Roman Polanski’s first English-language film (albeit starring French legend Catherine Deneuve) Repulsion is a dark and intense dive into a woman’s madness, as Carol’s sister leaves her alone with her psychosis to go on vacation. Carol seems unwell from the first frame of the movie, prone to fall into a trance and fearful of most human contact, especially from men. As soon as her sister leaves, she’s beset with hallucinations of cracks in the walls, arms reaching to grab her, and a recurrent waking nightmare of a man breaking in to rape her.
When you see the men in her life, you can hardly blame her. Repulsion is like a textbook filled with the various forms misogyny can take; some of them more immediately dangerous than others, others insidious or casual, but all of them clearly contributing to a society that alienates and isolates Carol to the point of insanity. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the recent #NotAllMen hashtag on Twitter. Well, in Carol’s small world, it most definitely is all men (and some women), even the one who seems to be the nicest.
[some spoilers, but not for everything]
Misogynist #1 – The Catcaller
Near the beginning of the film as she’s on her way home from work, Carol walks by a group of guys taking a break from doing road construction, they all stare after her, and one says “hey, you up for a bit of the other,” which is a ’60s Britishism for a quickie. Because yeah, any woman should be ready to drop whatever she’s doing for a stranger in the street. Nothing comes of this (she doesn’t stop or answer, and he doesn’t pursue her further), but it’s our first hint in the film of the society that surrounds Carol and the kind of men that inhabit it.
Misogynist #2 – The Nice Guy
We don’t know how Colin and Carol met, but he catches up with her while she’s having lunch, and they seem on familiar terms, even if he’s more familiar than she is. He wants to date her and because she doesn’t really say a firm “no” (she’s not very committal at all), he assumes she wants to. When she doesn’t show up for their date (which she never said “yes” to either), he’s quite peeved about it, and he’s visibly put out when he moves in for a kiss after driving her home, and she rebuffs him. He clearly thinks he’s earned the kiss, and she’s not holding up her end after he took the immense trouble to drive her home. Later, when she won’t return his calls, he goes to her apartment and literally knocks down the door when she doesn’t let him in. Now, you may be thinking Colin doesn’t sound like a “nice guy,” but within the film, he’s clearly treated as the most subtle misogynist, and the one who probably is completely unintentional about it – he seems to really like/love Carol, and he simply can’t understand why she won’t let him in (either physically or emotionally). Even his breaking down of the door could be read positively or at least explained away, but I think this is a deeply problematic reading.
Misogynist(s) #3 – The Guys at the Bar
We only see these two guys at the bar or just outside it. They’re friends of Colin’s to some degree, and 95% of their dialogue is denigrating women. They talk to each other about who they’ve loved and left, they tell Colin to get on with it and show Carol who’s boss, they defame her character because she’s holding out on Colin, and they jokingly plan a trip for Colin and Carol to come to one of their love shacks, basically. To Colin’s credit, he tries to shut this down as much as he can, almost starting a fight over Carol’s honor, but as we see, he’s merely exchanging an overt sexism for a more covert one – he still feels like he deserves Carol’s love, whether she wants to give it to him or not.
Misogynist #4 – The Married Man
Carol’s sister Helen is having an affair with Michael, who turns out to be married. This isn’t his only sin, though – he’s also a casual misogynist. He doesn’t think either Helen or Carol are worth listening to, though he’s plenty happy to sleep with Helen. Even before we see Michael, he’s introduced to us through Carol’s disgust at his continually putting his toothbrush and shaving things in her water glass in the bathroom despite her asking him not to. When we do meet him, we discover immediately that not only does he have no respect for women’s space, he also has none for their time – Helen has been working most of the afternoon on dinner for the three of them, and as soon as he comes in, he tells her to scrap it, he’s taking her out to dinner. Aside from disregarding Helen’s efforts in the kitchen, this also leaves Carol in the cold without dinner. Perhaps not particularly egregious, but highly thoughtless at the very least, which will characterize his behavior throughout the film.
Misogynist #5 – The Terrible Boyfriend
Okay, we hardly know anything about this guy, so it may be unfair to lump him in here. But what we do know is Carol’s coworker Bridget comes in to work crying one morning, talking about her boyfriend and wondering why all men are so terrible. Granted, this could be an overreaction to a regular domestic spat, but given everything else in the movie, it just reinforces the idea that hey, all the men in this movie are terrible, to one degree or another. The fact that Bridget soon goes back to him even though she still seems to think he’s not that great suggests how deeply-ingrained this culture of sexism is.
Misogynist #6 – The Bitter and Distant Women
It’s not just men who carry misogynist actions in the movie. Carol works at a beauty spa, largely filled with aging women undergoing all sorts of beauty treatments to try to stave off decline. Her boss is fairly supportive of Carol, which is great, but even she shows some of the ways sexism is institutionalized in our culture – she’s very impatient with her clients, and often calls them “those bitches” behind their backs. This is what women have to look forward to in this society. Becoming old, used up, and no longer valuable because they’re no longer young and beautiful. They may try to hold onto beauty, but all it gets them is interminable facial treatments and being called bitches by other women. Meanwhile, Carol’s sister Helen is her closest ally, or should be, but she continually takes Michael’s side and silences Carol’s opinions and feelings, then leaves her alone when she’s obviously unwell and needs support from possibly the only person she can trust.
Misogynist #7 – The Rapist(s)
This is two people, maybe. As I said, Carol has these recurring nightmares of a man raping her. It’s unclear whether this is a hallucination she’s come to as she descends into madness (an extreme personification of her fear of men), or whether she’s reliving something that actually happened to her. There are hints toward the latter (a photograph of her as a child at a family party; everyone is happy except her, and she’s staring off to the side as if she’s seen something that scares her), but I think it’s to the movie’s credit that it’s not explicit. But there is another would-be rapist, the landlord who enters the apartment looking for the rent and realizes that he can take more than that from this shy, disturbed, nearly catatonic girl. This is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve seen in cinema, to be honest, because it’s something that could so easily happen. As the hashtags on Twitter went, perhaps #NotAllMen are misogynists, but #YesAllWomen have felt threatened. I’ve never been in a situation like that, but still, that fear was absolutely palpable to me, absolutely relatable.
What’s so interesting about Repulsion is the way it builds this culture of fear and isolation in ways beyond the justly lauded visual effects, perspective shots, and camera tricks (the film is a remarkably effective psychological thriller on a purely visceral level, but that is not what this post is about). Yes, Carol is clearly going insane, and no, not all women who encounter misogyny in these ways go insane. Yes, you could read the film as her projecting her fear onto all these men, who might’ve been well-meaning. But that’s not the picture we get from the film. If that were the case, we’d expect to identify with Colin, especially, as he does think he has her best interests at heart. But we really don’t. We identify with Carol, even as she eventually does heinous things. Obviously her actions aren’t condoned, but they’re absolutely understandable. It would’ve been easy to paint Colin as a possible savior, who could’ve rescued Carol and slowly brought her back to mental stability, but that isn’t what this film is doing. It’s showing us the deepest depravity of man (and woman), from the seemingly innocuous to the criminally violent, and the devastating effects that can have when it pervades society. Perhaps the most chilling thing about Repulsion is how modern it feels; aside from the ’60s-era cars on the street, this culture is eerily familiar.