Authority-seeking phallus – refused.

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been meaning to blog about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion for some time, if only to say that I found it one of the most disturbing mental screw-up films ever. And I mean this in a good way, if such a thing is possible. I was surprised to read movie reviews where people apparently fell asleep from boredom while watching it, or almost died laughing because it was so… funny.

But then, people are strange. As Repulsion will show you.





This review over at the Sunset Gun caught my attention in particular, because I share most of the sentiments even if I may not agree with her take on the Polanski statutory rape case. What I sort of agree with but also kind of disagree with (yeah, it’s that kind of a blog post I’m writing today – apologies, gentle blog reader) is this passage:

Roman Polanski knows women because he understands men. He knows both sexes because he understands the games both genders play, either consciously or instinctively. He understands the perversions formed from such relations and translates them into visions that are erotic, disturbing, humorous and, most important, allegorical in their potency.

I don’t know if Repulsion necessarily worked because of Roman Polanski’s knowledge of women via his understanding of men so much as it worked because of his lack of knowledge. And from the way in which it is shown in the film, Polanski seems to want to imply that most men lack this knowledge, as well, especially when desire enters the picture. That games are played, consciously or instinctively, is something that I understand. But in Repulsion, Polanski has shown what it’s like when only one person – the man – is hitting the ball, while the other person – in this case, the woman – is, hello, not even consciously present in the game.

Catherine Deneuve does such an outstanding job conveying her character’s jittery awkwardness undercut by a vaguely-terrifying sense of seemingly harmless bewilderment. Carol stumbles about in a daze; when men pass her on the street, they can’t help but stare. Yet, the collective male gaze is one of appreciation and/or sexual objectification precisely because Carol is such a lovely woman. It seems somehow inconceivable that someone who looks the way she does can have trouble recognising, and subsequently harnessing, her own sexual power. Does anyone expect a young Catherine Deneuve to be an awkward, nervy mess when they take a look at her? Men look at her and probably assume she knows she’s being watched because she’s beautiful.

Excellent copywriting.

But to other women, it seems, Carol’s skittishness can’t help but draw attention to itself. In the beauty parlour where she works, her boss and her colleagues alternately watch her with exasperation and a burgeoning sense of wariness. There is something in Carol’s blank expression that conveys complete and abject terror if you only take a moment to look at her – really look at her – as opposed to merely looking at her to appreciate. Other women can perhaps sense something in Carol that men, then, do not. For example, Carol is does not seem fully present in the very moment, in her immediate surroundings. Her physical body – beautiful – is there, and perhaps some will assume that is there to merely be enjoyed. But in the film, the women look puzzled: where is Carol? She’s certainly not present.

This brings me to another passage in Kim’s review:

Deneuve’s loveliness makes Carol’s madness more palatable (her unfortunate suitor thinks she is odd, but he can’t help but “love” this gorgeous woman), but eventually it becomes horrifying. Carol is not simply a Hitchcockian aberration of what lies beneath the “perfect woman,” she is the reflection of what lies beneath repressed desire — in men and women. Polanski has a knack for casting women who are nervously exciting (Faye Dunaway in Chinatown is a blinking, twitching mess), and therefore dangerous to desire. He makes one insecure about longing for them.

I like that idea of Polanski “making one insecure” about longing for a woman who is a “blinking, twitching mess”, but I think a key part of desiring an anxious woman – especially if she’s beautiful – is the inherent attractiveness for the desiring man to conquer this insecurity that it arouses and make sense of his own lack, seemingly embodied by this womanly object of desire.  And in Polanski’s framing, this type of desire can apparently – and quite literally – result in the death of the man.  I can’t help but relate this to Jacqueline Rose’s conceptualisation of one of Lacan’s fundamental theories: “As negative to the man, woman becomes a total object of fantasy, or an object of total fantasy, elevated into the place of Other and made to stand for its truth. […] It is from the Other that the phallus seeks authority and is refused.”[i] Um, yes. Or dies, Polanski seems to want to say.

It’s intriguing how Carol is shown as being out-of-control in the purest sense; everything she does seems to come to her realisation only after the act itself. That weekend when she’s alone and experiences her own private descent into hell, she commits two acts of murder brought upon by unwanted male sexual attention. Her well-adjusted sister, for example, or any other woman who is sexually-experienced and/or mature might handle the attention in another way, or else that’s the assumption we’re supposed to make. How? By deflecting, perhaps, or engaging in repetitive avoidance, or maybe even, by succumbing – either willingly or unwillingly. These are things rational women do when a man desires them. But Carol kills them off! There is an internal logic to this solution from Carol’s perspective; she apparently knows that the “dark sludge of desire” (I like that particular phrase from Kim’s review) knows no bounds; the only way to shut it off is to shut it off at its source.

It is ultimately fascinating that this movie is a result of Polanski’s imagining of female desire gone awry, especially in light of what he finally did with an underage girl in his actual life. I don’t mean to draw any conclusions or say anything profound – couldn’t even if I tried – but it is something to think about, even if art doesn’t replicate life and life doesn’t replicate art. (Right.)

[i] ‘Feminine Sexuality – Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, pp. 74-75.


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