Good ee-vening, dah-lings! I am your hostess of this dark corner of the internet, Madamoiselle Macabre.
Due to my affinity for places founded by pirates and where the governor is consistently a colorful crook, I have spent nearly all of my life in the South. Southern folk tend to have an appreciation for the grotesque and the absurd, so there is no wonder why I love horror movies. I chose Dead River as my home due to the fact it was a mid-sized Southern port city filled with steak-knife wielding drag queens, an abundance of citizens with outstanding warrants and a population filled with insane people who want to be your new best friend. There are other cities that rank higher in education, have lower crime and are filled with well-adjusted people, but quite frankly I wouldn't fit in there.
I think we all have a special relationship with movie characters. They are easier to empathize with than their real life counterparts as their neurosis does not intrude upon our daily lives and we are granted a special, omniscient intimate view of them that we do not get with a real person. Seriously, if I lived in my imagination, I'd have a thousand friends. And as someone whose life often resembled the movie FRANCES (1982) if it were written by Tennessee Williams, the troubled female protagonists in horror movies have always been my friends and confidantes.
The great-grandmother of them all is arguably Carol Ledoux, superbly played by CATHERINE DENEUVE in 1965's REPULSION, co-written and directed by ROMAN POLANSKI. With Carol's severe anxiety, neurosis, paranoia, androphobia and outbursts of violence, REPULSION resembles much of the Madamoiselle's 20s.
POLANSKI is noted as a brilliant auteur and maestro of the macabre but also infamous for his scandalous private life. But is ol' Roman a secret feminist? I'll get into those oogie details in a bit.
Carol is an expatriated Belgian in her early twenties. She shares a flat in swingin' London with her more worldly sister, Helene (YVONNE FURNEAUX) and works as a manicurist in a beauty salon. Shy and fragile, Carol is impenetrable to all but the audience. Withdrawn from her colleagues, she hides behind her hair, eyes downcast and is forever lost in her dreams. However, the camera allows us to get intimately (and uncomfortably) close to her, observe the details of her daily life and are privy to her nightmarish fantasies. We know what is oblivious to those who surround Carol: Carol is plagued by a mixture of yearning for sexual experience and terror of sexually aggressive male attention. Alone, she removes the dress Helene wore out on a date the previous night from the wardrobe. As she holds the dress up to herself, she imagines a leering man standing behind her in the wardrobe mirror. Alone, Carol preens in front of the mirror as if preparing for a date. She then imagines the same leering man breaking down her bedroom door and assaulting her from behind, smearing her lipstick all over the pillow. Mirrors in films are often indicative of the divide between a psychological space and the physical one. In REPULSION, mirrors figure predominantly, representing Carol's conflicting disgust and repressed desire.
The men who surround Carol are predatory, forever leering at her, invading her space, and assaulting her with unwanted touches. Even the safety of her sister's apartment is violated by the presence of her sister's adulterous lover (IAN HENDRY, GET CARTER, THE PASSENGER). Unfortunately, Carol's unavailability is viewed as an alluring tease to the men around her. Even her would-be-love-interest, Colin (JOHN FRASER) is a John Hinckley-in-training. He forces a kiss on her, despite her obvious discomfort and breaks down her door when she won't answer his phone calls. His attraction is of an obsessive nature, fixated on Carol's beauty and determination to overcome her unavailability. There is no concern for her distress; she is little more than an exotic doll to be placed on a shelf for his satisfaction.
The presence of men also seems to interfere with Carol's ability to build female friendships. Her co-workers at the beauty salon are all preoccupied with their boyfriends (and usually crying over their bad behavior) and the trigger for Carol's final descent into madness and misandrist violence is Helene's leaving on holiday with her boyfriend. "I must get this crack mended," Carol says of a metaphorical split in the apartment wall, but unfortunately this statement is unheard by her sister.
Left alone in the apartment, Carol's psyche crumbles. She nervously swipes at her hair, face and clothes. She bites her nails. The rabbit Helene prepared for dinner, then abandoned to have dinner with her boyfriend - much like Carol is abandoned for a holiday with the boyfriend - is left out to decompose. She neglects her own appearance and the apartment, letting it grow filthy and disordered. Carol even skips days of work, then is sent home when she accidentally injures a client. Terrified of the world, Carol withdraws from it but cannot escape it. The phone rings endlessly. Street noise drifts in through the window. It is of note that Carol is perturbed by the persistently ringing church bell and the sound of nuns playing games from the cloister next door. Abstinence and locking herself away from men will not offer her any respite.
Carol cannot escape the constant assault of the outside world and she cannot escape her own fractured mind. Her anxieties and hallucinations only intensify and when Colin and the landlord encroach upon her space, Carol violently lashes back. Unable to defend herself against the assault of the outside world and unable to reconcile the anxieties that torment her, Carol retreats further and sinks into catatonia. Much has been said about the family photograph in the final shot of the film. Many viewers and critics assert this indicates Carol's anxieties were a result of childhood sexual abuse. However, the Madamoiselle has a slightly different interpretation. I believe the photograph indicates Carol's downward spiral into madness began early was left undetected by those closest to her. How many people suffer from mental illness for years before finally being diagnosed? And who can blame Carol for being terrified of men seeing that the ones that approach her act like would-be date rapists. Makes me thankful women in Dead River are feisty and will use high heels as a deadly weapon if necessary. Already fragile and anxious, the constant assault from men around her is too much for her to bear.
So is REPULSION a feminist film? Many will say "definitely, duh!" but I'm not so sure it can be classified as such. The film is a critique of chauvinistic male behavior and empathetic towards Carol, that is true. But while Carol strikes back at some of the predatory men who torment her, she is not empowered by her actions. She's a tragic antiheroine who, instead of finding her voice, sinks further into her own damaged mind and is ultimately silenced. That is not a criticism of the film or its subtext, mind you, as "feminist" these days seems to be a meaningless buzzword tossed onto any film with a major female character who is not a boring ingénue. REPULSION is a favorite of mine and one of the few films that accurately portrays how terrifying living with mental illness can be. Carol Ledoux paved the way for numerous twisted sisters as the most memorable aspects of REPULSION (hallucinations, repeated mirror shots, extreme close-ups, decaying apartment as a physical manifestation of a fractured mind, low angles of a wide-eyed weapon-wielding woman) are tropes of horror films featuring a neurotic female protagonist. Polanski's direction, Gil Taylor's photography and the production design uncover the horror in the mundane. What else can I say about Catherine Deneuve other than she is one of my favorite actresses because of this movie? Her serene, aloof persona gives Carol's remoteness an enigmatic quality. She is both sensual and icy; vulnerable and child-like then unhinged and dangerous. We are given an insight in Carol's damaged psyche, but we will never fully understand her. What does everyone think happened to Carol? Was she committed? Did she stay catatonic or was she functional after a reasonable amount of CBT-DBT therapy and antipsychotics? Did she develop a flair for art therapy, shocking her fellow inmates with disturbing macaroni-glued-to-paper-plate projects? Could BELLE DE JOUR be what happened to Carol after she was released from the mental institution? I will leave these questions to you, kiddies. But until next time, pleasant nightmares.