they are both Belgian. Polanski very often focuses on foreigners in his films, connecting them with social isolation as well as the implication that the society they live in was not designed to help them; this latter interpretation translates seamlessly to describe the situation of women. Carol, already shown to be paranoid, is going to be left alone for two weeks as Helen and her (married) boyfriend go on vacation. It is in her time alone that we begin to see the world through Carol’s eyes, and what we see is frightening.
Carol’s mental state is revealed in both hallucinations and nightmares. She sees that the wall is splitting open, she hears footsteps at night and she has nightmares of rape. All of her fears ultimately lead back to men and sex. There are three important men in the film. The first is Michael, her sister’s boyfriend. Michael spends a great deal of time in her apartment, leaving clothing and toiletries around as though the apartment were his own. Very suggestively, and certainly a show of masculine force, he places both his toothbrush and razor inside of Carol’s cup in the bathroom, the first of several figurative and literal instances of penetration in the film; this is the only complaint Carol raises to her sister, despite her obvious disgust at hearing the couple have sex in the evenings.
The second man is Colin, who is pursuing Carol. He chases her down in the street to ask her on a date, to which she does not agree, then yells at her for not showing up. He tries to kiss her and she recoils. He calls her and she does not answer. He chalks it up to her being a tease. The climax of the film comes when he breaks open Carol’s door to enter her apartment (after she refuses to let him in) – a forceful entry – and when he notices a neighbor looking, he closes the door for some very unwanted privacy; Carol, visibly horrified, beats Colin to death with a candlestick holder. This is not the beginning of Carol’s decline into madness; this is just the first drastic action taken.
The third man is the landlord. Before Helen left, she told Carol to pay the rent. She never did and instead finds herself confronted with the landlord himself well into her isolation. He enters her apartment without her permission and, even after Carol gives him the money, doesn’t leave. He suggests to her that she wouldn’t need to pay rent if she performed sexual favors for him, then attempts to rape her. Carol kills him with Michael’s razor.
Throughout the film, Carol is seen longing for a female sanctuary. She essentially works in one – a beauty salon run by, and made for, women; but why are the women there to begin with? To make themselves more appealing to men, showing this female sanctuary to be a facade. The conversations overheard in the salon further this point, as they all center around men in one way or another, whether it is about heartbreak or advice. Across the street from her apartment, nuns play cheerfully in a courtyard; this is another female sanctuary, drastically more removed from men and sex. Carol watches the nuns through her window regularly. When Carol eventually shuts herself into her apartment, she is attempting to create the sanctuary that she desperately requires, albeit makeshift and deeply flawed. Men, the three men mentioned along with those in her nightmares, penetrate and desecrate that sanctuary. The men in the film have a sanctuary as well. They congregate in a local pub, talking about women and physically threatening one another; in other words, toxic masculinity is on full display in the male sanctuary.
The film is not without fault, though. The ending feels disappointingly phoned-in, an attempt to explain her character and cobble together an excuse for her actions. The last shot is of a family photograph, showing a young Carol looking off-camera, possibly distressed. Was she molested as a child, as scholars and critics have suggested? That is a question that did not need to be raised, because it implies that she has an unreasonable fear of men, when in fact the men we see in the film are very much people to be afraid of. Her mental decline is to be blamed on the society that produces predatory men, and not on her reaction to them.
There are many ways this film could have been an absolute misfire (which is exactly what kept me from watching it for so long). Instead, Polanski delivered a film so hauntingly precise in representing a female psyche that it can never be forgotten. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!