Women in Peril
Two films, made 20 years apart, show different aspects of that old trope, the woman in peril. Kennedy Wilson goes to the rescue
Joyce Chopra’s 1985 film Smooth Talk (now rereleased on Blu-ray from Criterion) was the movie that helped make Laura Dern an actor to be reckoned with. She went on to appear in such classics as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Jurassic Park.
Out of view from her mother (Mary Kay Place) she curls her hair and glosses her lips and under the baggy shirts she wears strappy tops. It’s not long before she catches the eye of the local dishy bad boy Arnold (Treat Williams). She’s attracted by his dashing looks and repelled by his creepy come-ons. Then he turns up at her home in his gold convertible just when Connie’s parents are away for the day.
The subsequent showdown is a marvel of directing and acting. The two young protagonists circle each other in a dangerous mating ritual which is worthy of David Attenborough. But the predatory Arnold seems to know way too much about Connie, her family, her friends, where she goes. It’s not long before his smooth-talking seduction has hypnotised her and, despite her better judgement, she’s getting into his car for a jaunt that will change her forever.
Ever since the movies began Hollywood found that women in peril were good box office. The Perils of Pauline was a 1914 American silent film serial produced by William Randolph Hearst with the titular heroine famously tied to the railway lines before being rescued. From Fay Wray writhing in King Kong’s hairy paw and Clarice Starling’s wrestling with Hannibal Lecter women in danger have been a movie staple. Alfred Hitchcock focused on blonde heroines bound for disaster. The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss seems to have made a career out of women on the verge.
Not all ‘women in peril’ pictures are shock horrors, many are thoughtful investigations - like Chopra’s Smooth Talk - about the trials of growing up. Others are sophisticated psychological thrillers that make you think.
In the latter category comes 1965’s nightmarish Repulsion. By all accounts enfant terrible of European cinema Roman Polanski (now aged 89) was a true Marmite character. On the set he could be demanding, being nasty to his actors in order to get the right reactions out of them. French-born but from a Polish family, he was as short of temper as he was of stature, fiercely intelligent with a prodigious talent. One wag described him as ‘the original five-foot Pole no one wants to be touched by’.
In the mid-60s he came to London on the strength of his debut feature, the award-winning Knife in the Water to make Repulsion, his first English-language movie.
In the lead was the young Catherine Deneuve who plays Carol, a Frenchwoman flat sharing with her sister in South Kensington just before London began swinging. Alone in the stifling and claustrophobic apartment we see her slow descent into schizophrenia and the savage revenge she exacts on the men around her.
‘You’re right inside that flat with her’, wrote film critic Damien Love, ‘further in – inside Deneuve’s head, with the environment bending to fit her fearful fantasies as shadows flit behind doors and hands reach from the walls’.
The production company were expecting a money-making shocker but got a well-crafted, and rather brilliant horror movie made with considerable flair. The press hailed it as scary as Psycho, made a few years before, and called Polanski the natural successor to Hitchcock. The movie heralded a very successful film career for the director with such unforgettable milestones as Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist to his credit.
Polanski’s life was touched with tragedy and scandal. He lost his family in the Holocaust and his second wife in a grisly murder. In 1977 he pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful sex with a 13-year-old but fled to France before sentencing, remaining a fugitive from justice ever since.
Hate the man but love his work. ■
Info: Smooth Talk and Repulsion
are released on Blu-ray through Criterion
Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Laura Dern and Treat Williams in Smooth Talk