If I had to sum up the essence of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965) in three words, they would be: DO NOT ENTER.
A stunningly beautiful 21 year old Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a Belgian native who lives in London with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux.) Carol works at a beauty salon and, since she looks like a 21 year old Catherine Deneuve, has a male caller eagerly following her wherever she goes. But poor Colin (John Fraser) just can't make any progress with the object of his desire. Carol doesn't just rebuff his advances; she barely seems to be aware of his existence. Then again Carol's world is a rather narrow one and it only gets narrower when her sister goes on vacation with boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry.)
Almost the instant Carol is left on her own, she begins a rapid descent into madness much like Jack Torrance the instant he sets foot in The Overlook in "The Shining." But Jack was already a bit of a dull boy before he wound that station wagon into the Colorado mountains. Ditto Carol. Prone to the occasional space out and desperately clingy to her older sister, Carol's stretched taut as a trip wire. As Michael says, "She's a bit strung up, isn't she?" You don't know the half of it, brother.
If you had to pinpoint the exact moment where it all went wrong for Carol, you'd probably have to back to the delivery room, but in the film the scale tips when she lies in bed and listens to her sister's orgasmic moans from the next room. Carol twirls her hair like a nervous little girl and buries her face in the pillow but the OHH OHH OHHs thunder like sledgehammers. Polanski cuts to ominous close-ups of objects in Carol's bedroom: an overhead light, a dresser, the fireplace. All innocuous objects that now take on a menacing aura that permeates the rest of the film.
Alone, Carol proves incapable of performing even the most basic functions of daily life. The room turns into a fly-infested, water-logged trash heap. Nightmare visions intrude on her waking life, but she has already abandoned any effort to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Unable to defend this boundary (real/unreal, sane/insane), she vigorously polices all others, and devotes all of her effort to preventing anyone from entering either her apartment or her virgin body. Everyone is out to get her and get in her and the very thought of it… repulses her.
A story of sexual repression of such magnitude necessarily treads on Freudian ground but Polanski resists any urge to plumb the psychological depths of his tortured protagonist. The only hint we have of any trauma in her past is a childhood picture in which Carol appears to be staring into the distance, oblivious to the family around her. Read what you want to into it, but you're just guessing.
Some viewers might be frustrated that the "why" is neither answered nor even asked, but Polanski is more interested in creating and constantly amping up a sense of claustrophobic terror. The film is a smashing success in this regard. Deneuve's blank stare (she was already perfecting her trademark ice-cold blonde persona) and largely mute performance provides the void for Polanski to fill with his sleight of hand tricks. Polanski's masterful mise-en-scene turns a modern apartment into a shadowy, organic prison. The walls don't close in on Carol but rather reach out to grope her. Flailing arms jut out through plaster like in Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." When the walls actually crack apart, it seems a little hokey but there's no doubt that watching "Repulsion" is a nerve-wracking experience.
Polanski also makes great use of the soundtrack. A discordant jazz score jangles the nerves in key scenes. Even more powerful, sounds constantly intrude from off-screen and from just outside the apartment. I think the effect is lost a bit on DVD, but ultimately it's the key to creating and maintaining the film's frantic claustrophobia. Occasional evidence of the outside world provides the contrast needed to remind us of just how isolated, how alone, how vulnerable Carol is.
That being said, the film runs out of energy when we see one surreal paranoid hallucination too many. Enough with the cracked walls and skulking rapists already. But just when Polanski seems like he's about to run out of things for poor Carol to do all by herself, the outside world intrudes once again and reinvigorates the story. First Colin and then the landlord drop by to visit, each for his own reasons (though in Carol's mind, there's only one reason.) They chose not to heed my prior warning: DO NOT ENTER. But don't worry. They'll learn their lessons. The ending is quite satisfying, especially since Polanski doesn't take the easy way out by pulling the rug out from under the audience.
The film is presented in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is very good but perhaps not in the very top tier of Criterion efforts. The graininess of the black and white photography is well preserved, but the contrast isn't as sharp on, say, "Last Year at Marienbad," another black and white film. Still, I'm splitting hairs. There's nothing to complain about here.
Criterion has also released "Repulsion" on Blu-Ray and, as you would expect, the image is much richer.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The soundtrack is clean. I felt some of the off-screen sound effects, so crucial to the power of the film, were mixed a bit too low. This may well be precisely the way the sound was originally mixed for the theaters, but there were times when I was glad I had the subtitles turned out because they indicated sound effects (Pigeons Cooing) that I couldn't hear unless I dialed up the volume louder than I'm accustomed to.
The commentary by Polanski and Deneuve was originally recorded for Criterion in 1994, presumably for a laser disc release.
In addition to the commentary, there are two extras.
The 2003 documentary "British Horror Film" (24 min.) is produced by Blue Underground UK. It includes interviews w/ Polanski, cinematographer Gil Taylor, production designer Seamus Flannery, producer Gene Gutowski, and executive producer Tony Tenser.
On-set footage of Polanski and Deneuve at work is also included. Directed by Claude Chaboud, it originally aired as a segment on the Oct 24, 1964 episode of French TV show "Grand écran."
Two theatrical trailers round out the collection.
The slim insert booklet includes an essay by Bill Horrigan.
Polanski certainly liked to trap his protagonists in oppressive, shadowy old buildings. The claustrophobia of "Repulsion" is on full display in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "The Tenant" (1976). Both are, in my opinion, better films though I know most people would disagree. Regardless, "Repulsion" makes great use of its cramped set and it's amazing to stare back at this beautiful young actress named Catherine Deneuve just at the start of a unique and enduring career.
Criterion has also released "Repulsion" on Blu-Ray which we have reviewed here. Since the two cost the same, Blu-Ray consumers have an easy choice on their hands.