I have seen plenty of Roman Polanski’s films, but this was my first time seeing Repulsion, a film I feel best fits the description of a psychological thriller with horrific elements. Starring Catherine Deneuve, whose work I was almost entirely unfamiliar with as of about two years ago, but am slowly becoming more acquainted as I have yet to see a film of hers I disliked from Belle de jour to Dancer in the Dark, Repulsion seems as good a place to start as it was one of the earliest films in the acclaimed actress’s career.
Repulsion tells the story of an imbalanced young 18-year-old named Carol (Deneuve) living in a London flat with her sister Helene (Yvonne Furneaux). As audience members we get the feeling almost immediately there is something different about Carol, but the people in her life don’t seem to notice and most likely chalk it up to a bit of social anxiety. Helene is the one person she seems able to talk to, with all others she closes herself off or maintains a soft tone of voice showing little interest in conversation.
The film follows this trend and when Helene and her boyfriend John (James Villiers) go on vacation to Italy things really begin to go downhill. Whether it is visions of being raped, cracks in the walls or taking a scalpel to the back of a man’s neck before slicing him to death, this film has a frenetic intensity due to a spectacular use of silence and score, not to mention Polanski’s tendency to lead the audience where he wants to before ultimately showing you what he wants you to see at just that right moment.
Criterion’s presentation of the film is absolutely flawless and comes packaged with a trio of special features all worth checking out.
First we will start with the audio commentary previously recorded back in 1994 for Criterion’s first release of Repulsion featuring the voices of Polanski and Deneuve. Although the two didn’t record the commentary together it is an excellent listen as several facets of the film are pointed out. Probably my favorite comment comes early on while we watch a scene shot in an elevator to which Polanski says he wouldn’t have done the same nowadays and would have just resided to shooting it on a studio set. Thinking on it for a second he says it is this kind of filmmaking is a “luxury [filmmakers] have now that contributes to the lack of invention.” Just to think he made such a comment 15 years ago is astonishing considering the luxuries at a filmmaker’s disposal now. Chalk it up to one more reason originality seems to be a lost art in today’s cinema.
Next we have a pair of featurettes that nicely compliment one another as Blue Underground UK’s 2003 documentary on the film titled “A British Horror Film” focuses on the behind-the-scenes details of the production such as finding a studio for the picture, art direction, cinematography and distribution. The other feature is “Grand ecran,” a 1964 documentary from the French television program of the same name that focuses more on the acting and directing side of things with interviews with Polanski, Deneuve and Furneaux. Both are immensely educational and come in at 25 and 22 minutes respectively so they won’t be taking up much of your time.
Also included, as with all Criterion releases, is a 16-page booklet, this time featuring an essay by Bill Horrigan, a director of media arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.
The greatest thing about Repulsion is how Polanski toys with the audience before fully revealing the depths Carol is swimming in. Even after she bludgeons a man with a candlestick you are never ready for what comes next. The whole time you are on edge as we have always assumed something was wrong, but the supporting participants tell us there is nothing to worry about via their actions… that is until it is too late.
In my opinion this is a definite must buy. Repulsion is a film that crosses that line between art house and mainstream and will introduce viewers to a side of Polanski you may not have known existed outside of Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. If this one appeals to you, take a step back a little further and give Knife in the Water a try and perhaps you will soon see a whole new world of films that interest you. All it takes to get people interested in films beyond today’s blockbusters is that one film people can grasp onto. While not necessarily considered an outright classic itself, I believe Repulsion is a great start for anyone looking to slowly make their way back in time and start finding out more about the films that started it all and after you watch “Grand ecran” perhaps you will take notes on the films Polanski references such as East of Eden, Breathless and Citizen Kane (okay, most of you have probably already seen that one).
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