Catherine Deneuve is an icon. She’s an icon to cinephiles, to fashionistas, and to lesbians. Her (continuing) career first began in the 1950s starting with small roles. Noted director Jacques Demy saw her in THE LADIES’ MAN and then cast her in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. The 1964 musical shot her to fame: a star, as they say, was born. Deneuve did some other films, notably THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL SWINDLERS (an anthology film in which her segment was directed by Claude Chabrol), until 1965, when Roman Polanski cast Deneuve in REPULSION. Polanski had had great success with his debut film KNIFE IN THE WATER but still had to find funding for his script (co-written by Gerard Brach). He finally scored a deal with Compton Pictures, a studio infamous for its soft-core pornography.
REPULSION would go on to boost the careers of both its actress and director. Perhaps unfairly, other 1960s films by Deneuve and Polanski ( BELLE DE JOUR and ROSEMARY’S BABY, respectively) are eclipsed by REPULSION. Truth be told, I prefer both of those films, but the influence of REPULSION on cinema is undeniable. BLACK SWAN, THE BABADOOK, and other horror films owe much to this psychological horror film. The first installment in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” (with ROSEMARY’S BABY following in 1968 and THE TENANT in 1976), the film follows a young manicurist, Carol (Deneuve), living in London with her sister, Helen. When her sister goes away for the weekend, Carol isolates herself in the apartment to disastrous results.
Even though this film was made 50 years ago, its themes of female sexuality and male entitlement are still relevant. Carol is afraid of men, shying away from most social interactions. What’s funny is that most of the criticism of this film that I’ve read focuses on Carol’s fears and spectacular, violent nervous breakdown. However, when I rewatched this film I noticed something entirely new: every man Carol comes in contact with is predatory and invasive.
REPULSION doesn’t go so far as to justify or wave away Carol’s mental state and its consequences. At the same time, she’s not meeting knights in shining armor every day. These men, including Helen’s boyfriend Michael, a handsome suitor named Colin, and her landlord, continually try to barge in on Carol’s space. Michael nonchalantly puts his toothbrush in Carol’s glass in the bathroom. Thinking he’s in some sort of Swinging London rom-com, Colin continually tries to court Carol, despite her obvious lack of interest. The landlord beats on the door demanding rent. These men (and others) constantly invade Carol’s space and, thinking she’s under attack, Carol has to defend herself. Her already fragile sense of self is threatened by their presence. It should be noted that the women in this film aren’t too sympathetic to Carol either; her own sister seems to dismiss her.
Carol’s isolation cracks her mental stability and her breakdown is manifested through her surroundings. Cracks appear all over the film and noises intrude on the soundtrack: Helen’s orgasms, ticking clocks, voices. Her crushing paranoia and fear is projected onto her surroundings: mysterious hands groping her, a rotting rabbit, a corpse, all appear.
Looking at Deneuve’s performance in REPULSION one thing becomes clear. Her popularity really boils down to the air of mystery and her seeming disconnection to the audience. Audience members want to know more about Deneuve but she doesn’t reveal much. I can’t tell you what she’s like in real life, but onscreen her icy exterior reveals a hot, cracking interior rife with pain and dissatisfaction. This persona would, of course, be perfected in Bunuel’s BELLE DE JOUR. Deneuve became a star by keeping much of herself to herself, quite unlike modern celebrities.
Catherine Deneuve and Roman Polanski never made another film together, but their sensibilities seem to match. His films are all about environment, the location. In films like CHINATOWN, MACBETH and even THE GHOST WRITER, people are corrupted or destroyed by their environment and its inhabitants’ culture. Both he and Deneuve explore character through set and sound design, allowing Deneuve to keep herself secret. She’s not quite an ice queen but she helped round out the archetype. Deneuve’s influence can be seen in the work of Nicole Kidman, Scarlett Johansson, Lucy Liu, and Cate Blanchett. Her brand of regality mixed with hidden wildness is tantalizing on the screen; had she been born 10 years prior, she would have made a great Hitchcock Blonde.
Both Deneuve and Polanski would go on to make more famous films, but REPULSION built on both of their personas as filmmakers; their brands and aesthetics were firmly established. Polanski has become one of the great directors of the modern era. Catherine Deneuve would go on to model for Chanel, to become a 13-time Cesar Award nominee and to make films well into her 70s. However, her place in cinema history as a true icon was cemented by REPULSION.