Roman Polanski made an arthouse splash with his first film, Knife in the Water, in 1962. Liberally taking from the “environment as story” bourgeois character studies of contemporaries Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky, the film nonetheless rode the coattails to great success, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It didn’t take long for Polanski to find his form, though, taking his second film to the dark, surreal depths that he’d later make a name for with films like Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth and The Tenant. The film? 1965’s UK production of Repulsion. Despite the notoriety, the film has long remained a massive blind spot on DVD. Criterion’s rectified that and the Blu-ray in one fell swoop with this loaded special edition. Is this something worth going crazy over?
The film begins good…maybe even too good. Our first image is an extreme close-up of an eye frantically gazing from left to right. Inside the eye the cast credits emerge. Eventually the remainder of the crew credits float on by from outside the eye – coming in left, right, bottom, top…always moving. Things are anything but grounded. To further prepare the viewer for the disjointed bit of subjectivity to follow, there’s even a jump cut to another shot of the eye. Polanski’s credit skates on in from the left and then out we come from the subjective gaze to reveal an aloof and repressed Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve). Carole works with her sister in a London beauty salon, giving manicures to hoity toity upper class women. “Are you sleeping on the job?” A client asks her, and yes, she probably is. Carole’s off in her own little world, a thick accent making it tough for her to communicate and a general fear of the outside world making her almost a complete recluse. But at least she has her sister, right?
Helene Ledoux (La Dolce Vita’s Yvonne Furneaux) looks after her sister both on the job and at home, where they reside in a quaint little inner-city apartment. She even cooks her rabbit. Helene’s unfathomably spontaneous lover decides it would be nice for them to go on a holiday, and against all better judgment Helene leaves her sister at home. All she’s to do is work and stop over to the landlord to pay rent. Simple enough, right? Well, not if you refuse to go outside and start envisioning the walls cracking and caving in on you at any given moment. Oh, and rape. Lots of rape. To the sound of a clock ticking or to the church bells from across the way. Scandalous!
It doesn’t take at all for Carole to crack, shutting herself off from the outside world quite literally near the end by barring herself inside the complex. She doesn’t care what’s outside, she doesn’t care about that baked rabbit that’s rotting in the summer heat, and she certainly doesn’t care about paying the rent. Her world is, erm, crumbling, as the opening shot suggests, all she can do is watch.
An exercise in style over substance, Repulsion is a kinetic decent into the mind of a crazy woman. I’m defining Carole in such broad brushstrokes because that’s all the film does, too. She’s simply just disconnected from reality, as all mopey, tragic figures of sixties urban malaise are in L’Avventura, La Dolce Vita, Une Femme Douce or The Silence. Of course in those films there is pretense for their paranoia and purging of meaning. Here, Polanski makes tragedy not a consequence, but instead an aesthetic. Each shot is shaped with an amazing tact for perspective, where doorways obstruct characters, reflections distort perceptions and shadows separate characters and spaces from continuity. The camera moves as if it is on an elastic, bouncing from wall to wall in the tight apartment quarters. Polanski’s moving camera made tension out of pregnant pauses in Knife in the Water, and here it makes the destructive mind of Carole a moving, threatening being.
Yet, for all the visual bravura, there’s hardly a story to string it on. The outcome of the story is terribly choreographed from the first few minutes, where we see a picture of Carole standing aloof in a family photo. Get it, she’s just detached. She’s weird. Of course, at that time in art and cinema, to be detached, to be the outsider looking at an increasingly distant and deadening modernity, was all that was required. It was mod. Marcello Mastroianni’s lamenting brooding in La Dolce Vita was seen as damn near heroic. So to audiences then, in 1965, seeing Catherine Deneuve go off her rocker in an urban environment was all the substance needed to incite a generation. Now though, with ideologies in a much different place, the whole “crazy for crazy’s sake” attempt at critiquing culture simply does not hold weight. It’s shallow and often as devoid of meaning as Carole’s fragile little life. As lean as that rabbit that nobody ever seems to eat.
Not helping matters is the fact that Polanski’s masculine reimaging of an apartment dweller finding the forces of urbanity too much to handle, 1975’s The Tenant, is a much more ambitious, developed and indicting picture. Deneuve’s vacant stares pale in comparison to Polanski’s mischievous mania as Trelkovsky. Not only that, though, but on a whole The Tenant just has a whole lot more to say. In The Tenant we get a much greater examination of the imposing nature of urbanity, with Polanski crafting neighboring apartments, and neighboring tenants as voyeuristic – always watching but never communicating. They end up affecting his identity, making him so self-conscious about his status as a Polish outsider that he ends up assuming the identity of a woman as a means of fitting in. Concepts of gender, communication and identity are all dissected with a cleverness that’s at times frightening, at others funny, and at all times perceptive. By comparison, Repulsion seems like a beta to The Tenant’s synthesized product.
