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Director Roman Polanski burst forth onto the international scene in 1964, adapting instantly to the demands of commercial filmmaking. As the subject for his first English-language effort he chose grisly psychological horror. The distributors were Compton-Tekli, an exploitation outfit previously responsible for down-market pictures like The Yellow Teddy Bears and The Black Torment. The young director's reputation from the festival hit Knife in the Water attracted an unusual mix of top talent. Cameraman Gilbert Taylor was fresh from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and the celebrated jazz musician Chico Hamilton provided the film's nervous music. Hot actress Catherine Deneuve was signed to star, along with the beautiful Yvonne Furneaux, who outside of France was still associated most closely with the Hammer horror film The Mummy.
Polanski was perfectly positioned to advance the horror genre, which had becomes mired in repetitive Hammer efforts. The classic era of Eurohorror was coming to an end as continental filmmakers ran out of ideas for Barbara Steele films. Polanski's direct competition were American psycho-thrillers derived from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho: Guignol efforts like William Castle's Strait-Jacket and Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Made on a low budget but delivering more than its share of pure fright, Polanski's 1965 Repulsion is a marriage of horror and art film aesthetics. As if announcing his arrival, Polanski superimposes his credit over an enormous eye, as Hitchcock had done in Vertigo. The difference is that Polanski's name slides horizontally across the pupil, evoking surreal memories of Luis Buñuel's Un chien Andalou.
Repulsion centers on the mental breakdown of a beautiful but repressed Belgian woman newly arrived in London. Unlike psycho thrillers that explain insanity through Freudian back-stories, Roman Polanski and Gérard Brach's script looks at madness from the madwoman's own subjective viewpoint. Catherine Deneuve is the introverted and confused Carole Ledoux, whose psychological isolation (a prime Polanski theme) reaches crisis proportions when her older and more worldly sister Hélène (Furneaux) leaves on a romantic holiday with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry). Neither Hélène nor anyone else is aware that Carole is severely disturbed. The girl holes up in her Kensington apartment, terrified of most everything outside. Unfortunately, Carole's shyness is misinterpreted by Colin (John Fraser), an admirer who'd like to get to know her better.
Polanski's adept handling of progressive techniques advances Repulsion into the front ranks of horror, as he puts all of his tools to use in the search for original ways to express Carole's mania. A nervous hand-held camera tracks with Carole as she traces the same pathways through her neighborhood, trying to ignore the jeers of sweaty workmen. Extreme close-ups of the wrinkled faces of the customers in the beauty salon evoke the cruel effects of aging, which seems a horror in itself. Distorting fisheye lenses express Carole's paranoia -- the world seems to literally be retreating from her. When Carole's fears take over completely, Polanski makes use of specially constructed distorted sets to transform her modest apartment into a mind-bending haunted mansion. That particular "progressive" trick hadn't seen much use since the German Expressionist days of the 1920s.
Without psychology lectures or other explanations, Polanski makes it clear that Carole's mania is rooted in sexual anxiety. She's repulsed by Michael, and covers her ears when she hears him making love to her sister in the next room. But her hallucinations include what might be a wish-fulfillment scenario of a man like Michael smashing through a barricaded door to rape her. Carole becomes obsessed with a telltale crack in the ceiling, which she imagines making horrible cracking noises. She sees the same exact crack in the sidewalk down in the square, proving that for her, reality is a subjective illusion. The film only occasionally breaks from this one-on-one identification scheme. For most of the picture we experience madness from inside the brain of a psychotic: what's the difference between the rotting carcass of a rabbit, and that of a human being?
Polanski commands the audio track as well, a dimension that can't be appreciated on old 16mm non-theatrical prints of Repulsion. He understands the way that ticking clocks and dripping taps become louder when one is in a certain psychological state. Carole's psychotic "fever" is occasionally indicated by uncanny silences. But just when we think that the director's tricks will all be of the subtle variety, the film will hit us with a jolting shock image, accompanied by a blast of music guaranteed to startle. Repulsion synthesizes elegant visions from Cocteau fantasy and Val Lewton horror to chart Carole's headlong fall into the pit. By the time the film resorts to overt Guignol, we're locked in a horror landscape with rotting corpses and murders by straight razor.
Polanski avoids horror clichés while revealing his personal visual obsessions. Carole Ledoux is both beautiful and murderous, yet Repulsion does not reinforce the conservative genre notion that sexually aware women are evil by definition. The large chest of drawers blocking the door is a motif that repeats in various forms in four or five Polanski films. It is easily traced to the director's short film Two Men and a Wardrobe, but its personal significance for the director remains obscure.
When all is said and done, Polanski offers a clue to the mystery of the catatonic Carole with the use of an extreme zoom into a family photo. This compromise for viewers in need of closure is a major improvement on Hitchcock's epilogue with the psychiatrist. The big mystery is why Stanley Kubrick would copy it so lazily for his later The Shining.
Smaller roles in Repulsion go to very capable players. Helen Fraser of Billy Liar performs a Charlie Chaplin imitation, the only thing in Carole's life that makes her smile. James Villiers (These Are the Damned) is a pub friend who unhelpfully encourages Colin to press his affections on Carole. And unlucky landlord Patrick Wymark has the misfortune to interpret Carole's behavior as a sexual tease. One of Repulsion's subtle psychic scars is its image of a baby-doll nightie spattered with flecks of blood.
Roman Polanski moved on to The Fearless Vampire Killers, an affectionate horror spoof. He then conquered Hollywood in a single bound with the superior Rosemary's Baby, mainstream horror's next major milestone. Only much later did he stumble with The Tenant, a far too similar replay of Repulsion with Polanski himself in the starring role.
Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray of Repulsion is a terrific transfer of this carefully filmed widescreen horror / art attraction. As with George Franju's Eyes without a Face, visual texture is everything. Gilbert Taylor's B&W cinematography is particularly fascinating when dwelling on the wrinkled faces of Carole's clients, and finding reflections in shiny objects.
Producer Karen Stetler organizes a satisfying set of extras, all of which center on the exceedingly talented director. The new disk reuses the excellent Polanski - Catherine Deneuve commentary track from Criterion's 1994 laserdisc release. David Gregory's 2003 docu A British Horror Film is an illuminating, professional interview piece with Polanski, Taylor and producer Gene Gutowski, first seen on a Region 2 Blue Underground release.
Interesting snippets of behind-the-scenes footage from Repulsion are featured in a fine French TV show directed by Claude Chabrol. Showing a fully developed instinct for promotion, Polanski offers intelligent comments while making certain that his two beautiful actresses are showcased "for the TV people". Topping off the extras is a pair of original exploitation trailers that nevertheless reveal the film as quality goods. The insert essay by Bill Horrigan Repulsion is understandingly admiring of one of the best horror pictures ever made.
Critic Ivan Butler long ago offered an acute analysis of Repulsion, 1 that illuminates the psychological significance of a bit of business with Ian Hendry at the film's conclusion. Stunned by the horrors he finds in Carole's apartment, Michael encounters a particularly intolerable sight in her bathtub. He recoils in disgust and is about to beat a hasty retreat. But he changes his mind, steels himself and turns back, leaning in close to get a better look. It's a mature horror film moment. Some things must be faced and understood, to prevent them from becoming unending nightmares.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Repulsion Blu-ray rates:
1. Butler, Ivan The Cinema of Roman Polanski, The International Film Guide Series, A.S. Barnes and Company, NY 1970.
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