“Three is One” is a new feature here on the blog. The idea is to examine three different movies that have something in common and see in which ways they differ from one another.
This first installment will be about three psychological thrillers in which women lose their minds, or perhaps have lost them already: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Robert Altman’s Images and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. All three films put an emphasis on female sexuality in various ways, and they all feature plenty of ambiguity about what is actually really and what is merely hallucinations.
Catherine Deneuve plays Carole, a young woman who lives in a London apartment with her sister and works as a manicurist. Carole has a big problem with men. She’s noticeably uncomfortable around them, which creates conflict with her sexual urges (the source of this aversion of hers is never revealed, making her case the most mysterious of the three films). When her sister goes on a holiday, Carole is left alone in their home. It’s around this time her sanity starts slipping. She spends more and more time at home, never leaving except to go to work. Strange noises are heard, threatening shadows loom outside her bedroom door and the entire apartment seems to be decaying.
Repulsion is the first part of Polanski’s Apartment trilogy. It’s followed by Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, two other movies that deal with themes similar to Repulsion’s, albeit with different slants. Rosemary’s Baby has Rosemary feeling paranoid about whether the child she’s carrying might be the spawn of the devil, and The Tenant deals with social anxieties as a man tries to fit in with his new neighbors. They’re both really good films and naturally make for interesting comparing and contrasting with Repulsion.
In some ways, Susanna York‘s Cathryn is the odd woman out in this trio of protagonist. Whereas Repulsion’s Carole and Black Swan’s Nina seem inexperienced and hesitant to indulge in matters sexual, Cathryn has taken the plunge already. She’s a married woman who, we learn, has more than once had affairs with other men. While she might seem confident on the surface, the guilt she’s feeling over these marital transgressions is eating her up inside, leading to her schizophrenia. Unlike in the other two films, this manifests itself almost right as the film starts, leading us to think that Cathryn’s mental issues might have been ongoing for a while.
Fittingly for this more progressed state of mental frailty, Images is presented in a much more dreamlike fashion than Repulsion and Black Swan. In those two films, there are isolated incidents that seem like they are mere hallucinations the protagonists are experiencing. In Images, there is precious little we can be certain is actually happening in reality. With odd scene-to-scene transitions, characters turning into other characters and two different Cathryns running around, the whole thing seems like a fevered dream.
In Black Swan, we find a character whose mental breakdown is fuelled not just by her sexual hang-ups but also by an obsession with perfection. Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer who ends up being cast as the lead in a production of Swan Lake. The pressure to perform the part flawlessly (spurred on by the presence of a potential rival in Mila Kunis‘ Lily), combined with her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) trying to coax forth a more sensual side from her using some unorthodox measures, is what pushes Nina to the brink of sanity.
Both her sexual and professional issues stem from her mother, played with a restrained chill by Barbara Hershey. A former dancer herself who had her career cut short due to her pregnancy, she has been pushing Nina from early years to achieve the fame she herself never did. In the scenes taking place in their apartment, we are repeatedly shown signs of how Nina has never been allowed to grow up. Her pink bedroom is decorated like that of a little girl’s. The mother is overprotective and uses psychological warfare to guilt her daughter into doing what she wants. Being brought up by that woman would turn anyone’s mind into a mess. One could argue that she’s the closest thing to a real antagonist to show up in any of these films, although she’s still far from the classic mold of a movie villain.
Looking at the three different lead performances in these movies, there is a lot of difference in the ways the actresses portray their characters. In Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve plays Carole as a reserved and timid woman, seemingly unaware of her beauty. She seems somewhat detached, vacant, at times apathetic to the strange things she’s experiencing. Only a select few times do we see her really lose control and freak out. Most of the time, she’s carefully hiding her emotions. The fact that the people around her don’t seem to suspect that there’s anything wrong is not surprising. Carole never lets anyone see the turmoil inside.
As mentioned earlier, Cathryn in Images also hides her true feelings. Not behind a stone wall like Carole, but by masquerading in a vibrant costume. In Susanna York’s hands, Cathryn is friendly, funny and confident, even flirtatious at times. The confusing and tricky presentation of the narrative makes it hard to tell when she’s pretending calm and when she really is at ease, but much like Carole, Cathryn too cracks at times. She’s older and more experienced than Carole and Nina and seemingly in more control of her situation, but she’s a woman of many masks.
Nina in Black Swan certainly isn’t. There are few scenes in Aronofsky’s film where Natalie Portman doesn’t seem nervous. Even when she’s dancing and in what should be her comfort zone, we can hear her strained breathing reminding us of the effort she puts forth in her strive towards being perfect. When Thomas keep pressing her on things of a sexual nature, her eyes dart back and forth as she’s looking for a way to escape. Just try to count the times she puts on a fake confident smile only for it to vanish a second later. She tries to lie and fake things, but she’s terrible at it. Her quiet assertion to Thomas that she isn’t a virgin convinces nobody.
These performances all fit their respective films’ stories and styles. Carole’s stoic and lifeless facade mimics Repulsion’s black-and-white footage. She spends a lot of the film alone in her home, which works with the way she keeps her emotions hidden from others. It’s when others interfere with her life that things turn violent. In Images, Cathryn’s schizophrenic mind mirrors the dreamlike ambiguity that surrounds the film. She always has people around her, which is crucial for the role the character chooses to play. One can’t project confidence if there’s nobody to impress. Unlike Carole, Cathryn cracks when she’s alone or when she’s by or with herself (although she’s certainly startled by the unexpected like anyone would be). And then there’s Nina’s more obvious discomfort at the people around her, mixing well with Black Swan’s extravagant score, direction and look (a style very much in like with Aronofsky’s other films). Everything about Nina is evident, and the same can be said for the way her movie is shot.
It’s worth noting that all three of these films are written and directed by men. Carole, Cathryn and Nina all become victims of not being able to control their sexuality, whether it is by shunning it or by overly indulging in it. Guilt seems to be a prime contributor to their downfalls as well, most evident in Images but also clearly displayed in Black Swan (“whore” written on a mirror, Winona Ryder‘s accusations etc.) and slightly more subtly in Repulsion with Carole’s self-destructive behavior. I don’t know whether this says anything about how Polanski, Altman and Aronofsky (and writers Stone, Heyman, Heinz and McLaughlin) view women or not. They all have other works on their resume that present the female gender in other ways. That being said, it would be interesting to see how a film like this helmed by a woman would differ. Or, for that matter, one directed by a woman that deals with male sexuality in a similar way.