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Case Number 16910

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Repulsion: Criterion Collection

Criterion // 1965 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // July 28th, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker is hunting rabbits.

Editor's Note

Our review of Repulsion: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray), published July 28th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

A terrifying look at the dark side of innocence.

Opening Statement

The increasing popularity of Alfred Hitchcock's films, along with the director's name recognition, led to a number of directors trying to be—or being touted as—successors to the "Master of Suspense." Most of these were just pretenders to the throne—William Castle and Brian DePalma, for instance, made gimmicky and obvious Hitchcock rip-offs in the '50s and '60s (Castle) and '70s and '80s (DePalma), and Dario Argento was considered, in some circles, to be the Italian Hitchcock, but his stories lacked Hitchcock's attention to detail and logic. "In the Hitchcock Tradition"—or some variation thereof—was a common tagline or critic quote applied to any number of suspense films.

Perhaps the director whose work compares most favorably to Hitchcock is Roman Polanski. A talented visual stylist with a macabre sense of humor and slightly twisted world outlook, Polanski was born in Paris but raised in Poland during World War II. His tense and quirky 1962 Polish-language film, Knife in the Water, was an art-house hit and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Six years later, he would make his US debut with one of the defining films of the '60s, Rosemary's Baby—produced, not a little ironically, by William Castle.

In 1965, Polanski directed his second feature and first English-language film, Repulsion, a psychological horror story starring Catherine Deneuve, the young French actress who at the time was best known for her role in Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

After years of inadequate home video versions, Criterion gives us a very good edition of Polanski's modern horror classic.

Facts of the Case

Carol Ledoux (Deneuve) lives in London with her sister, Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux, The Lion of Thebes). She works in a salon, giving manicures and facials to wealthy older women. Carol is beautiful, but strange—childlike, unresponsive, seemingly incapable of close relationships. She has a particularly difficult time with men. She becomes physically ill at the sight of her sister's boyfriend's undershirt in their bathroom, and she is repulsed by the touch of Colin (John Fraser, Tunes of Glory), a young man who wants a relationship with her.

When Hélène and her boyfriend go away for a few days, Carol is left alone. Almost immediately, her fragile psyche begins to crumble. Hallucinations build on hallucinations, horrifying visions appear, and her mundane apartment becomes a house of horrors. Is Carol in danger…or is she dangerous to those around her?

The Evidence

Early in Repulsion, Carol notices a crack in the wall of her modest apartment; later, in her fevered imagination, more cracks appear, each progressively deeper and more jagged, cracks becoming a motif. Do these cracks represent Carol's increasingly destructive mental state—she's "cracking up?" Are they symbolic of her world crumbling around her? Are these "cracks" Freudian representations of her deeply repressed sexuality? Director Roman Polanski himself doesn't say or even claim to know. He refers to his work on Repulsion as "instinctive."

In his commentary track on this disc, Polanski notes that many people impose their own meanings on Repulsion, suggesting interpretations that the director didn't intend. Much of what is on screen, Polanski insists, was developed intuitively. This is part of the fun of Repulsion: as much as you might read about it, there seems always something more to read into it. Whether by instinct, accident, or design, Polanski fashioned a stunning piece of cinema in which every frame seems rife with clues, images, and messages.

Carol's madness is the result of severe sexual repression. Living in swingin' London in the '60s, sex is everywhere. She listens, disturbed, while her sister makes love (loudly) in the next room; men on the street make comments to her and about her. In the salon, she caters to middle-aged women who want to improve their appearances and be alluring to husbands and boyfriends. Colin desires her, but there is an innocence to him that seems to repel her even more.

And yet there seems to be a part of Carol that craves violation. In her fantasies, she is stalked by a brute who repeatedly assaults her. She imagines hands coming out of the wall and touching her. With her sister gone, Carol remains in the apartment, missing work, closing the curtains, shutting herself away from the outside world and its real threats and promises of human contact. It's when that world comes calling that Carol's grip is forever loosed.

Much of the film takes place in Carol's low-rent London flat, a rather ordinary single-girls' residence made nightmarish by Polanski's camera, which at times makes the space confined, like a prison, and other times opens it up, cavernously. Polanski skews perspective for us, as Carol's perspective is skewed. The build up is slow—Polanski suggests that the film might be a little too slow—but effective, with layers of sounds and images creating tension, until the first all-out shock that creates a genuine, jump-from-your-seat scare.

As with most Polanski films, the devil is in the details, and Repulsion is filled with visual details that make it essential repeat viewing. A decaying cooked rabbit—looking, alternately, like a fetus or a phallus—and sprouting potatoes mark the passage of time. Carol walks past an auto accident, ignoring it, heightening her alienation. Furniture moves slightly from shot to shot. Simple sounds become ominous and threatening, and shadows hold the key to dreadful secrets. As in his award-winning short subject, Two Men and a Wardrobe, Polanski's frame is a canvas of objects and events that often seem peripheral but create a complex and dynamic viewing experience.

Deneuve's extraordinary beauty often overshadowed her talent. Deeply sensitive and enigmatic, as a young actress she appeared in challenging films such as Belle du Jour and Tristana, both for Luis Buñuel. In Repulsion, and she infuses the role with an almost painful vulnerability. At times, she seems blank, as though in a dream. Deneuve immerses herself in the role—Polanski notes that by the end of the production, the actress seemed withdrawn and depressed—and her performance is chilling.

Along with Psycho, Repulsion is one of the most significant genre films of the '60s, its influence evident in the work of Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Dario Argento, and George A. Romero, among others. In Robert Altman's 3 Women, Sissy Spacek gave a performance that seemed very much to echo Deneuve's work here.

Criterion's disc sports a good looking video transfer with an occasional grain. Contrast is very good in this black and white movie, and the many "shadowy" sequences don't get lost. Audio is the original 1.0 mono track, and it's clear, but a bit low. Subtle sounds are important aspect of Repulsion, and while I appreciate Criterion remaining true to the original track, I wonder if bolstering it a bit mightn't have been a good idea.

For supplements, we start with a commentary by Polanski and Deneuve that was recorded in 1994 for Criterion's Repulsion laser disc. Apparently, the two were recorded separately and their comments edited together, though there's no attempt to disguise that these are two separate tracks. Polanski talks about the production and points out things in different scenes that might not be evident on an initial viewing, such as dual role played by one of the actors. Deneuve shares her recollections of the production, working with Polanski, and her insights about her character. This is an excellent, enlightening commentary that goes a long way toward appreciating the film. A British Horror Film, from 2003, is a fascinating short documentary on the making of the film and features interviews with Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, and others involved with the production. This is a comprehensive retrospective, even if there is no input from Deneuve. Both the commentary and documentary were included on Anchor Bay's Region 2 release in 2003. We also get Grand écan, a short documentary shot on the set of the film in 1964 and later aired on French television. Here, we see a ridiculously young Polanski and Deneuve at work and interacting between scenes. Rounding out the set are trailers for Repulsion and a 16-page booklet containing an essay by film writer Bill Horrigan.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

This is a very good disc, but I'm a little surprised that Criterion has priced it at $39.95; usually, that's what they price their supplement-heavy double disc sets. Good as the extras are, the only one that was created specifically for this release is the essay.

Closing Statement

A true classic, Repulsion is a well-made adult psychological thriller that still holds up. Criterion's release offers a great picture, good audio, and a nice sampling of supplements. Highly recommended, a must see.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 85
Extras: 85
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Drama
• Foreign
• Horror
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Documentaries
• Trailers

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