Gender I

film 3 of 4


Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 1, 2015

Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a really remarkable film, and a really distressing one too. It’s classically symmetrical in structure (note the very first and last shot/image), Romantic/auteurist in method, and ultimately Modern in its form and pessimism. It’s quite perfectly calculated, relentless in portraying its protagonist’s mounting paranoia, finally not just describing but actually enacting a process of utter mental breakdown.

There are shimmers of kindliness—the boss at the beauty shop, and most strikingly the sister’s boyfriend, just at the film’s very conclusion. At this point, briefly, the story’s relentless and eventually terminal subjectivity cracks open just a little bit. Could it be that things aren’t this bad? At least not for everyone? It’s a welcome possibility, but it’s a slender thread as well; in the end, at least as far as that brutalized protagonist is concerned, this is a thoroughly horrific world.

We watched this film in a horror film class, and learned about some of the things that led to or surrounded it. We wondered. Is Repulsion partly a reflection of Polanski’s own appalling wartime/holocaust experiences? That didn’t seem quite right, until we considered the relationship between parts and wholes.

The Holocaust is often seen as a dread, inexplicable anomaly. How could it have happened? How could a community, a culture, have turned so utterly from its humanity? How did the rest of the world allow it all to happen? From this perspective have come any number of important, constructive things: agonized moral reflections, legislations, international organizations, redrawn international borders, with any number of concomitant complications following. From this perspective we have the notion that there is malice, enmity even, and that as a result we can and will be vigilant in opposition thereto, and in seeking to identify and establish the decencies that will preserve us.

Another view, which Polanski has so often articulated throughout his long and direly distinguished filmmaking career, is that the Holocaust might not be such a surprise after all. What’d we expect? When, really, has it been any different?

That’s a totalizing view, and in Repulsion Polanski merely reduces or adapts it to a microcosmic particular. Man’s murderous rage has been played out in the context of Race and Nationality. This time it Gender and Sexuality, though the results end up being basically the same. Look at the range of maleness on display here, where even that gentle swain ends up only wanting the proverbial one thing. Beyond him, the remainder isn’t just distressing or depressing; it’s actually monstrous. And your father begins it.

This is more than a nightmare—as stated, it represents an untenable, impossible prospect for women. Either you give up your soul to fulfill the expected role of sexual subordinate, or you come to this murderous, madly self-defensive extremity.

How depressing! And, if we might dare say so, what a distressing, sickening distortion. But even as we turn from this terrible vision toward what are hopefully our more tenderly affectionate and reciprocal unions, we might consider a possibility that is actually, surely, a defining reality for so many women. Some will have been victims of physical and sexual abuse. Others are constantly or even just too frequently subjected to the conversation and attitudes incident to current plagues of pornography and objectification. Some simply have to put up with unstintingly demanding and discourteous men.

Idealized trajectories of maturation and coupling notwithstanding, not everyone experiences a joyful initiation on their way to healthy and productive adult sexuality. Repulsion reminds us that the experience of some is being rounded up and herded into the gas chamber of rampant male desire. The fear and pity of this is that Carole/Deneuve becomes victim and monster both. Can we quite blame her?

It goes without saying that this great film’s terrible compassion is hard to reconcile with the things that happened in Jack Nicholson’s house in February of 1977.