Nate’s Double Features: Sensual Nightmares

Nate’s Double Features will highlight two films, related to each other through thematic or stylistic similarities, programmed by me, Nathan Marone. The double feature recognizes that movies, like all art, are interconnected. Each movie participate in a larger conversation that spans decades, languages, and great distances. Watching both films back to back would be optimal, but you can always at least see them in close proximity. Today we look at Repulsion and Sing a Song of Sex.

Movies have always been about dreams. They offer us an opportunity to see our personal fantasies realized in a safe way. Women and men become fantastical gods and goddesses before our very eyes, and we are privileged to look at them without fear of condemnation. We are alone with the immortals. What better place, then, to take a hard look at how our fantasies work and how they affect both the object of fantasy and the fantasizer.

In the mid-sixties, two young directors, one from Poland and one from Japan, turned our concepts of fantasy inside out. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a British production starring the great French actress Cathrine Deneuve. Though he had made a bit of a splash with Knife in the Water before this, Polanski’s real entrance on the world cinema map is Repulsion. He would go on to direct such famous films as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, but Repulsion feels more immediate when compared to those vaunted masterpieces. Oshima, on the other hand, had already established himself as the face of the Japanese New Wave with such films as Cruel Story of Youth, Night and Fog in Japan, Violence and Noon, and The Sun’s Burial. Oshima had gained a reputation for controversial, often shocking films that stood in stark contrast to the staid Japanese vanguard of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu. When Oshima released Sing a Song or Sex, it was another entry in a long line of similarly provocative films.

Repulsion (Dir. Roman Polanski, 1965)

In 1965, Cathrine Deneuve was at the beginning of her storied acting career and at the height of her physical beauty. Roman Polanski knew this and exploited it to make one of the finest psychological horror movies ever. Repulsion allows us, through exquisite black and white photography, to enjoy her beauty. Each contour of her face and individual strands of her golden hair seem to have been given special attention. If voyeurism is one of the prime virtues of the cinema, here is one of the best examples. We are allowed to stare at Deneuve without having to worry about being a lecher, which is exactly what her character, Carol, is afraid of.

This is not a peep show, though, because Polanski turns Deneuve’s beauty on us in ways that are both shocking and inventive.

For reasons that are never explained Carol, is terrified of men in general and of sex in particular. Deneuve plays the part as though she were a frail, wounded animal, cowering before everyone that comes in her path. When a friend of hers tries to ask her out on a date, she claims to be having dinner with her sister (which is true, but not exactly a good excuse as we will eventually see), and when he tries again she just simply skips out on him. And when he tries to kiss her after giving her a ride home, she runs away as though a vulgar monster has tried to attack her. The only person in the whole movie that Carol seems to relate to with some level of normalcy is her sister, with whom she lives in a London apartment. But even her sister, who has noisy sex with her boyfriend in the next bedroom, is a cause for psycho-sexual distress. It seems that no matter where she goes, Carol can’t get away from the prospect of men looking at her body and wanting it. That is until her sister takes a vacation to Italy with her boyfriend.

When her sister is away, Carol, instead of showing up for her work as a manicurist, hides out in her apartment, a place where seemingly nothing could harm her. Alone, there’s no sex to distract her, but there is a world of sensory stimulation, created expertly by Polanski’s sound design team. Every possible noise that could be made (footsteps, buzzing flies, water dripping, airplanes flying overhead) is amplified inside Carol’s head to the point where the slightest hint of sound becomes a source of terror. She loses herself completely in the apartment and we go with her. She walks around in a nightgown, leaves a rotting dinner of rabbit sitting on top of a stack of books, and leaving the apartment a general wreck. When she tries to leave once for work, she’s distracted enough to cut one customer’s finger.

The spectacle of Deneuve allowing herself to wither away before us is enough to make Repulsion a worthwhile movie. But Polanski takes things up a few notches when Carol’s male pursuer comes to her apartment and breaks down the door. In the crazed state of a wild animal, she kills him with a candleholder and throws him in a tub full of water. Soon the apartment itself begins to turn on her in her mind. Polanski takes her psychological breakdown into realms that belong to the surrealists. The walls crack, rooms expand and retract, and hands leap from the hallway, clutching and grabbing at Carol’s thinly clothed body.

Repulsion turns the tables on us completely when Carol’s landlord stops by for the rent and tries to rape her. Her worst nightmares have become a disgusting reality. This scene, which is central to Repulsion, forces the viewer to experience Carol’s nightmare firsthand. The sordidness of it is thrown right into our faces. We realize here that though Carol’s fears are exaggerated perhaps, they are justified in reality. Men do prey on beautiful women. They try to take what hasn’t been offered to them by sheer force. And when they get what they want, they leave their victim with nothing.

Repulsion is claustrophobic, sensual, and morally forceful. Though most would point to Chinatown as Polanski’s highest achievement, Repulsion might be a better contender. Every element is right. Deneuve doesn’t just bring a pretty figure to occupy the screen; she’s willing to commit herself to every scene, carrying the movie into its darkest depths. Repulsion is genuinely terrifying and shocking for all the right reasons.

Sing a Song of Sex (Dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1967)

If Repulsion took the female side of male fantasy and turned it into a freakish nightmare, Nagisa Oshima’s Sing a Song of Sex takes the male side of that same coin and forces us to look at it straight on. For many, the notion of male fantasy is just something that’s happening inside someone’s head. We imagine that merely thinking something is harmless and that it can never lead to doing. So when four horny high school boys set their sights on a fellow student that they’ve never met, they carelessly allow their fantasies to run rampant. These fantasies are not consensual. In them, the object of affection is only an object with no desire of her own. Because they don’t know her, they can imagine anything they want without feeling terribly guilty. What they imagine is rape, and they also imagine that they wouldn’t be able to act out their fantasies if given a real chance.

In typical fashion for Oshima, the film is not graphic despite the overtly sexual nature of the story. Whether Japanese mores prevented him from being explicit or Oshima made this decision on his own, the tactic works in his favor. We are not overwhelmed with explicit imagery or offended by horrific sights. We are instead asked to think of rape and male fantasy in an almost clinical way.

Sing a Song of Sex is something of a comedy musical, though. These four boys are virgins at the outset and since they can’t get their hands on the mystery girl, they chase after a group of less desirable but more accessible classmates on a night in the country of drinking and song singing with their teacher, of all people. He sings them lascivious songs about prostitutes and easy girls, which are sung lovingly by both the male and female students. The precocious young girls play the tease and the boys bumble themselves into a sexless night once again. With unsatisfied libidos, they begin to pine after their mystery girl. They imagine meeting her at her house and in their lecture hall; they imagine taking turns with her.

When they finally do meet her at a Vietnam War protest (with Japanese people singing “This Land is Your Land” and “Goodnight Irene”), they are timid and shy, not even willing to approach her. But when one of the schoolgirls breaks the protest to sing one of the bawdy songs that she learned from her teacher, the mystery girl makes voluntary contact with the boys, leading to one of the most incendiary conclusions in all of film.

Sing a Song of Sex is hard to pin down, because it’s a film of shifting tones that requires a lot of flexibility in audience expectations. It moves from gentle drama to boisterous musical to grotesque fantasy to political commentary to moral indignation, and rarely do these elements coexist at any single point in the film. They only add up to a weird but thought thought-provoking experience.

Because I couldn’t find a poster or good frame from Sing a Song of Sex, here’s a fuzzy picture of Nagisa Oshima: 


One thought on “Nate’s Double Features: Sensual Nightmares

  1. Pingback: Five For Friday: Puppy Bowl, 2011 « Fully Reconditioned

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