Update: After a flurry of comments and emails regarding this post, ranging from appreciation of my essay, to articulate disagreement, to insane sexist supposedly anti-rape salvos, I've written my take on the Polanski case, at my site. I wrote this piece not to defend his original actions, I wrote this piece to explicate his art. Read here.
I'm not going to go into my Roman Polanski defense. I've been doing this all morning, nearly ranting and raving over my views on the matter, and have grown frustrated and depressed. But in short, I'm not happy about his arrest. So, I would rather discuss one of his greatest pictures, a brilliant portrait of female sadness, alienation, sexual neurosis turned to psychosis. A movie all women should watch -- his masterpiece "Repulsion."
"I hate doing this to a beautiful woman."
--Roman Polanski cameraman Gil Taylor
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. One should not (as so many did with his misunderstood Bitter Moon) take Polanski's films literally, for they are often heightened versions of what occurs naturally in our world: desire, perversion, repulsion.
Film writer Molly Haskell said that at the core of Polanski's work is the "image of the anesthetized woman, the beautiful, inarticulate, and possibly even murderous somnambulate." Her observation is astute, but it's followed by the tired criticism that in all of Polanski's films, including Repulsion, "the titillations of torture are stronger than the bonds of empathy." Of course. Polanski's removed morality is exactly why he is often brilliant: He is so empathetic to his characters that, like a trauma victim floating above the pain, he is personally impersonal. He insightfully scrutinizes what is so frightening about being human, yet he doesn't feel the need to be resolute or sentimental about his cognizance. He is also, consciously or subconsciously, aware of the darkness he explores, especially in his female characters, who could be seen as extensions of himself. 1965's Repulsion proves as much.
Starring ice goddess Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion is one of the most frightening studies of madness ever filmed. Deneuve plays Carol, a nervous young manicurist who shares an apartment with her sexually active sister (Yvonne Furneaux). At first Carol goes about her days in the salon, where she quietly tends to bossy old ladies' fleshy cuticles; walking outside, where she unsuccessfully avoids the leering glances and advances of men; and languishing about the apartment, where, with disgust, she listens to the noises of her sister's lovemaking and silently despises the men who visit. She exhibits a pathological shyness and repression that slowly spiral into madness after her sister leaves on holiday. Carol's dementia creates perplexing hallucinations: sexual acts with a greasy man whom she simultaneously loathes and lusts after; greedy hands poking through walls and kneading her soft flesh; and the moving and cracking of walls. Left alone, she is able to act out what she is so afraid of: the dark sludge of desire.
The obscure, slippery and decayed complexities of such desire are conveyed brilliantly in Repulsion. The diseased atmosphere of Carol's womb is meticulously created with Polanski's use of camera angles, sound effects and images of clutter. Though music is used effectively, Polanski relies more on amplifying the sounds of everyday life -- the ticking of a clock, the voices of nuns playing catch in the convent garden, the dripping of a faucet -- to convey the acute awareness Carol acquires in response to her fear. Polanski also dresses the film with pertinent details that further exemplify both Carol's madness and the aching passage of time: Potatoes sprout in the kitchen, meat (rabbit meat, no less) rots on a plate and eventually collects flies, various debris of blood, food and liquids form naturally around Carol. The film's inventive use of black-and-white film, wide-angle lenses and close-ups creates an unsparing vision of sickness, and Deneuve's performance is effectively mysterious. The viewer, however, is able to empathize with Carol, which is how she lures us into her web in the first place. As Polanski cameraman Gil Taylor muttered during filming, "I hate doing this to a beautiful woman."
And yet, one loves doing this to a beautiful woman, especially one like Deneuve. 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.
And Deneuve is certainly nerve-racking. She is so physically flawless that she often seems half human: An anemic girl, she can barely lift up her arm, yet at the same time she is highly sensual, an ample, heavily breathing woman with more than a glint of carnality in her dreamily vacant eyes. Deneuve makes one feel the confusion of a corrupted child: She is an arrested adolescent who, like an anorexic, cannot face her womanliness without visions of perverse opulence and violence. Carol is the personification of sexual mystery -- she is what lurks beneath the orgasms of pleasure and pain. What Polanski finds intriguing and revolting is perceptively female, making Repulsion a woman's picture more than women may want to know, or care to face.
Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.
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In the first two films of the Apartment Trilogy, gender, subjectivity, and horror are intertwined: being embodied and socially constructed as a woman is the horror, and the audience is made to share in this experience by the films’ representations of the female protagonists’ subjectivity. But how exactly does Polanski manage to bring us so close to his heroines’ experience?
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When I was first told about Roman Polanski’s rape case by a fellow cinephile, I was in the process of excitedly asserting that Repulsion contained the most authentic depiction of female sexual psychology I’d ever seen. That was about 20 years ago, when I was about 20, but it remains true, although I’ll need to elaborate on that bald statement. The Polanski story has an element that isn’t present in most cases of celebrities accused of sexual violence. It wasn’t just the shock and disappointment of a fan that I felt, but the knife-twisting betrayal of feeling that a male artist had understood, existentially, what it’s like to be a woman, and then learning that that person was a rapist.
After the initial shock, however, the more I thought about it, the more fascinating (and horrifying) the problem was. How could an artist perform the exceptional act of empathy that is cross-gender identification, yet commit the profound failure of basic empathy that is how we normally conceive of rape? What does that say about art, empathy, and rape? As I watched Polanski’s films with this question in the back of my mind, I registered the prevalence of rape as a subject in his films, and it became impossible to believe that the theme of Repulsion was just a coincidence and that Polanski, in the guise of a hedonistic, chauvinistic 1970s Hollywood director, committed rape despite his ability to empathize, as an artist, with victims of that kind of assault. And if it wasn’t “despite,” it could only be, somehow, “because.” Accordingly, when I watched The Tenant, in which Polanski, playing the lead role, literalizes his cross-gender identification and subjects himself to many of the same victimization scenarios that befall Catherine Deneueve in Repulsion and Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, it seemed to reinforce that “because,” without making the “how” or “why” any clearer.
Polanski’s guilt was presented to me as fact, but for many years my understanding of it was vague, to say the least. Prior to the internet, movie gossip was less easily fact-checked, and what I was told about both victim’s identity and the circumstances was wildly wrong. Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland in 2009, and Samantha Geimer’s publication of her memoir in 2013, both taking place in the internet era, clarified matters. It was only during these years that I learned that Polanski’s underage victim was all of 13. Geimer’s account, with the 43-year-old director inviting her to Jack Nicholson’s house for a photo shoot, during which he gave her alcohol and drugs and then proceeded to have sex with her in multiple ways despite her repeated refusals, is so depressingly plausible that I have accepted it ever since.
I have chosen to preface this essay about sexual violence and female experience in Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy by discussing the elephant in the room not only because it seems ludicrous (and irresponsible) not to do so, but also as an acknowledgment of the way that context informs our relationship to a work of art, and not simply by “distracting” us from it. Before I knew anything about Polanski, Repulsion was already important to me as a film that represented certain uncomfortable aspects of being female, and learning that its creator is a rapist only served to make it even more emblematic of that experience. Thanks to its context, Repulsion is more than a movie to me; but, as the movie it is, it’s also more than a painful emblem of the horror of being female. While certainly capturing the trauma of sexual abuse, Polanski did not make a grim, realistic study of PTSD, but rather (perhaps plucking his tone from Hitchcock’s Psycho) a sly black comedy that, among other things, deconstructs the cultural ideal represented by his blonde child-woman heroine.
Repulsion: “Poor Bunny”
The tone of Repulsion (1965) may be reminiscent of Psycho, but the opening title credits evoke Vertigo, a woman’s eye filling the screen. But whereas Kim Novak’s eye in the Vertigo sequence turns into the hypnotic vortex in which James Stewart’s identity unravels, Catherine Deneuve’s eye in the Repulsion sequence is inward-turned, her attention focused on the private theatre of a fantasist and narcissist. Or at least, so it initially appears, although Repulsion will ultimately complicate this traditional characterization of women through the reasons we are given for Carole’s inward focus.
