Sadly, Judge Gordon Sullivan discovered the cracks in his walls aren't his tortured imagination.
Our review of Repulsion: Criterion Collection, published July 28th, 2009, is also available.
"We must have this crack mended."—Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve)
In many circles what I'm about to admit is sacrilegious: I don't like Rosemary's Baby. In fact, Chinatown was often more frightening because it didn't rely on Satanic mumbo-jumbo to point out the evil that men do. However, even though I didn't find Rosemary's Baby particularly scary, I did admire Polanski's use of apartments as a setting and his ability to craft a claustrophobic atmosphere. I mention all this because Repulsion plays like a dry run for Rosemary's Baby, with a smaller cast and mental illness in place of Satanism. Unsurprisingly, Repulsion has similar strengths and weaknesses to Polanski's more famous horror creation. Also unsurprisingly, Criterion has given us another fantastic Blu-ray so fans and newcomers alike can discover the film's charms for themselves.
Facts of the Case
Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) lives in London with her sister (Yvonne Furneaux, The Beggar's Opera). She works at a salon and has an ardent male admirer, so on the surface things look good. However, Carole is a frigid and socially awkward woman who's a little too attached to her sister. Things are fine, until Carole's sister becomes involved with a married man and they decide to go on holiday, leaving Carole to her own devices in an empty apartment. As the days pass, Carole gets farther and farther away from reality as she imagines a series of attacks and visitations until she cracks.
Repulsion has a lot of things going for it. The big advantage is Polanski's ability to marshal everything in the frame to serve his ideas about the alienation of modern urban dwelling. When Carole is inside her apartment, it is the opposite of a home. The walls all seem to bulge (and eventually crack). Although the apartment is actually fairly spacious, the camera never makes that obvious, using wide lenses and odd angles to create a cramped and threatening environment. That threatening environment extends beyond the walls of the apartment as well, when Carole walks the streets of London. Polanski keeps the camera far enough away to avoid intimacy, but close enough to be threatening. I can't recall another film where a woman simply walking down the street seemed so fraught with danger, despite the lack of any real threat. It's really amazing how Polanski can conjure a nasty atmosphere with simple camera moves in the early parts of the film.
Later in the film, Polanski goes further to increase the tension of his scenario. Scenes play without sound, impossible cracks appear in the walls, and hands start to come out of the wall to threaten Carole. All of these techniques mirror her mental state, providing an interesting glimpse into a disintegrating psyche.
Polanski is also a master of contrasts in Repulsion, a film shot in black-and-white. Carole is young, blonde, and naïve looking. Her sister is more cynical, weathered, and dark-haired. When her sister is with a man, Carole can hear her sister's enjoyment through the paper-thin walls of the apartment. In contrast, Carole is with men in total silence, with no enjoyment at all (and, the film implies, only in Carole's mind). Also, while her sister is involved with a married man, Carole's gentleman caller is a young and apparently caring young man. It's difficult to make literal sense out of Polanski's choices, but they operate on a subconscious level to ratchet up the tension.
I also admire Repulsion as a kind of pre-loaded critique of the whole Swinging London scene that would emerge around the time of the film's release. With its hip jazz score and the classic beauty of Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion seems primed to show off the new values of the younger generation. Instead, the jazz score becomes more discordant, and the beautiful Deneuve is sexually frigid and mentally unstable. It's like exposing the seedy underbelly of the youth movement before it was even a force.
The biggest positive for this release, however, is Criterion's Blu-ray presentation. For the most part, the video looks absolutely fantastic. The black-and-white contrast is spot on, film grain is pleasing without being overwhelming, and detail is generally high. There are a few moments where textures are a little too smooth like they've been overcorrected for noise, but they weren't enough of a problem to take seriously. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is surprisingly rich for a film of this age, with no serious hiss or distortion. Although extras perhaps could be more extensive, what's here is up to the usual standards of Criterion. We start with a commentary by Polanski and Deneuve recorded for the Criterion laserdisc back in 1996. The two are surprisingly chatty and full of information. We also get a documentary "A British Horror Film," which covers the film's production and reception in about 25 minutes. Keeping the documentary theme, Criterion also includes a segment from a French TV show with footage from the set that offers a fascinating peek at a young Polanski. The disc rounds out with a couple of remarkable trailers. As usual, we get an essay in an included booklet, this time a fine piece by scholar Bill Horrigan.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Repulsion will certainly not be to everyone's taste. For a character study it's remarkably light on back story. We have no idea why Carole is the way she is. For some that's going to make it more intriguing, but I found it a little distracting to know so little about her. The film is also perhaps a bit too long; I like the creation of atmosphere, but if we'd gotten to Carole alone in the apartment 10 minutes earlier, I wouldn't have minded at all. Finally, this was Deneuve's first role in English, and sometimes she comes off as more wooden than frigid. I don't know if that's language issue or Polanski's direction.
The film isn't overly violent, but Carole is assaulted a number of times in dream-states, and these scenes can be a little intense.
Repulsion is an obviously influential piece of world cinema. Here we can see Polanski starting down the path that gave us Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. Thanks to Criterion we can enjoy the film with superior audio and video, and a nice set of contextual extras.
Although there are certainly a few cracks that could use some mending, Repulsion is not guilty.
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