Film & TV

Fear and Loathing in the MoMA: Roman Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’

Film & TV

Fear and Loathing in the MoMA: Roman Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’

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It’s 1965. She’s young, hot, and blonde. Honestly, what’s Catherine Deneuve‘s problem?

Hypotheses abound: She could be mad, or it could be that she’s lived with her sister for too long. It could be the fact that she looks like Catherine Deneuve in the liberated sexual climate of 1965, and therefore subject to such choice catcalls as, “Hello darlin’, how ’bout a bit of the other, then?”

In any case, it’s the mystery at the center of the severe and cerebral Repulsion, Roman Polanski‘s classic psychological thriller, and it remains unsolved. In the way that our beloved Lars makes anti-Hollywood films, Roman made un-Hollywood films. If a movie like Repulsion, which refuses to explain itself, doesn’t outright condemn the type of film whose only purpose is to explain itself in under 90 minutes, it certainly shames it. As deeply personal and frightening as stories can be, they always pale in comparison to the belief that what you’re watching onscreen is something you’ve already lived through. The latter is an experience, and it’s in full force in Repulsion.

For Deneuve, the thing she fears is too present for her to ever feel safe. It’s sex—more to the point, it’s men. Men are everywhere and they only want One Thing. She can’t even seek refuge in her bed because of a terrified fantasy that convinces her of the rapist hiding under the covers. Irrational, yes. Out of the realm of possibility, no. Sex is conflated with physical and mental uncleanliness: her sister’s married lover’s shaving razor in the bathroom, the sounds of her sister’s ecstacy pounding through the paper-thin walls as she tries to sleep at night. When her sister and her boyfriend leave Deneuve alone in the apartment, she immediately barricades the door and makes a neat job of anybody who tries to open it. Two weeks and two bodies later, sister and boyfriend come home to a wrecked abode, christened by the bloody evidence of Deneuve’s delusion.

The film’s final shot tracks the trail of her mental descent—soiled dresses, overturned furniture, half-eaten crackers on the floor—and finally lands on a photograph of her and her family, focusing in on the figure of her as a little girl. Her expression is untrusting, a bit There’s Something Wrong With Esther. It’s the final ambiquity of a film that refuses to follow the rules of cause and effect. Of conclusion, of explanation, we have none.

Threat and impending sexual doom run hot and rancid through the film, marketing it instantly as a kind of virgin-thriller. Does the genre sound new to you? It’s not. It’s a bit like final girl theory, if the girl turned out to also be the killer. A step up from the later, tamer days of ’80s slashers—which isn’t saying much. You’ve got to hand it to our boy Roman, though. The image of a blonde with a straight razor standing over her slashed oppressor? We’re hard pressed to think of anything more progressive.

And to think, they call him a misogynist.

The Roman Polanski film exhibit continues at the MoMA until September 30th.