Repulsion’s wonderful innovation is to combine Hitchcock’s Norman Bates and Marnie (the eponymous heroine of the 1964 film) in a single protagonist, and in the process deconstruct a certain long-standing Western archetype of femininity whose most recent pop culture iteration, at the time, was the so-called “Hitchcock blonde.” The coolness and remoteness of Hitchcock’s blondes signify their ladylike refusal of carnality; and in this dichotomy, sexuality is male and sullying. In Repulsion, however, Deneuve’s Carole is remote not because she’s a lady, but because all of her interest in focused on an inner life that is absolutely inaccessible. This inaccessibility works upon the closest thing the movie has to a deuteragonist, Colin (John Fraser), not unlike the way Madeleine’s inaccessibility works upon Scottie Ferguson: both men project onto these beautiful blondes a feminine mystique, a communion with the secrets of life and death, that teases them out of thought. The joke in Repulsion is that Colin could never guess what Carole really has in her head, namely rape fantasies and a (seemingly paradoxical, until the reveal at the end) fixation on self-preservation.
After the title sequence, Polanski pulls back from Carole’s eye to reveal her staring, catatonic face, then cuts to her youthful white hand, limply holding the limp, heavily ringed, wrinkled hand of an elderly woman. There’s a strange stillness to the image, as though time has frozen, been put on pause – as in fact it has, Carole having disappeared into her fantasy world. A moment later, he cuts to the elderly woman’s face, caked with some kind of mud-like beauty product. The mask is cracked, as though exaggerating the wrinkles it’s supposed to be combating. The camera pulls back slowly, slowly, revealing that the woman is lying on a sort of gurney in a private room, surrounded by medical-looking equipment and bottles. By the time the camera has pulled back far enough to show us Carole’s hand still grasping the woman’s, the screen is a riot of textures: the desert-earth landscape of the salon client’s face; the fuzzy blanket laid horizontally across her stomach and pelvis, over the hospital-like gown she’s wearing, its small round bumps echoing the smaller bumps on the opaque glass panel in the door behind her head; the wrinkled sheet under the blanket, that covers her legs, echoing her veins-riddled arm and hand; the elaborately patterned wallpaper. Because the image is in crisp black and white, we are not distracted by a colour scheme, and pay attention only to the textures. Textures are not a particularly obvious thing to evoke on film (as opposed to painting), but from the first moments of Repulsion, Polanski is ushering us into Carole’s hypersensitive subjectivity, in which the world is a landmine of potential disgust triggers, taken in mostly through the eye but creating contact-like, contamination-fearing sensations.
The beauty parlour where Carole works is an all-female realm where solidarity is formed over the headaches doled out by “bitchy” bosses and clients and the heartaches occasioned by “filthy” men. Polanski will juxtapose it with the all-male realm of the pub frequented by Colin and his cronies, where bonding happens over filthy jokes and stories. Carole is as ill at ease in the first realm as Colin is in the second, though not for the same reasons. First, however, we see Carole walking through the sunny streets of swinging London, and while her gloves and handbag belong to the Hitchcock blonde, her long, golden, wind-blown, swinging hair shows that the actress, at least, belongs to a new generation, even if the character is the antithesis of its freedoms.
Colin, seeing her go past, knocks on the window of the bar, his expression fervent, but she doesn’t hear or see. The camera follows her as she crosses the street to a construction site; as she strolls past, a Cockney worker in an undershirt fancifully propositions her, and the moving camera zooms in on his rough-looking face (its topography emphasized by the bright sunlight), whose expression seems to change from playful to sneering and menacing as he looks over his shoulder, his smile spreading, and the camera gets closer, then holds on the image. The camera, in other words, reproduces Carole’s emotional movement from indifference, even amusement, to fear and disgust, which is confirmed when Polanski then cuts to an image of the greasy plate of fish and chips that Carole is staring at with ambivalence. And this despite the fact that the camera is not consistently subjective: Carole presumably ignores him, not turning back to see his face or what his expression has turned into, or so the unbroken rhythm of her shoes on the sidewalk suggests.
Colin appears in the restaurant window behind her, and the comedy of their relationship begins. Colin knocks on the window and, when he has Carole’s attention, smiles and makes motions indicating that he wants to join her, and Carole smiles back and nods, looking for all the world like she’s responsive to his attention and happy to see him. It will take a while for us to learn, and Colin will never learn (to his peril), that Carole’s gestures of politeness and agreeableness, perhaps the remnants of an early survival strategy, perhaps random mimicry of social normalcy, have nothing whatsoever to do with the person she’s interacting with or how she’s actually feeling. But we get a hint of this already when Carole’s reaction to him ceases to be enthusiastic once he’s across the table from her, and instead she keeps insisting that she has to return to work, and moves away from him when he lightly touches her shoulder.
Polanski doesn’t let us know what the genesis of this relationship was, so we’re left to assume that Colin saw her in the neighborhood (she goes for lunch near his pub hang-out) and introduced himself at some point. It’s clear that, absurdly, he’s already deeply in love despite the fact that he barely knows this woman, he has never been on a date with her, and she avoids looking at him and hardly ever speaks except to whisper demurrals. Deneuve’s exceptional beauty makes this plausible, but no more palatable: when Colin becomes her first victim, it serves as a comeuppance not so much for his objectifying male gaze (we don’t get any objectification from Colin’s perspective, and the movie overall is more interested in presenting Carole as a child-woman than in treating her consistently as a sex object) as for his all-too-commonplace male capacity for falling in love with a fantasy of a woman based on attraction to her appearance. Such is the kind of romantic love permitted by traditional gender roles.
Colin walks her, or stalks her, to the doorway of her workplace, where he asks her on a date that night. Carole, of course, demurs, explaining that she’s having dinner with her sister. As Carole keeps looking over her shoulder, hoping to get away, they have a brief discussion about the main course, rabbit, and Colin tries again, asking to meet her the following night, to which Carole “replies” by smiling perfunctorily, which looks like a grimace, and hurrying through the door. Naturally, Colin takes this as consent. In the game taking place between them, a grotesque exaggeration of typical heterosexual courtship, the ever-polite, reticent Carole will never explicitly and adamantly refuse anything that Colin suggests, while the over-confident, driven Colin will interpret as consent what no reasonable person ever would, so intent on his goal that he doesn’t see the person in front of him. Usually, this kind of game ends badly for the woman, but in this movie, Carole will get symbolic revenge for all of those instances.
Next we see Carole’s home life, a cozy Freudian setup in which she’s in a filial relationship with the older sister who lives with her and alternately coddles and scolds her as though she’s a child of six (the age Deneuve seems to be aiming at in the home scenes), and is jealous of the sister’s boyfriend, whose revolting maleness is encroaching on her territory in the ultra-Freudian form of his toothbrush in her bathroom drinking glass. From his remarks and manner with Carole, moreover, it’s clear that the boyfriend, although a perfectly normal man who’s in love with and attracted to her sister (the lovely Yvonne Furneaux), would happily rape “Cinderella” if he had the chance. For the most part, in the moment, Carole is sexually paranoid, but the movie ultimately justifies her paranoia: maybe only the landlord has the opportunity and justification, in his mind, to rape Carole (they’re alone, she’s mentally incapacitated, she’s late with the rent and has wrecked his property), but every man in the movie would like to do it and might do it under the right circumstances, from her sister’s banal, earthy boyfriend to the hotheaded and romantic Colin, who defends her honour in the pub only to rush to her apartment and break down her door. In fact, the last we see of the adult Carole, she is being carried off by the boyfriend for this purpose, and although it’s ambiguous whether this is her fantasy, his fantasy, or the movie trailing off into fantasy, we’re left in little doubt that it’s also his fantasy, as a proxy for the (male heterosexual) viewer.
