Catherine Deneuve: Tristana | Repulsion | Belle de Jour

Film Actresses & Global Classics


In this series I offer my reflections on actresses and their most compelling performances in (mostly) classics of global cinema.


Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux & John Fraser as Colin in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, 1965

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

In Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve plays Carole Ledoux, a young woman terrified of her own desire, unable to integrate her sexuality into her self-experience, let alone into a relationship with a man (or woman, for that matter). Why? We don’t know: Repulsion is a work of art, not a clinical case (Carole is not another Marnie). And it is precisely because we don’t know that Carole’s subjective viewpoint in the film is so effective: Not given any clue (except for a single family photo), we are thrown back upon ourselves; we then sense, somewhere in our buried past, that for us too sex was—at least potentially—a trauma. While none of us, no doubt, could imagine the fear of sex leading us to madness and murder, we can nevertheless feel that Carole is not alien to us. This, then, is the challenge Deneuve faced in playing Carole: to convey the humanity of a ‘psychotic’, to restore the link with us that the ‘schizophrenic’ has ruptured. This she accomplishes brilliantly.

(For those interested, the best discussion of schizophrenia I know of is that of Christopher Bollas in When the Sun Bursts.)

Deneuve was twenty-one when making Repulsion. In the audio commentary to the Criterion DVD of the film, she says: ‘The fact that I was very shy and very young—the age of the character—helped the credibility of the actress. I think in Repulsion I look very romantic and very wild [‘wild’ is her rendering of the French ‘sauvage’, which in this context means ‘introverted’, ‘withdrawn’, ‘shy’] and that is not something Roman could have asked me to play, that is the way I was and the way he used me.’ Polanski, for his part, says: ‘Catherine was somebody I knew in Paris. A very quiet girl, with quite a sense of humour.’ And in one of the interviews he gave upon the release of the film, he said: ‘She looks like a professional virgin, but sexy’. (Note, in passing, that Deneuve gave birth to her son, Christian Vadim, when she was nineteen: still in her teens, she wanted to be a mother.) Both physically and in terms of temperament, then, there were certain points of correspondence between the woman, the actress and the role.

Catherine Deneuve, aged 21, in Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

In another ‘bonus’ on the Criterion DVD, we see Polanski directing Deneuve on set (a French TV station filmed part of a day’s shooting), and the discussion between director and actress concerns how to render Carole’s madness. Here Polanski—a man with cinema flowing through his veins and an accomplished actor to boot—gives Deneuve a vocabulary of gesture, movement and gaze that she would modulate to render the precise degree of Carole’s sexual panic at any given moment in the narrative. Note, in passing, that Carole’s panic is always triggered by something concrete—the sight of a couple on a bridge, the scent of an undershirt, the sound of lovemaking, the touch of a dress—and that only the sense of taste, procured by actively taking something physical into the body (as in sex) is absent from the set of trigger events.

This points us to the question of ‘choice of symptom’ (see my post on ISABELLE ADJANI): Today Carole, rather than ‘choosing’ psychosis or schizophrenia in an attempt at self-cure, would probably choose anorexia (see ANOREXIA in the WORLD OF MARA MARIETTA). Indeed, in contemporary culture, anorexia is often the preferred means to deny the body and refuse sexuality. But to return to the topic at hand: Polanski (in the Criterion DVD commentary) compares working with Deneuve to dancing a tango, with the actress following the director’s lead. Carole’s nervous tics (swiping her nose with her fingers, for example) came out of this ‘tango’, and prompted Polanski to say: ‘Catherine picked things up marvellously, she would suck up any acting proposition like a sponge. She would do it in such a natural way that when looking at it you’re sure that it’s just spontaneous, that she’s not aware of doing it’. To call that talent doesn’t get one very far, for only Deneuve’s availability, a function of her freedom, enabled her to lend herself so fully to Carole’s madness and incarnate it so effectively. ‘It was through those details that Polanski really put me in the scenes’, Deneuve adds. Yes, but once ‘put’ in a scene she had to ‘be’ there in a way that ‘an incalculable, unpredictable moment’ could arise, a moment that would foster ‘an increase of being’. If such moments are plentiful in Repulsion, it is largely because of Deneuve’s ability to so ‘be’.

