Roman Polanski followed up his international breakthrough Knife in the Water with this controversial, chilling tale of psychosis, starring Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a fragile, frigid young beauty cracking up over the course of a terrifying weekend. Left alone by her vacationing sister in their London flat, Carol is haunted by specters real and imagined, and her insanity grows to a violent pitch. Thanks to its unforgettable attention to disturbing detail and Polanski’s unparalleled adeptness at turning claustrophobic space into an emotional minefield, Repulsion remains one of cinema’s most shocking psychological thrillers.
The capsule summaries usually describe 'Repulsion' as either a horror film or a thriller. The categorizations may be accurate on a very elemental level, but Roman Polanski's first English-language production shares little in common with modern examples of those genres. The movie has no ghosts, monsters, raging serial killers, or villains of any kind. Notions of gore are simplistic and minimal, and special effects are limited to those that could be achieved live in camera. Moments of suspense are mainly figments of the main character's imagination. This is the story of one woman, alone in a room, slowly losing her mind. That's real horror, and it's terrifying.
The stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, only 22 at the time, stars as Carole, a timid French manicurist living in London with her sister. There's something not quite right about Carole from the beginning. The girl is shy and withdrawn, shows little emotional response to anything, and has a growing aversion to other people, especially men. A handsome gentleman suitor calls for her attention, but she repeatedly forgets that he exists, and feels unclean when he tries to kiss her. She's disgusted when her sister's boyfriend dares to leave his toothbrush and razor in their bathroom.
When the sister and beau leave town on a two-week vacation, Carole is left alone in their apartment. Her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and irrational. She starts missing work, forgets to pay the rent, leaves the water in the tub running, and ignores food rotting on a plate in the living room. She develops an obsession with cracks, which she starts to see everywhere. Soon, she can't bring herself to leave the apartment. Then, the hallucinations grow more intense: a mysterious presence in the other room, a horrific silent rape, and hands reaching through the walls to molest her. No one can help. When anyone tries, she's unable to communicate the problem and pushes them away, or worse.
Polanski claims that he did no particular research into human psychology, female or otherwise, prior to making the movie. If that's true, his powers of observation and insight were remarkably keen regardless. The story has tremendous psychological depth, brought to life through Deneuve's fragile performance and the director's meticulous attention to atmosphere and detail. Ultimately, no explanation for Carole's breakdown is given or needed. What Polanski chooses to show us is all we need to see or know.
'Repulsion' is a very slow burn, built off an accumulation of little details that would normally be considered inconsequential. Long stretches of the film go by without any dialogue. A faucet dripping, a clock ticking, and the muffled sound of neighbors through the wall convey reams of narrative information about the character's state of mind. The result is utterly mesmerizing.
In just his second feature film, his first in English, Roman Polanski had already established himself as a major cinematic talent. 'Repulsion' is an early masterwork in the career of an artist that would later reach even greater heights, as wells as tragic lows.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Repulsion' has been added to The Criterion Collection as spine #483 for both the DVD and Blu-ray formats. The studio had previously released the movie on Laserdisc back in 1994. However, until this point, the North American DVD rights were held by Koch Vision Home Entertainment (aka E1 Entertainment), who issued the movie with a lousy cropped transfer and unbelievably tacky cover art (seen at left). Criterion's release is an improvement in all respects.
The Blu-ray comes packaged in one of the studio's clear keepcases with respectable artwork and a 14-page booklet. The disc also has an understated, classy menu design.
According to the liner notes in the booklet, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer was approved by director Roman Polanski. The movie is presented in its original 1.66:1 European theatrical aspect ratio, with small pillarbox bars on the sides of the frame. The black & white image is a thing of beauty. The picture is crisp and clean, with excellent detail reproduction and gray scale. The contrast range looks appropriate for film stocks of the era, without the sort of artificial level boosting found on catalog releases from many other studios.
The boilerplate text in the liner notes also makes mention of some Digital Noise Reduction. If applied, Criterion has used it judiciously. Plenty of natural film grain texture is on display throughout. The picture exhibits none of the usual tell-tale signs of excessive DNR, such as softening, mushy details, frozen grain patterns, or smearing. There is also no evidence of artificial sharpening or Edge Enhancement. From start to finish, the Blu-ray looks remarkably organic and film-like. This is a textbook example of what a 40 year-old black & white movie should look like in high definition.
Although some foreign DVD editions have remixed the film's soundtrack into 5.1 surround, Criterion has opted to preserve the original sound mix in uncompressed PCM 2.0 mono format. The studio has made the right decision. The soundtrack gains a lot of its power from a focused, claustrophobic presentation.
For a movie from the 1960s, 'Repulsion' has quite inventive sound design. Since the film has so little dialogue, the soundtrack must draw a viewer's attention through ambient tones, atmospheric noises, and sound effects. Most of these are incredibly subtle. This is a movie that demands to be viewed in the quietest room environment you can manage. Turning on an air conditioner or fan in your room can really disrupt the mood of the film.
The PCM track is clear and precise, without any analog tape hiss. It is still a 40 year-old soundtrack, though. Fidelity is often thin and brittle, especially at louder volumes. The audio also doesn't have much in the way of dynamic range. But, ultimately, it's still incredibly effective, and that's all that really matters.
Criterion's Blu-ray shares all of the same bonus features as the company's comparable DVD edition. As always, the studio has focused on quality of content rather than quantity.
While the two featurettes are technically encoded on disc in 1080i resolution, both are clearly upconverted from PAL standard definition sources.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are no exclusive Blu-ray features. However, Criterion's menu interface provides an on-screen timeline and bookmarking options.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
Foreign DVD editions of the film offered script excerpts and production art galleries. Criterion's own earlier Laserdisc included three of Polanski's early short films. The studio has moved those short films to the DVD release of 'Knife in the Water'.
After all the tragedy and scandal in his personal life, it's often easy to forget that Roman Polanski is an amazingly talented filmmaker. His classic psychological thriller 'Repulsion' is not just an important work in the development of an artist, but also a great film in its own right. Criterion's Blu-ray is a visual stunner, like watching a pristine 35mm print projected in your home, and comes annotated with some informative supplements. Highly recommended.