It’s when her sister goes on a trip to Paris with her boyfriend that everything goes to hell in the apartment, which becomes the theatre in which Carole’s fantasies play themselves out, its contours becoming coterminous with her mind. Her mental disintegration has an objective correlative in the fate of the raw rabbit that never gets put back in the fridge after a more-than-usually distracted Carole takes it out and looks at it in disgust and fascination on her first morning alone. “Poor bunny,” remarks Colin in reference to the rabbit dinner that never actually came off, but the real poor bunny is not the cooked one: it’s the rotting one, a gentle, passive creature with its skin stripped off, horribly exposed, neglected, growing rancid. It finally ends up, infamously, in Carole’s handbag, bringing an abrupt, grisly end to her last possibility of establishing human contact. Carole’s kindly co-worker, a robust, good-natured young woman whom Carole had earlier comforted (with rote phrases and no real comprehension, but with genuine compassion) when she was crying in the locker room over a “filthy” man, now returns the favour by trying to cheer Carole up in the same room after she’s been fired for impulsively stabbing a client’s cuticle. She makes small talk about a Charlie Chaplin film, which is simple and innocuous enough for Carole to be able to follow along and respond appropriately, and the giddy pinnacle of their bonding is reached when the woman imitates Chaplin’s walk and she and Carole collapse in laughter. A moment later, the bond is decisively broken when the woman fetches Carole’s purse, which falls open to reveal the head of the rabbit (in what is surely an inspiration for the Eraserhead baby). We aren’t told what Carole’s thought process is, if there is any rhyme or reason for this action, but the head in the purse, in what is perhaps an unhappy coincidence, seems both fetal and clitoral.
Repulsion is without plot: after the sister’s departure, it’s a series of virtuosic set-pieces interspersed with scenes of Carole going through slightly unhinged versions of her daily routine (she runs the bath, but gets distracted and forgets to turn it off; she irons a man’s undershirt that’s become a fetish object for her, but forgets to plug in the iron). We’re inside a kind of “female time” of boredom, chores, daydreaming, and waiting for Daddy to come home – or in this case, for her nightly fantasy assault. The only thing that gives some kind of momentum to this comforting, albeit macabre, homey equilibrium, is the escalation of her fantasies: every time she murders a man, she seems to be emboldened to release her sexuality a little more, in fantasy.
The rape fantasies begin with her discovery of a man’s (presumably the boyfriend’s) undershirt, just like the workman’s, on the bathroom floor. Carole, disgusted, picks it up by her fingertips and is about to put it in the garbage can, when, seized by a perverse impulse, she instead brings it to her face and sniffs it deeply. This causes her to lurch toward the toilet (offscreen), retching. Here we have encapsulated, in a single image, Carole’s feelings about sex and her own desires: disgust and desire bleed and blend into each other; she is so powerfully disgusted by what she desires that she has started to desire what disgusts her. By the end of the movie she’s putting on makeup in anticipation of her nightly visit from her imaginary assailant, which she does not seem to be in control of despite the fact that it’s her fantasy; but when he attacks her, she remains terrified and struggles. However she feels about the act in anticipation of it, she feels quite differently at the moment when it becomes a reality: her feelings about sex are violent, and apt to change from one violent extreme to the other, and to change depending on whether it’s a distant object of contemplation or an immediate object of sensation. It doesn’t seem to be possible for Carole, at this point, to feel anything but a violent reaction against sex when it’s happening (or as close as she allows herself to get), which doesn’t mean that these are her “real” feelings about it: they are all her real feelings about it.
The murder of Colin is at once comic and balletic in a way that anticipates American Psycho; the comedy, however, proceeds not from anything extravagant or exuberant in the performances, but from the crystal-clear motivations and cross-purposes of the three actors in the scene. Carole, now unemployed and wandering around the house in the diaphanous baby doll nightie that she wears for the rest of the film, is on edge from her nightly visits and heavy-breathing phone calls, and in no mood for Colin to enact his fantasy of being an impetuous lover by kicking her door in when she won’t open it. Abashed at his rashness once he’s inside and embarrassed by her state of undress, he starts to launch into a sensitive confession of his feelings for her, and their apparent lover’s quarrel (and Carole’s dishabille) is witnessed by a middle-aged neighbor and her small dog, who pause on the way to the stairs for their walk, frankly fascinated (which Polanski set up by previous glimpses of the woman and her dog). Meanwhile, from the moment she realized that he was really going to break in, Carole has been focused on nothing except her perception of danger, and having picked up a hefty candlestick, which she holds behind her back, she isn’t listening to a word he’s saying, just waiting for her opportunity to kill him. It comes when he notices the nosy neighbor and turns his back on Carole to close the door. The camera is behind Carole, and we see Colin closing the door as the neighbor and her dog (seen through the crack in the door) return to their business and Carole approaches Colin with the candlestick moving from behind her back to over her head. There are long moments during which Colin could turn around and save himself, but he doesn’t, and the moment he closes the door is the same moment when Carole, in position, strikes, and strikes again. And as if the murder isn’t funny enough, Carole decides to dispose of the body by dragging it into the bathroom and dumping it into the tub, which is still full from when, days before, she ran it for her work bath. For Carole, out of sight is out of mind, even if she’s only made the most perfunctory gesture toward putting the body out of sight; and sometimes in full sight is also out of mind. The apartment becomes littered with refuse, including rabbit and human corpses, that Carole forgot about because her fantasy life is too distracting, or because she’s repressed her knowledge of the event and therefore doesn’t see what’s in front of her.
The landlord, her second victim, is at first too distracted by his money-grubbing to even think about the fact that he’s alone in one of his apartments with a beautiful, scantily-clad young woman, but once he has his rent and Carole is settled on the couch, staring vacantly into space with her hands shoved between her upper thighs in a childlike pose that hikes up her nightgown, we watch the wheels start to turn. It’s hard to know whether Carole is provoking the attack or, like a child, doesn’t understand that her pose is sexual: both are within the realm of a plausible psychology for her. Whereas the murder of Colin is the absurd end of a clod, a sort of horror cousin to Henry Fonda’s brutal pratfalls in The Lady Eve, the landlord’s murder is more satisfying: he’s older, and his slight portliness suggests animalism and adds to the whiff of economic exploitation and class war, and he actually attacks her, climbing on top of her on the couch. Polanski, however, has Carole’s razor attack go on for so long that we’re brought around again from satisfaction to horror and sympathy: we occupy the victim’s point of view (or the camera does: the landlord himself has his eyes screwed shut in agony) as Carole bends over him, darting in for little slices, her expression horrified but determined and curious, like she’s conducting an experiment on something non-human (like her experiment with the beauty salon client’s cuticle). Bits of black blood sully her white dress and her spun-sugar hair. The comic image of the blonde Victorian child-woman, her purity and beauty fouled with the blood of her murder victim, an amoral doll so persuaded of her perfect innocence that she’s unaware of her own power to harm, is, for me, Repulsion’s crowning deconstruction of this particular cultural ideal of femininity.
For some, Repulsion is a portrait of neurosis, or psychosis, or mental illness. To which I would say, first, that I doubt that many people go crazy this way, and, second, that that is a way of turning Carole into someone who is alien, whom we can understand and feel compassion for but not relate to. I accept the reading of Repulsion as a film about a woman who was sexually abused as a child, as the final image of the family photo suggests, with its close-up of the child Carole’s eyes, staring with demented hatred at the younger of the two adult men in the photo, presumably her father. In that case, her nightly visits may mingle fantasy with memories of visits from her father, and be an attempt to gain control over these memories, and reimagine the original events, by bringing them into line with her own desires. However, I paid little attention to this clue during my first several viewings of the film, since I didn’t need it to make Carole’s behaviour make sense to me. Whatever Carole’s biography is supposed to be, the character works as a portrait of the profound contradictions, hypocrisy, and schizophrenia that is our cultural ideal of femininity and female sexuality. Having accepted that she must represent purity and innocence, she can only imagine sexuality as something alien and outside of her, something male, and sex as rape. The surreal contrast between Carole’s outward childlike, blonde innocence and fragility and the lurid depravity of her fantasy life, not to mention the violence she’s capable of, highlights how rotten the cultural ideal is in the first place.
Rosemary’s Baby: “It Was Kind of Fun in a Necrophile Sort of Way”
If Carole (foreshadowing Chinatown) has gotten the worst of the patriarchy, Rosemary Woodhouse at first seems to have happily embraced her place within it. She is a young woman who has no interest in anything except becoming a mother, a prospect that sits uneasily alongside her childlike demeanor as she tries to fulfill another contradictory demand: that she occupy the sacred role of mother, and occupy it exclusively, while remaining a child in relation to her husband. As the film progresses, however, Rosemary becomes even more of a monomaniac, elbowing her marriage aside, until she’s alone against the world with her unborn child. When she declares, with a demented glint in her eye and lilt to her voice, to the doctor who she hopes will be able to offer her protection, “There are plots against people, aren’t there? Well there’s one against me and my baby,” she is summarizing not only her worst nightmare, but also her profoundest fantasy.
