History has shown that adverse conditions often result in the best art, and the medium of film is no exception. Director Roman Polanski has said that his Repulsion--made on a shoestring for producers more familiar with horror schlock and soft-core porn--is "techically well below the standard I try to achieve." While one can see his point in the context of his career, Repulsion benefits from its rawness. It is, after all, a claustrophobic portrait of madness set in an apartment that devolves into bloody ruins.
Repulsion famously begins with a close-up of eye (accompanied by Maurice Binder titles), and indeed the meaning of the story is a matter of perspective. Polanski dares the viewer to plunge into that eye and through the psychic rabbit hole that is its owner's increasingly unhinged personality. In a daringly committed performance, Catherine Deneuve stars as eighteen-year-old Carol, a remote blonde who works as a manicurist in a London beauty salon (this was the first English-language film for director and star). In the opening scene, she's asked twice if she's asleep. She must be in love, her socialite customer thinks aloud, but in fact she's on the edge of catatonia, a dangerous waking dream state that irritates her roommate and sister Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux) and frustrates Carol's boyfriend Colin (John Fraser), who's looking to take their relationship to the next level. Though Carol's a champion cold fish and his friends won't leave it alone, the increasingly desperate Colin remains respectful but persistent.
Sex is the one thing capable of turning Carol's dream state into a nightmare. Her fear of and aversion to sex is apparent, providing one meaning for the film's title (the other, of course, rests in the audience's presumable reaction to the film's events). First, Carol must endure the orgasmic sounds of Hélène and her married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry), which penetrate Carol's bedroom wall and her brain. But matters get exponentially worse when Hélène and Michael abscond on a two-week vacation that mockingly includes a visit to the leaning tower of Pisa, that famous "erection." The only thing worse for Carol than being around people is being alone. As her hysteria begins a steady climb, it's ever more apparent that she needs mental help, and unexpected visitors confirm that she is unable to discriminate between benign and malignant men.
No fair telling where the plot goes, exactly, but the ominous buildup promises that, unlike Deneuve, it won't be pretty. It's certainly tempting to look at Repulsion as an answer to Psycho (released five years before) and as a warm-up for Polanski's The Tenant and Rosemary's Baby, with their hemmed-in apartments and batty old neighbors (and limber, free-form camera work). Repulsion is brilliantly photographed, in black and white, by Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), and the production is endlessly inventive. Polanski makes astonishing use of sight and sound to evoke claustrophobic insanity. He also orchestrates some brilliant practical effects, one (involving the set) enabling one of the great "jumps" in horror cinema.
Polanski mocks the sunny archetype of the free-spirited girl of the swingin' sixties by proffering a microscopic and intensely scary look at humanity gone wrong: out on the streets, life in London looks plenty exciting, but Carol is only keenly aware of the cracks in the pavement and her apartment walls, which threaten to widen and engulf her. Wandering her apartment in a revealing nightgown, Carol's new roommate is an uneaten rabbit dinner; the devil's in details like these, and a family photo that--even in passing--suggests great import.
Today's horror audience probably wouldn't sit still for Repulsion, but a patient viewing yields an incrementally distressing experience that burrows under the skin. With devastating impact, the film's final seconds put everything that has come before in a new light. Though it remains a matter of perspective, Repulsion's highly influential mystery of the mind turns out to be as much a portrait of a victim as of a perpetrator.
Criterion rides to the rescue yet again, with a terrific hi-def transfer for Repulsion that, especially on Blu-ray, handily bests all previous editions. For one thing, this director-approved transfer gets the aspect ratio correct; it also banishes digital artifacts in favor of a clean and film-like black-and-white image that reveals levels of detail heretofore unseen in home-video presentations of the film. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is likewise clean and clear, a definitive presentation for this title.
The bonus features include a 1994 commentary by director Roman Polanski and actress Catherine Deneuve. Though they're recorded separately, the two still make a great team, collectively painting a fascinating portrait of the production through a recollection of the film's inception, often amusing anecdotes about the set and the times surrounding the film, and notions about the film's intentions.
The disc includes two "Trailers" (3:12 and 2:40, HD) for the film, which are historically invaluable in their old-school hype.
The 2003 documentary "A British Horror Film" (24:03, HD) is an affectionate retrospective making-of documentary that includes incisive interviews with Polanski, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, production designer Seamus Flannery, producer Gene Gutowski, and executive producer Tony Tenser.
Lastly, "Grand Écran" (21:30, HD) is a segment on Repulsion from a 1964 French television program; the clip features a wealth of behind-the-scenes set footage revealing Polanski directing Deneuve (though sometimes self-conscious, these scenes give a great impression of what the set was like). The featurette also gathers interviews with Polanski, Deneuve, and Yvonne Furneaux. Polanski proves especially voluble here, expertly drawn into conversation by the interviewer.
Film buffs can't go wrong with this classic title given the deluxe treatment by Criterion.
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