Upon hearing the news of Roman Polanski's arrest Sunday, and after arguing, discussing and thinking about the horribly mishandled case, especially by the late Judge Laurence Rittenband, and of course, the wrongful actions of Polanski towards young Samantha Geimer in 1977, I posted my take on Polanski's brilliant Repulsion at the Huffington Post. From Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess, Death and the Maiden, Bitter Moon and other pictures, I've always contended that Polanski has depicted women with complication, humanity, ugliness and most important, empathy. Polanski is an artist, an acute observer of life's darkness and absurdities on the level of Dostoevsky or Nietzsche. I write this not to defend statutory rape, I write this to study the visions of a troubled, talented human being, a human being who has gone through real horror himself and a human being who also happens to be one of the greatest filmmakers alive.
But before discussing Repulsion, I wrote this, very briefly at the Huffington Post: "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."
This caused a flurry of outraged comments. Though many readers appreciated my essay, many slammed me for what they thought read as a defense of Polanski through his movies, Repulsion in particular. The Washington City Paper's blogger The Sexist wrote: "Congratulations, the Huffington Post’s Kim Morgan:You win the prize of penning the most disgusting defense of Polanski I’ve read to date!"
Well if I get a prize, I'll hand a gold statue to The Post News blogger who wrote a bizarre, creepy take on my piece: "Kim Morgan claims she’s setting aside her arguments for the right to rape children, and instead does some film criticism of Repulsion in an effort to suggest that Polanski can’t be a rapist, because he understands women , and their dark desires -- hint, hint, his 13-year-old victim was asking for it when she cried and said no and begged to go home. Polanski knows women better than they know themselves, she says. He knows, apparently, that 13-year-olds are dying to be raped, even if they continue to say no after the fact by pressing charges... Morgan’s insinuation that rape is some secret desire of women everywhere, and especially of junior high school girls."
I'm not sure how to respond to this this Andrea Dworkin-style foaming of the mouth, other than, I'm happy that she actually dug into my piece this deeply and at least saw some of the dual desires of women. Or, rather, what she views what I see. Even if she erroneously believes I'm saying Polanski can't be a rapist, because he understands women. And even if she thinks I'm a sick fuck.
And here from, Wet Asphalt: "Frankly, this argument is the most blatant example of starfucking to be found and that Repulsion is in fact a piece of shit has no more bearing on the argument than does the fact that Chinatown is a masterpiece. The ONLY reason a 'film and culture' writer like Kim Morgan would be 'ranting and raving' at all about anything related to this case is because Roman Polanski is a famous person and Kim Morgan is a starfucker." Yeah. I've got no response to that one.
Though I understand the sensitivity and complexity of the matter, I find some of the hysteria bordering on insane. The emails I've received range from polite disagreement to articulatete salvos, to bizarre wishes that I should be or had been raped for my current defense of Polanski. Since I was 13 many years ago, and a woman myself, it's interesting to me that defenders of rape don't stop to think that perhaps, I might actually know a thing or two about such matters.
My stance has been that I believe the case should have moved along as originally settled by all parties, and not turned into the witch hunt it has become. Even, Roger Gunson, the Assistant DA who led the original prosecution, has expressed his problems with Judge Rittenband's conduct and stated that "under those circumstances" he wasn't surprised that Polanski fled. And I think that, for the sake of Samantha Geimer, this should have been laid to rest decades ago.
I'm re-running my piece on Repulsion, a movie I have deep, personal feelings for, again (I've written about it many times here) and not to defend the man's original actions, but to explicate his art and empathetic depiction of women. Here, again, Repulsion.
Erotic Rotting Rabit:
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, Repulsionis 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 lovesdoing 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.