Repulsion was in dialogue with Hitchcock, but the immediate antecedents of Rosemary’s Baby are literary: Henry James’s novels of female persecution, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. The latter novel, in particular, flirts with the idea of paranoia and delusion in the way it cleaves to its heroine’s point of view as she wildly theorizes, based on the subtlest signs, about the private doings and inner lives of her husband, his suspected lover, and the latter’s husband, the heroine’s father. Also like Rosemary’s Baby, The Golden Bowl, deliberately or not, invites a critique of its pure, victimized heroine. James’s virtuous, victimized Maggie Verver must manipulate her husband, friend/stepmother, and beloved father in order to banish her rival and regain complete possession of her husband, as if their lives were a chess game; and just as Carole’s situation in Repulsion contains within it a “pure” woman’s fantasy of sexual persecution by “filthy men,” so Rosemary’s situation contains within it a fantasy in which her baby is targeted for persecution by supernatural agents because of its ineffable specialness. In that sense, any mother can relate to Rosemary, as any woman can relate to Carole: in both cases, the extreme exaggeration of the feminine gender role leads to heady narcissism intermingled with masochism.
As a psychological Gothic film, Rosemary’s Baby is also a kind of inversion of James’s most famous work, The Turn of the Screw: in the modern interpretation, the unnamed Governess of the latter may appear to be protecting her young charges against malicious spirits with designs on them, but in fact she’s delusional, and is herself, in her madness, the only source of danger to the children’s well-being; while in Rosemary’s Baby, written in more psychologically sophisticated (and atheistic) times, the twist is that we cannily assume Rosemary must be mad, an especially imaginative “hysterical pregnant woman,” whereas in fact she’s uncannily correct.
We watch as the witches next door, Roman and Minnie Castevet, together with Rosemary’s husband, Guy, use patriarchal priority to impregnate and isolate Rosemary, whose submissiveness and diffidence make her perfect for their designs. The ideal little housewife and mother, she is definitely a better candidate for bringing evil incarnate into the world than Roman and Minnie’s last choice, a runaway and dope addict who hurls herself out the window to her gruesome death when they tell her what they have in mind. When Rosemary learns she’s pregnant, she’s already instinctively suspicious of the Castevets, thanks to Minnie’s overbearing busybodyness. But since Guy has become fast friends with them, and since Rosemary herself always wants to be kind and agreeable, she ignores her misgivings and accepts their help by switching from the obstetrician her friend used to their friend, Abraham Sapirstein. After all, it’s only rational, since he’s a famous, sought-after doctor, which ought to override her own intuitions, preferences, and comfort. Always full of contradictory demands, the patriarchy insists that Rosemary be rational, like a man, except when it doesn’t want her to use reason, as when Sapirstein firmly orders her not to “read books” or “listen to your friends.” She is, in other words, to cut herself off from the resources of both her reason and the passed-on female wisdom of lived experience, and listen only to the voice of patriarchal authority. We of course all know the mothers who make themselves overanxious by reading all of the pregnancy and parenting books, and nowadays websites and forums, that are out there, and that little grain of truth provides the seed of doubt that makes us collaborate with Rosemary’s persecutors by agreeing with them that she ought to have her agency taken away from her.
It’s in this context that we ought to understand the rape scene in the movie. From Rosemary’s point of view at the time, what has happened is that she passed out from too much alcohol with the candlelight dinner which was to lead into a romantic night of lovemaking for the purpose of conception, and her husband not only went ahead with the plan while she was unconscious, but engaged in rough sex with her inert body, leaving long red scratches on her back. Indeed, Guy is eager to spell out this interpretation of her condition for her even as she staggers, her angular body tottering precipitously on skittering high heels, scolding her that she “probably didn’t eat anything all day.” He’s not content to let her think that she simply drank too much: Rosemary is more likely to accept his interpretation without question if he finds extra ways to blame her. (Rosemary’s apparent aversion to food is a point of connection with Carole, who appears to live on occasional lumps of sugar. It’s unclear whether Rosemary’s vigilance about her waistline is due to her husband’s preferences or to a personal desire to maintain a childlike figure that’s in service to his preferences in personality rather than physique.)
What has in fact happened, or what has happened in what we might call “the supernatural plot” (as opposed to “the paranoia plot,” since the film works so well on both interpretive levels until the ending) is that the dessert that Minnie brought over, which she calls, in her vulgarly ignorant way, “chocolate mouse,” is drugged, and Guy has colluded with the Castevets to knock out Rosemary so that she can be impregnated by Satan. However, since Rosemary has only eaten a few spoonfuls of the “mouse,” she is half-conscious during the ceremony and rape, which she experiences as a kind of acid-trippy dream that alternates between unsettling and soothing notes until we, along with Rosemary, get our glimpse of scaly monster-arms scraping along Rosemary’s naked body and animal eyes staring into our own as the rape commences, whereupon she cries out (Mia Farrow’s wide, terrified eyes and wide-open mouth looking as surrealistically distorted as anything in the sequence), “This is no dream! This is really happening!”
There are many advantages to using a surrealistic dream sequence to depict a rape. First, to objectively show a woman being raped by a monster while surrounded by elderly naked witches would not only give away the game but be at once unbearable to watch and so ridiculous that the audience could not emotionally accept the reality of the horror. On the other hand, to realistically depict a rape from the victim’s point of view would be so harrowing as to test the limits of representation. Thanks to this “artistic” solution (and the dream sequence is undeniably elegant, capturing the tone of a terrified and disoriented Rosemary’s unconscious attempts to soothe herself and using the strict horror elements with judicious spareness), we are able to stay within the confines of Rosemary’s consciousness, knowing and suspecting no more than she does, and to share as much of this private and terrible experience as we can bear – and as Rosemary can bear. Finally, arguably the sequence better captures the horror of Rosemary’s violation than simply showing a woman being attacked, objectively or subjectively, possibly could.
When, the next morning, Rosemary confronts Guy about what she thinks he’s done, explicitly challenging him, “While I was out?”, John Cassavetes brings a suitably sweaty and shifty quality to Guy’s embarrassment, nervous joking, and self-justifications. When Rosemary nevertheless sulks passive-aggressively, he concludes, “I was a little bit loaded myself, you know.” This excuse gives Rosemary some way of rationalizing staying with him, even though his comment that “it was kind of fun in a necrophile sort of way” gives an unmistakable picture of the fantasy that, according to him, surfaced with the removal of his inhibitions. Also, in keeping with the times, while Rosemary knows that her husband has done something revolting and violating, she does not seem to know that she has been raped, that is, that marital rape is possible, or is as serious a crime as non-marital rape: she says, “I dreamed that someone was raping me,” not “You raped me,” as if his disgusting sex with her led her to dream that she was raped. Given that Guy’s excuse is the lie of a man who has given his wife’s body to Satan, it seems clear, however, that despite the times, the auteur of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby is perfectly clear that having sex with your wife while she is unconscious is rape. Nevertheless, enough confusion is generated in the scene by the couple’s reactions, cultural mores, and extenuating circumstances that the audience, like Rosemary, is led to accept, however uneasily, the couple’s continued union, suppressing our moral intuitions the way that Guy wanted Rosemary to deny the “chalky undertaste” of the “mouse.” And like Rosemary, we are willing to put it out of our minds completely when the night in question results in the desired state of pregnancy, despite or because of the fact that we hardly want to associate maternal bliss at the start of a new life with rape. Since she can’t very well experience the fulfillment of her most cherished desires if her husband has raped her, Rosemary allows the power of motherhood – and denial – to blot out the past, putting her formidable will in the service of denial in order to let nothing interfere with her culturally sanctioned dream. In this way she is again like Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl, except that Maggie will stop at nothing to save her marriage, whereas the subject of Rosemary’s monomania is motherhood. Once she realizes that she’s going to have a child, it hardly matters, anyway, if her husband is a complete disappointment, since he was only a means to an end, anyway.