‘Out, damned spot’: not the guilt of murder, but the scent of sex

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

When it comes to sex, all of us have experienced longing and frustration, but where along the continuum of love and madness does desire tip into terror? Carole is courted in South Kensington by Colin, a handsome, affable young man with a sports car to boot. But he is not Carole’s type: she is only turned on by ‘masculine’ men, men who don’t wrap sex in love, men like her sister Helen’s married boyfriend, Michael, or better still, the workman in the street who calls out to her: ‘Hello, darling. How about a bit of the other, then?’. Alone in her flat Carole has recurring hallucinations, fantasies in which she imagines the workman raping her, but when Colin tries to steal a kiss she wipes it off her lips and rushes home to brush her teeth (in front of the same mirror where, later, she will dreamily examine Michael’s cut-throat razor).

Every woman has experienced desire for an ‘animalistic’ lover over a ‘civilized’ man (as in Belle de Jour; see also Kim Morgan’s Huffington Post article, ‘Roman Polanski Understands Women: Repulsion’), and this deep-rooted dynamic, usually played out only in fantasy or sex-play, is another connection between Carole’s ‘deranged’ mind and the audience’s ‘normal’ one. As for acting the murder and rape scenes, this is what Deneuve had to say (Criterion commentary): ‘It’s never a job to do a rape scene, because it’s physical, it’s not a difficult thing to do because you have physical contact with someone, you’re not acting anymore… The killing and the physical scenes in the film were not the most difficult part for me. It’s like scenes where you have to shout or you have excessive things to do, in a way it helps you to act because you have to get into it and do it. It’s when it’s very subtle and you have to be really in the mood because you have nothing from outside to help you to go through it and to go to the peak of it, then you have to go down and go deep and take that from within yourself, but when you have to express things, once you are warmed up, and you rehearse and you work, you get into the scene.’ Deneuve’s assertion about acting, then, parallels the music truism that it’s easier to play a bravura piece than to play a slow piece well.

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve and Ian Hendry, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

‘Schizoids destroy themselves by protecting themselves too much’ (Avodah Offit, The Sexual Self, p. 92): This is an argument one can make about Carole. Deneuve, understanding the multi-dimensionality of the role, said (in the Criterion commentary): ‘Carol finally feels safe in a nest and she’s in those arms where she would have liked to be. She’s not safe for herself but she at least feels protected. That’s the image I have, of Carole being in the arms of her boyfriend. Attraction and repulsion are completely mixed together, but I suppose she has to be in that physical state to accept that she can be in his arms. She has to go through all that, it couldn’t happen another way.’ This is a profound insight, and it testifies to Deneuve’s intelligence and lucidity. It must have helped her trace the arc of Carole’s descent into madness while never losing sight of her humanity. Even if she understood that Carole’s fear of sex is pathological, she suspended that view, as it were, in order to play her as a real woman and not as a ‘case’: ‘I think Carole is a very normal person that you have to identify with. It’s very disturbing, because Carole is not someone so peculiar that you see her as a case, she’s someone you feel very close to’ (Deneuve, Criterion commentary).

Today, Deneuve still speaks very highly of Repulsion and Polanski. As a young actress with no formal training, she learned important elements of her craft from him. Besides specific principles such as the importance of gestural precision, there was the more general principle of surprise. As Polanski put it (Criterion commentary): ‘What makes acting interesting is when the reaction is authentic, real, and yet original, not what you actually anticipate as a reaction. For example, when Helen comes into Carole’s bedroom and reproaches her, usually Carole would turn and answer something or react while looking at Helen, but she reacts here like a child, by just ignoring her question. It makes it more interesting.’ This prompts the question, of course, of the relative weight of the contributions from writer, director and actress. While everyone agrees that it’s the director who calls the shots, the fact remains that it’s the actress who incarnates them: her screen ‘presence’ is vital. And it is in this regard that Deneuve’s ‘nihilism of beauty’ comes into play: By the quality of her ‘presence’, she incarnates in Carole a beauty that  inspires desire and the quest for transcendence, even as it transforms that quest into a desire for transgression. This, I would argue, is a key feature of Deneuve’s singularity, and accounts for much of what makes her great in Repulsion.

Catherine Deneuve and Patrick Wymark, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve: ‘She has to be in that physical state to accept that she can be in his arms’.


Catherine Deneuve and John Fraser, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve and Mike Pratt, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Avodah Offit, The Sexual Self

Criterion Collection DVD, Repulsion, Roman Polanski

Christopher Bollas, When the Sun Bursts

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved