Catherine the Great


There was something about the sexually agape, porcelainized tabula rasa of Catherine Deneuve in her stardom’s infancy that fed the dream lives of filmmakers fat with rose-petal mousse. Bloated and reeling, Roger Vadim saw Sadean excess and Jacques Demy saw pastel lollipops, while Luis Buñuel and Roman Polanski both saw behind their star’s dewy placidness an overgrown wilderness of pathology. Deneuve could never not be objectified—she is one of modern movies’ golden goats—and in a sense both Belle de Jour (1967) and Repulsion (1965) are tongue-in-cheek efforts to split the idol and see what bloodiness glistens inside. Of course, what we found were our own desires, yanked out like entrails, hoisted on flagstaffs, and exposed to mockery and gunshot.

Of the two, Repulsion is the most overtly psychoanalytical: an afternoon trapped in a flat with Deneuve’s quiet walking wounded, and her snowballingly psychotic worldview: cracking walls, rotting rabbits, dream rapists, murdered corpses. But even in the shadow of Conrad and Richard Matheson (co-written, though, by Polanski and crony Gérard Brach), the movie’s shake-and-bake mix of “reality” and crumbling subjectivity is too deliberate to be about character—it is, rather, a game of movieness, a masquerade of Grand Guignol–as-psyche, virtually a parody of the surrealist’s notion of consciousness bagged and tagged on celluloid. A viewer’s empathic bond is never solicited, merely his/her voyeuristic weakness, and willingness to be bruised. At least then, Polanski was a full-on, post-Hitchcockian misanthrope, and Deneuve only aroused him as a plastic ideal to be harried, flogged, and made ugly. (He never succeeded.) The famous, final Rosebud-like shot—dollying in to a family photo oozing with suggested menace and sick history—is exactly the “dime-store Freud” Orson Welles always claimed Citizen Kane‘s riddle- solution fillip to be. But by then we’ve been played, the ordeal we and Polanski craved for Deneuve turned out to be just a sport, and we were the ball—just as we’d hoped. We learned nothing about her, only a little about our taste for suffering.

Likewise, Buñuel’s impulses with Deneuve ran from Belle de Jour‘s feigned attempts at sexual degradation to, three years later in Tristana, amputee fetishism, but as always with Buñuel there are no victimizers, just amused victims, and the self-perverting subject on hand is us—the audience, plus the citizenry of the world in which the movie was made, plus the characters who fulfill our wishes, plus Buñuel himself. A famous, relaxed fantasy scene in which white-satin-slip Deneuve is tied up and hit with black mud—it’s her daydream—is hardly scandalous: It is a spirited, child-like revel, an affirmation of magnificent human silliness. Only Buñuel could make a film about Deneuve being a secretly masochistic housewife distractedly taking on prostitution as a hobby and never seem interested in her psychology. Instead, this silly little masterpiece regards Deneuve as the goddess of light she really was—a figment of our collective appetite for the unreal. If we detect sex lurking somewhere inside her, it’s only our blood and hormones humming for what we can never have.