The Castevets and Guy rely as much on Rosemary’s determination to live the maternal dream as on her submissiveness. The next step, once she’s impregnated, is to keep her from going to an unaffiliated (so to speak) doctor, who’ll tip her off that something’s wrong; which means that no matter what happens, she has to be convinced, against the evidence of her senses, reason, and common sense, that it’s normal. In Rosemary’s Baby, as later in De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the natural states that mark a woman’s body as biologically female, pregnancy and menstruation, make that body monstrous, undergoing mysterious internal and external transformations that seem all the more violent for the way they contrast with the delight in her (socially constructed) femininity that she is supposed to experience. As Lucy Fischer writes (playing on the fact that the Woodhouse and Castevet apartments were once one), “While contemporary discourse (be it patriarchal or feminist) has often idealized childbirth and suppressed its disturbing terrain, [Rosemary’s Baby] negotiates the geography that connects these ideological quarters” (454). Unlike menstruation in Carrie, however, the transformations of the pregnant body are not directly presented as horrifying in Rosemary’s Baby. Rather, in a grotesque inversion of the ordinary experience of pregnancy, Rosemary becomes a shadow of her already wispy self: gaunt, chalky, hollow-eyed, and sweaty-faced from her constant struggle with terrible pain. Rather than making her more feminine, in the sense of more matronly, pregnancy androgynizes Rosemary. She becomes even more childlike, more fragile, but also newly liable to start snacking on raw meat, and her transformation is completed by a pixie haircut that repels her macho husband. As her appearance becomes more fetal, the fetus takes over her personality as well, giving the woman who, angelically, tries to live on air as much as she can, animal appetites that horrify her.
With her fantasies of motherhood so cruelly contradicted, Rosemary’s compliance reveals its limits, and at last she takes steps to remove herself from the circle of influence of her husband, the Castevets, and Sapirstein, and resume the old, normal life, full of friends her own age, from before the Castevets came into it. Despite Guy’s protests and sulks, she throws a party and invites their old (“I mean our young”) friends. Although Guy tries to keep things under control by sticking close to her, her female friends cluster around her in the kitchen and forcibly keep him out (creating another gender-homogenous space, like the ones in Repulsion) while Rosemary sobs out her fears and the women don’t hesitate to characterize Sapirstein as a “sadistic nut” despite Rosemary’s own tendency to protect and defend the great man against such irresponsible attacks. (Cassavetes, meanwhile, misses no opportunity to underline the fact that Guy is a bullying jerk: when he comes into the kitchen to separate Rosemary and Elise, who recommended the original obstetrician and who have, in accordance with his fears, immediately launched into a discussion about the change, he doesn’t ask Elise to help him take the food out to the guests in a polite and friendly way, but rather says her name in a manner that’s part-snap, part-whine, as if she’s the biggest asshole in the Western world to not think of it herself. In these and similar ways, director and actor suggest, do the Guys of the world reflexively chip away at the self-confidence of every woman in their vicinity.) Hearing others confirm her own thoughts, Rosemary gains the strength to have things out with Guy after the party is over. Importantly, she does so not in the name of helping her baby (even though she is afraid, with good reason, for its safety), but in the name of her own interest: when Guy says he “won’t let you do it” because it’s “not fair to Sapirstein,” she rises from the chair where’s she’s been sitting, self-protectively huddled, and advances on him, shouting, “Not fair to . . . what are you talking about, what about what’s fair to me?”
There are, broadly speaking, two ways to make a heroine interesting. Either she’s a headstrong rebel, chafing at patriarchal dictate and overturning convention, whether by “acting like a man” or by using her “feminine wiles”; or else she becomes interesting as a dramatization of the feminine position in society, which is to say, lack of access to power or authority. Another literary heroine who stands behind Rosemary is Jane Austen’s Christian heroine Fanny Price, who is not nearly as much to our modern tastes as the headstrong and outspoken Elizabeth Bennet. As a poor dependent raised in the household of her wealthy uncle and made constantly aware of her low status, Fanny has developed both diffidence and a degree of thoughtfulness that feeds it. Unlike her privileged cousins or their reckless new neighbor, Mary Crawford, Fanny is a cautious soul who would never challenge authority for her own pleasure, and the crisis point of the novel comes when she has to do so for the sake of principle, refusing a marriage proposal that her uncle approves of because she has seen evidence that the suitor is immoral. Likewise, Rosemary is not constitutionally headstrong and finds it extremely difficult to disobey her husband’s authority and decide how to dispose of her own person, but even she has her breaking point.
Guy frames the argument as though she’s being unreasonable by daring to put her judgment, and that of her friends, whom he derides as “bitches,” up against Sapirstein’s. The only way that Rosemary is even directly aware of what happened to her on the night she was raped is that, exactly like a child, she emptied the mousse into the napkin in her lap and hid it when Guy tried to browbeat her into eating it. “There, Daddy, do I get a gold star?” she coos, showing him the empty cup. The only reason the plot to impregnate Rosemary succeeds at all is that, rather than trust her taste buds that something’s wrong and refuse to eat it, she passive-aggressively scoops a few spoonfuls into her mouth, assuring him sarcastically, “No chalky aftertaste at all!” It’s not that Rosemary is never defiant, but that she has learned the strategies of a child, rather than an equal, for negotiating disagreement in her marriage.
By choosing Sapirstein’s feelings over Rosemary’s wishes and concerns about her pregnancy and health, Guy has clearly stated where his loyalties lie, and they are along lines of gender, not marriage: male doctor and husband against pregnant wife and the “bitches” who’ve reminded her that she’s a person. As absurdly unfair as this is, however, it is still possible to see it from the husband’s (though not this husband’s) point of view: if you squint, as a male viewer might, or even a female viewer on a first viewing, you may see a pregnant woman becoming anxious and deciding, “for no reason,” to switch doctors, which is certainly how Guy wants to characterize it. Given the severity of Rosemary’s condition, it seems as though only an insane person – or a control-freak chauvinist – could possibly suppose that she doesn’t have excellent reason to see a second doctor. And yet the archetype of the pregnant woman whose emotions, like her body, are out of control is so insidious that the doubt remains. And in the hypothetical husband’s defense, the magic of authority is strong, as we’ll soon see.
Again, however, when Guy has gone too far and Rosemary has endured too much and she seems to be about to leave, the cause of conflict disappears with her pain. She cries out in ecstasy and tries to get Guy to feel the newly moving baby, which he refuses to do. So instead she sits, holding her stomach, alone with her relief and exhaustion and half-demented joy, while Guy – much more intimidated by this emotion, which immediately puts her beyond caring about anything else, than he was by her anger a moment before – quickly finds an excuse to leave the room. And again, once her pregnancy is back on track, she redoubles her compliance, following Sapirstein’s instructions like a good girl – perhaps believing he was right after all, and certainly not wanting conflict to interfere with her motherhood dream.
The first several times I watched Rosemary’s Baby, in my early twenties, it did not occur to me that the film was critiquing Rosemary and Guy’s relationship. To be sure, his paternalism was obvious, and it wasn’t an enjoyable relationship to watch (even before we discover what Guy’s done in the supernatural plot). But it was clearly Rosemary’s choice to be in a relationship like this and to relate to her husband like a child, and I assumed that the movie was simply depicting a relationship like many couples would have had in the late ’60s. Which is probably true: the author of the novel Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin, also wrote The Stepford Wives, and was no doubt reacting to couples he saw around him. What I missed is that the film doesn’t present the central couple this way incidentally: gender (and not just biological femaleness) is key. Oddly, even the marital rape didn’t clue me in to the fact that traditional gender roles were being critiqued in the movie. It showed that there were serious problems with that particular relationship, but I did not, at the time, connect it with Guy’s paternalism, browbeating, and undermining of Rosemary’s belief in her judgment. The film is subtle enough to allow Guy to pass, most of the time, as a more-or-less okay husband, most of whose behavior is more-or-less acceptable within a relationship, even as he bullies Rosemary into doing everything he wants her to do. This isn’t just subtlety, however: by making the audience connive at Rosemary’s mistreatment, the film proves that the mistreatment of women is something that we all allow to happen, all the time, by rationalizing it, just as man and woman in the abusive relationship do. The audience, that is, is constantly made complicit in what happens to Rosemary, despite the degree to which we are made to share her subjective experience.
The film’s tensest, most masterful section is the one that confirms what it’s been up to all along by giving us this particular relationship between Rosemary and Guy. After Rosemary realizes that the Castevets are witches, she surmises that they want to use her baby in their rituals, and then begins to suspect her husband’s involvement. Fearing for the safety of her child, unable to trust anyone, and likely to go into labor any time, she first goes to Sapirstein’s office, but something his secretary says tips her off that he, too, is part of the conspiracy. The answer, of course, is to break out of this circle of influence and return to the normal world, where people don’t allow people to sacrifice babies to Satan.
To that end, she heads for a phone booth and calls Dr. Hill, Elise’s obstetrician. Frantic and sweating, waddling around in a little sundress with her big stomach thrust out in front of her in the middle of a New York heatwave, Rosemary seems for all the world like she’s having a nervous breakdown, as though the closer she gets to labor, the crazier she becomes. Frighteningly, the audience accepts this as logical, even though the “prepartum psychosis” that Guy later tries to tell her she had is (unlike postpartum depression) by no means part of the popular imagination. Yes, we reason, of course women regularly become so anxious prior to giving birth that they start imagining that everyone they know is in a conspiracy to kidnap and murder their baby – especially imaginative women who read books when they’ve been told not to!
The scene where Dr. Hill meets with Rosemary is perhaps even more complete in its subjectivism than the flashier dream sequence. The audience can only surmise what Hill is thinking and why he’s agreed to meet with Rosemary, since Charles Grodin’s performance gives nothing away. He can only be thinking that Rosemary is having a psychotic episode and that he needs to keep her calm and safe until her husband and physician can come for her, which is exactly what he does. Yet although we have our own skepticism about Rosemary’s theories, we also, thanks to the momentum and tension of the action since her discovery, share her subjectivity enough that we hope against all reason that Dr. Hill will believe her. Our identification with her is bolstered by her extreme vulnerability: on the run like an escaped slave, she can’t move very fast or get very far because of her physical condition, at once unwieldy and fragile, and the fact that she may give birth at any time. (Or this is our perception from the phone booth scene, although she proves to be surprisingly agile once she makes a final break for it and tried to lock herself inside her apartment; to no avail, since the witches can get in through the closet, which they do, tiptoeing past her behind her back with unparalleled paranoiac comedic creepiness.)
Finally deciding to stake everything on her judgment now that she believes her baby’s life is at stake, Rosemary discovers that no one will believe her not only because she sounds crazy, but because her voice has no authority behind it. Dr. Hill isn’t one of the witches, isn’t part of the conspiracy, but he isn’t outside of it, either. The problem is not the sinister authority of Dr. Sapirstein, but authority altogether: all men in prominent positions, and to a lesser extent all men, make up the broader system of which the witches are only a part. That’s why it seems to be a turning point in the conversation when Rosemary tells Hill the name of her obstetrician and Hill looks at her in surprise. “You’d never know it to look at him,” Rosemary adds weakly, aware that she’s made a faux pas. It’s just possible that up until then, Dr. Hill was, as he claimed, willing to give provisional credence to her notion that someone is out to get her and her baby, and given that the Manson murders (including the murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate) would take place almost exactly a year from the time of the film’s release, his stated concern about “maniacs and crazy people” is not far-fetched. Once Rosemary names a famous man, well known outside of the world of witches, however, her fate is sealed: the authority of Sapirstein’s gender and prestige utterly crushes whatever claims to chivalry Rosemary may have as an imperiled pregnant woman.
Polanski, Female Experience, and Subjective Cinema
In Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, gendered experience engenders horror. The horror of these films has to do with living in a female body, due both to physical facts about such bodies and to the social construction of gender. Carole’s mental theatre, in Repulsion, is an additional source of horror, as her mind gives way under the stress of her gendered experience. In contrast, in Rosemary’s Baby the horror is always in what is happening to Rosemary: whether she is being bullied and browbeaten by her husband, imposed on by neighbors, ordered around by her doctor, brutalized from inside by her fetus, or, as we eventually learn, having her body used by witches. In both films, however, because the heroines’ experience is where most of the horror in the films is located, the viewer is made to share that experience, even as we retain enough distance from Carole and Rosemary to be horrified by, as well as with, Carole, and to doubt Rosemary’s judgment.
Shelley Stamp writes of the monstrous-feminine in Carrie, “Carrie’s adolescent body becomes the site upon which monster and victim converge, and we are encouraged to postulate that a monster resides inside her” (332). Carole and Rosemary are also at once the monsters and the victims of their films: victims of their bodies, victims of male attackers, and victims of a patriarchal society. It is, of course, hardly unusual for the monster of a horror narrative to also be perceived as a victim. In De Palma’s own work, Carrie is predated by Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a rock-opera adaptation of the The Phantom of the Opera in which the male monster-protagonist suffers at least as much as Carrie. The difference is that Carrie, like Carole and Rosemary, are victims of their own, female bodies. I am less interested than Stamp is in determining whether this conception of the female body and “essence” (since menstruation and pregnancy are markers of gender difference as few things are) are misogynous projections or reflect authentic aspects of female experience. For one thing, there’s no sure way to separate out what, in one’s subjective experience, is authentic from what is socially mediated. Nor does the female viewer necessarily have to choose between finding the female experience represented onscreen authentic and judging it a social construct: for me, Repulsion is an authentic representation of female sexual subjectivity because it highlights the madness-inducing contradictions in the social construction of femininity and female sexuality.
In the first two films of the Apartment Trilogy, then, gender, subjectivity, and horror are intertwined: being embodied and socially constructed as a woman is the horror, and the audience is made to share in this experience by the films’ representations of the female protagonists’ subjectivity. But how exactly does Polanski manage to bring us so close to his heroines’ experience?
One is tempted to imagine that the answer involves a lot of point-of-view shots. However, in Polanski and Perception, Davide Caputo points out that Polanski’s camera is characteristically “tethered” to the protagonist, resulting in “a visual style in which we, as spectators, are connected to a single character within the diegesis, rather than roaming through diegetic space to watch action that takes place between a variety of characters” (40), and that the viewer for the most part “observes the action of the film not from some extra-diegetic point of privilege (i.e., behind a fourth wall), but from somewhere within the diegetic space” (41). Writing about Repulsion, Caputo expands on these ideas, stating that “for the most part, we experience the film by way of Carole (including the episodes that we can identify as being hallucinatory), [but] we are not Carole” (101), and, again, that “Carole is more the object of our voyeuristic gaze than she is an on-screen surrogate” (102). He even notes that Polanski maintains the camera’s observational stance where another director would switch to shot-countershot, as in the scene where Colin intrudes on Carole’s lunch (101-2). Another such example occurs in Rosemary’s Baby during the after-party argument where Rosemary tells Guy that she wants to go to Dr. Hill for a second opinion: here the camera maintains a theatre-like neutrality, with emotions and intentions communicated, as in the theatre, by voice, body language, and blocking, rather than by occupying the (literal) point of view of the characters.
Although we are not Carole, “for most of the film, we are tethered, to varying degrees of intimacy, to her subjective perceptual/narrative reach” (101), which is how “tethering” contributes to our sense of sharing Carole’s subjectivity: for the most part, we only know what Carole knows, and only see what she sees. This is even more the case in Rosemary’s Baby, where there is no equivalent to Colin, and Rosemary’s interpretation of what is going on around her becomes increasingly important to the plot. Even here, though, Polanski is not rigid about these things: there are a few moments during the party scene where we see Guy on his own, looking anxious and looking around for Rosemary, and in a given scene Rosemary may not witness a character’s expression or even (in the case of the tiptoeing witches) actions.
However, there are many single-protagonist films where the camera is largely restricted to the protagonist’s narrative reach, so that can hardly be the reason for the sense of having an unusual degree of access to the protagonist’s subjectivity in these films. The second reason for this sense is that we are given access to the protagonist’s purely subjective experiences: hallucinations in Repulsion, and hallucinations, memories, and dreams in Rosemary’s Baby. As Caputo discusses, such episodes are part of Polanski’s commitment to making the cinematic experience immersive, which went as far as a mid-’70s attempt to create a new 3-D effect in collaboration with psychologist Richard L. Gregory (37). Is Carole’s experience of sensory overload in the hallway as she’s caressed by disembodied male hands representative of the kind of effect Polanski would have liked to achieve with his cinema? Failing that, Polanski turns his attention, in Repulsion, to transmitting tactile sensations, odors, and visceral experiences to the viewer through visual attention to texture and to disgust-evoking sights. Instead of concentrating disgust in a single figure of horror, Polanski ensures that throughout Repulsion, we, like Carole, feel low-level queasiness punctuated by crisis moments of sudden, acute disgust. Although in one such case, the discovery of the rotting rabbit head, it’s not Carole’s horror we share (in this moment Carole’s madness takes the form not of feeling disgust where we wouldn’t, but not feeling it where we would), but her co-worker’s. We may not be Carole, but we have been made, through Polanski’s evoking of sensations, to understand something about how Carole experiences the world.
The third reason we feel that we are sharing the experiences of Carole and Rosemary is that we observe them in such intimate situations: we follow the half-nude (and sometimes completely nude) Carole around her apartment for days on end; we follow the anxieties and tribulations and terrors of Rosemary’s pregnancy; we even closely observe them as they are being sexually assaulted. I would therefore challenge Caputo’s notion that the observer, in the position of the tethered camera, is a “voyeur.” The intimacy of what we witness; our access to the protagonists’ purely subjective experiences; in Repulsion, the communication of the protagonist’s state of mind by making us share her nausea; the fact that we are claustrophobically confined to characters who are claustrophobically confined: all of these things serve to bring us a great deal closer to the characters than the term “voyeur” suggests. We are indeed voyeurs, however, if that means being privy to intimate experiences that no one would normally observe and that, in the case of subjective mental experience, no one could observe.
The Tenant: “They’ll Never Turn Me into Simone Schule!”
The sense of The Tenant as providing an autobiographical, metatextual commentary on the earlier apartment films comes not from any one fact, but from several in combination: that The Tenant has so many elements in common with the two earlier films; that Polanski shares with the character the narratively/biographically crucial details of ethnicity and foreigner status; and that the plot involves a man believing that he is turning into a woman, and on some level, a male artist who represents the subjectivity of women can be said to have “turned himself into a woman.” In Polanski’s case, we do not simply have a director who has represented the subjectivity of protagonists who happen to be women, but one who, I have argued, is interested in representing the gendered experience of these protagonists.
None of this means that The Tenant is an intentional metatextual commentary on the earlier films, however. It may simply be that Polanski wanted to inhabit the main character roles in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in a different (more direct?) way than by writing and directing. This seems to be the opinion of Deneuve, who is quoted in Denis Meikle’s Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out as saying, “I think Roman was frustrated by not being able to be the girl of Repulsion and he did [The Tenant] as something very related to me in Repulsion” (219). And yet it’s as though in coming closer to the female “character” of the earlier films in this way, Polanski must find another way to distance himself from the material – including, paradoxically, the use of subjective camera. The Tenant proves that not only is being presented with a character’s subjective experiences insufficient for identification, it may actually work against identification, depending on the content of those experiences and the way in which they are presented. Polanski may assume the Deneuve/Farrow role in The Tenant, but Trelkovsky is less sympathetic than those characters both overall and specifically in those scenes in which he undergoes experiences similar to theirs.
One way to describe The Tenant is to say that it starts out as Rosemary’s Baby, with Trelkovsky’s neighbors seemingly involved in a conspiracy against him that, however, may be his paranoid imaginings, and turns into Repulsion, with Trelkovsky revealed as a dangerous, delusional, and hallucinating madman whose beliefs can have only the most tenuous connection to reality. This is not an especially satisfying trajectory, since, compared to Carole, whose madness centers on her feelings about sex, or even to Rosemary in the paranoia plot, who would naturally connect the history of her building to anxiety about her marriage and pregnancy, Trelkovsky develops obsessions and delusions that are opaque: why would his neighbors want him to become a woman? And what do mummies and hieroglyphs have to do with anything? If Trelkovsky’s paranoia has its basis in his Parisian neighbors’ perception of his foreignness, what do xenophobia and antisemitism have to do with either changing sex or Egyptology?
Because we have so much trouble understanding Trelkovsky, he is not, unlike Carole, especially sympathetic or compelling once he’s revealed as mad. The missing objective correlative of Trelkovsky’s madness is as conspicuous as Simone Schule’s missing tooth, so that his bizarre behavior becomes pure spectacle: quite literally, in the proto-reality TV/Hunger Games finale, in which the courtyard becomes a theatre and his neighbors and love interest a bloodthirsty audience avidly awaiting his suicide. The sympathy that we easily could have for him even in that madness, and initially do have for him, as a seemingly sensitive, isolated, and evidently powerless man, is thrown away. Trelkovsky’s growing isolation means isolation even from the viewer’s comprehension and sympathy.
As far as we are able to make any connection between Trelkovsky and his fate, it is in the way that his timidity could allow his identity to be overwhelmed by the mysterious woman whose presence continues to haunt the place where she committed suicide. In the Apartment Trilogy, one gender is always “haunted by,” that is, overwhelmed and threatened by invasion by, the other. While Trelkovsky is not initially as obviously disturbed as the dissociated Carole at the beginning of Repulsion, he shares with her and Rosemary the quality of letting others impose on him. His macho, or “normal male,” co-workers think that is the problem with him, which the most obnoxious of them demonstrates by playing marching music in his own apartment at deafening decibel levels and refusing to relent when a meek neighbor pleads on behalf of his sick wife.1 Ironically, despite his invisibility, Trelkovsky still makes his presence known more than his neighbors would prefer, as though no matter how much he tries to shrink inside himself to avoid being a nuisance, any sign of life at all is too much.
In the sequences in the café across from the building, we watch his problems with asserting his identity play out in a different way. The first time, he orders a coffee, and while he chats with the owner about Simone Schule, the owner makes him a cup of chocolate, the drink she always ordered, forgetting his request. Trelkovsky doesn’t complain about the chocolate (to quote Scottie Ferguson: “It can’t matter to you!”) but refuses her brand of cigarettes, Marlboros, when he learns that they are out of his brand. During the second visit, he accepts the chocolate, which the owner apparently now assumes is his drink, and when the owner unconsciously rings up a pack of Marlboros when he asks for Gauloises, and then explains that they’re out of Gauloises, Trelkovsky accepts the Marlboros too. The owner brings them to him with a beatific expression, as though he has a personal investment in this choice. The rhythm of these scenes is that of Rosemary accepting or refusing Minnie’s herbal drinks and charms depending on how her pregnancy is going: like Trelkovsky, she prefers to be accommodating, but has her limits. The third time we see him in the café, after he has dressed up as Simone Schule and realized that his neighbors are plotting to turn him into her and drive him to suicide as they did her, he attempts to foil their plan by refusing both the Marlboros and the chocolate, and when he learns that not only are they out of Gauloises, as usual, but the coffee machine is broken, he shrieks at them in his high-pitched Simone Schule voice, declaring them (along with the neighbors) a “gang of murderers.”
The Marlboros recur as a symbol of the plot to turn him into Simone Schule: when he orders them voluntarily at a newsstand where everyone else is getting Gauloises; on the table with Simone Schule’s makeup after his first night (as far as we know) in drag; waved at him by a demonic version of the café owner in his paranoid hallucinations as he drags himself away, broken and bloody, to throw himself out his window a second time. The connection Trelkovsky has made between the evil plot and the innocuous cigarettes is so ludicrous that the campy effect can only be what Polanski desires, even though it undercuts our ability to identify or sympathize with the character.
The initial rupture in our identification with Trelkovsky occurs when Polanski settles the question of his sanity by alternating between shots of Trelkovsky strangling himself, the homeless woman watching him, and his subjective vision of her as the dragon lady ringleader of his neighbors, Madame Dioz, strangling him. Nothing like this occurs in Repulsion, where we see Carole reacting, and overreacting, to threats emanating from real people, and we see her rape fantasies as she sees them. We do not see her flailing in bed, reacting to a fantasy attacker, or cut between this objective view of her and her fantasy. In the scene where she kills the landlord, while Polanski does give us an “objective” shot of her from the landlord’s (theoretical) point of view, looking demented, he does not also cut between the objective view of the landlord, looking terrified, and some vision Carole has of him as a literal monster. The actual threat he poses to her, and what we can assume he represents to her, are sufficient, and don’t make his gruesome death less horrific. In the self-strangling scene, showing us Trelkovsky’s hallucination doesn’t cause us to share, and therefore to some extent understand, his experience, but rather underscores his insanity, his alienness.
An even greater rupture of viewer identification occurs, however, in the very scenes in which Polanski asserts his identification with the heroines of the earlier apartment films: the scenes in which Trelkovsky transforms himself into Simone Schule, with makeup, wig, false eyelashes, dress, heels, and stockings, and (we learn for certain in a memorable shot from the suicide sequence) panties, and tops it off by cooing to an imaginary feminine interlocutor, “I think I’m pregnant.” Rosemary, too, undergoes a physical transformation that renders her grotesque (and somewhat androgynous) in appearance, but the effect is to make her seem even more vulnerable, which increases viewer empathy. Trelkovsky, on the other hand, is engaging in boundary-blurring behavior that unnerves many viewers. But what, other than over-valuation of gender norms, is the source of that unease?
In her classic essay “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,” Barbara Creed, applying Kristeva to the horror film, defines “that which crosses or threatens to cross [a] ‘border’” as “abject,” and therefore monstrous, and includes as examples from horror films “the border which separates those who take up their proper gender roles from those who do not” (42). More intuitively, the border in question is between male and female, and the unease caused by Trelkovsky is not that his masquerade produces confusion, but that it calls attention to, and juxtaposes, differences. Given that Trelkovsky makes such an unsuccessful man, mild-mannered and tiny-statured, it seems strikingly unfair that he should be too masculine to make a successful woman, but Polanski makes no attempt to ameliorate the details, the hairy arms and bulky calves, that show us the gap between Trelkovsky’s fantasy and reality. And it is this gap, as in the scene where Carole gives herself a clown-mouth in preparation for her unavoidable “date,” like a child who doesn’t know how to use makeup, that makes him grotesque: what Diane Arbus called “the gap between intention and effect.”
The trans rights movement has made the idea of gender as an unbridgeable chasm seem quaint: gender is in the mind, not the body. In The Tenant, however, the male body is an insuperable obstacle to achieving womanhood. Motherhood is just the symbol of the inability to fully experience what the other biological sex experiences, and the desire expressed by cross-dressing here is not to have one’s appearance correspond to one’s gender, as it would be for a trans person, but to have impossible experiences. Although Trelkovsky does become Simone Schule in the end, it’s not by becoming a woman but by becoming a genderless being, where the absence of gender is part of a general absence of identity markers.
The nighttime sequence in which “Simone Schule” makes her first appearance (as far as we know) is a tour de force of immersive cinema that combines several elements from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. There are subjective distortions of space of the kind that occur in Repulsion after Carole kills; in this case, the added factor that accounts for this extended, radical break with veridical perception is Trelkovsky’s apparent fever. As an extended sequence of hallucination during which Trelkovsky witnesses many bizarre things without explanation, it resembles Rosemary’s “baby night”; and like Rosemary, he awakens from it to find that the integrity of his body has been violated while he was unconscious. However, we are forced to believe that at some point during the heady night Trelkovsky pulled out his own tooth, just as Carole can only be her own victim during her “dates,” which are riotous enough that she wakes up the next morning on the floor outside of the room. Trelkovsky, however, accounts for both his missing tooth – which he finds in the hole in the wall together with Simone Schule’s previously discovered tooth – and the evidence of his Simone Schule drag with the logical conclusion that his neighbors did it to him.
The climax to Trelkovsky’s night that we do see is twofold: when he makes it to the bathroom, the walls of which are covered in hieroglyphs, he looks through the window and sees himself peering at himself through his binoculars, as if to suggest that his vulgar male co-workers were right and he is the aggressor, a Peeping Tom, rather than the people he’s been watching as they stand eerily still and gaze at him through the bathroom window.2 It also, of course, suggests the strange self-doubling, or self-estrangement, of playing the main character in his own film. When he gets back to his apartment, he looks through the window and now sees a mummy standing in the bathroom window, which unwraps the bandages around its face to reveal the head of a woman with a tooth missing: Simone Schule, laughing.
Presumably it’s after this vision that Trelkovsky gives himself a makeover that includes the crucial detail of the missing tooth. Fittingly, since he feels that he is being turned into a woman, Trelkovsky’s obsession with missing teeth and limbs and his fear of literally losing his head, as well as the recurrence of holes (Simone’s mouth, the hole her body made in the awning, and the hole in the wall where he discovers her tooth), have unavoidable connotations of castration anxiety. And it makes sense that this fear would assume the role of the exposure to rape in the earlier films, since Polanski bases his horror in these films in gender-specific bodily vulnerability and the anxieties to which it can give rise.
Specifically, Trelkovsky has three fears, all of which are linked: the fear of becoming a woman, which we can assume conceals a desire to become a woman, comparable to Carole’s ambivalence about sex; the fear of losing his identity, a fear that may have its source in his passive personality and his foreigner’s sense that, just as men would like it a lot better if Rosemary never had a thought or opinion of her own, the French would like it if he could just stop being different, if possible by being silent and invisible; and his fear of castration, which has connotations both of losing his identity and of being violently transformed into a woman. The psychology is there, but the logic of the conspiracy is turbid: there are surely simpler ways to drive your neighbor to suicide than breaking into his apartment, dressing him in drag, and performing a sadistic act of unnecessary dentistry. Although admittedly, that would probably do the trick.
The scenes in the café demonstrate the game that Polanski is playing with paranoia, subjectivity, and the viewer’s perceptions in The Tenant. On the one hand, we have a naturalistic, if somewhat comedic, explanation for the owner’s behavior: Trelkovsky makes so little impression, and is so unwilling to assert himself, that the man seemingly does not hear, or instantly forgets, what he’s asked for, and from then on they get his order wrong. On the other, it does seem like a strange coincidence that they are always out of Gauloises when he’s there (then again, maybe not, given their popularity in the newsstand scene!) and that, on top of that, the coffee machine is broken on the very day he chooses to insist on the hot beverage he really wants. However, it’s only a strange coincidence if you suspect there’s a plot afoot to turn him into Simone Schule; otherwise, it’s just comic irony. In the “evil plot” column, there’s also the owner’s expression when he gives the Marlboros to Trelkovsky, but this is not the only time that the film seemingly switches to Trelkovsky’s paranoid perspective without warning (in this case, in mid-shot).
Again, nothing like this occurs in Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby: we understand that Carole is paranoid from her actions, and we understand that Rosemary is paranoid from her words, but there is no attempt to visually represent a “paranoid perspective” on the other characters. The one partial exception in Repulsion is the camera’s attention to the workman after Carole passes him, discussed above. The shot conveys Carole’s sexual paranoia to the viewer and makes us share it by briefly giving it seeming objective confirmation; however, even here, the man’s expression is arguably not intrinsically sinister, but is made so by the way in which it is shot: the expressive camera movement, with the camera, up until then following Carole, suddenly gravitating toward him (like Carole’s attention, or anxiety); the way his face seems to veer dangerously close to the viewer as the camera passes him; and the way the bright light and stark shadows emphasize the crack-like lines on his face and spaces between his teeth, inducing us, as with the shots of the elderly women’s faces in the beauty parlor, to contemplate the nausea-inducing, inhuman qualities of the human face. We are not, that is, given a version of the man that only Carole sees, which would serve to underline the discontinuity between her perception and reality; rather, the camera, standing in for Carole’s paranoid frame of mind, shows us how she can see him this way, which underlines the continuity between her perception and reality. Or, in Rosemary’s Baby, although Rosemary’s scenes with Dr. Hill do seem to be colored by her paranoia, this effect is the result of Charles Grodin’s unreadability, not of anything villainous in his appearance or manner.
The scene in which Trelkovsky tells Stella about his neighbors’ plot against him could not be more different in effect from these scenes with Dr. Hill. At this point in Rosemary’s Baby, we have all kinds of evidence that Rosemary is correct in identifying the neighbors who have taken such an insistent interest in her pregnancy as witches: Hutch, who doesn’t seem crazy, seems to think so, and we’ve witnessed much bigger coincidences – blindness and a coma that leads to death – than a café always being out of your brand of cigarettes. In fact, the only reasons we don’t believe Rosemary are that witches don’t exist – which shouldn’t really be a problem in a movie – and, especially, as noted, our irrational belief that women who are about to give birth are likely to be hysterical megalomaniacs. Trelkovsky, however, we already know to be insane, and his particular delusion, while not impossible, like Rosemary’s, doesn’t make any sense, which is somehow worse.