As much meta as it is beta, Repulsion is a film crafted in generalities. The always crumbling walls present in Carole’s hallucinations are to be representative for the structure of sanity as a whole. She walks on the pavement and oh, looky there, a crack. Reality is caving in. It’s a simple metaphor that becomes the prime mover of the entire story, and by the end it seems the walls are caving in from all the pretention more than anything else. Her subjectivity doesn’t help form the story like it does in similarly subjective films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Carnival of Souls…it simply overwhelms it. Everything in the film is about her subjectivity, not a product of it. We see her eye in close throughout, we see her staring into her distorted reflection in her kettle mirror, we see people that really aren’t there, walls that really aren’t cracked and rapes that really aren’t happening. For what? To establish that yes, Carole is indeed that crazy little girl in her family photo. Fin. In The Tenant Trelkovsky’s nightmares and paranoia shape and mold so many different
In Repulsion, Carole is going crazy and we don’t really know why. Is it because she’s a foreigner in an English-speaking land (like Polanski himself was at the time)? Is it because of all the sexual moaning her repressed ears hear through the apartment vents? Is it because of the repetitive inconsequence of her position as a manicurist to the shallow riche? Is it normalcy? Ennui? Or maybe it’s the toxic fumes coming out of that well rotted overcooked rabbit? It’s anyone’s guess, and without much text to linger upon, Polanski’s 105-minute exercise in subjective style runs out of questions well before the denouement. It’s a beautiful film, but one where visuals are overcooked and meaning is underdone. The Tenant is Polanski’s knockout, Repulsion is merely round one.
[b]Criterion had a rough start on DVD, relying on their Laserdisc back catalog to release dated, non-anamorphic transfers until their 47th effort, Insomnia. Thankfully, their transition to Blu-ray has been a far rosier affair, and this MPEG-4 AVC transfer of Repulsion is yet another wonderful restoration. A full 30 GB are dedicated to the film, and with that bitrate the edges look tack sharp while the thin grain aesthetic of the black and white film stock still retains its kinetic flutter. Many scenes possess the “open window” clarity to them, so clean and detailed that they seem to be playing out right behind the television. There are a few scenes later in the film that seem of a softer quality with some scratching evident, but on the whole almost every scene has been restored to near reference quality for a film pushing fifty. The black and white comes through with a very rich spectrum of grey, with the all important black levels never crushed. Even the finest bits of shadow detail are preserved in all of Carole’s crazy hallucinations. The average inclination in most post-correction is to crush the black spectrum for greater contrast, but Criterion stays true to the original intention of the look, and this transfer comes off looking as dazzling as ever. Part of the praise should fall on unsung cinematographer Gil Taylor, who quietly enriched many of Polanski’s films, from Cul-de-sac to Macbeth, as well as Hitchcock’s Frenzy, Dr. Strangelove, The Omen and a little film called Star Wars. Zero Oscar nominations.
Taylor uses the common 1.66:1 format here in a special way, removing the inherent symmetry of the square-ish 1.33:1 ratio, and the widescreen expanse of 1.85:1 to allow the 1.66:1 vertical edges an uncomfortable claustrophobic presence on either side. The in-between ratio in effect boxes in Taylor’s subjects to the point where not only are the walls suffocating them, but so too is the framing. Taylor truly orchestrated some benchmark black and white cinematography here, as well as some of the finer examples of early handheld, and thankfully through this terrific transfer Criterion has definitely preserved it for posterity. It’s refined transfers like this that make us wish Criterion did more than just one or two horror films a year.
Like all of Polanski’s films, Repulsion features a stunning soundtrack of minimalist ambience from every day surroundings with the occasional off-putting piano interlude. Considering the film is so sparse on dialog, it’s all the more important that the sound design is presented accurately here to preserve the nightmarish intensity out of common surroundings. This uncompressed Dolby Digital mono track sounds as remarkably clean as the visuals did look, and it is mixed to their high standards, with dialog, music and effects all coming in at comparable levels. The few scenes with jump stingers have their amplitude appropriately boosted and still manage to elicit a shock. While it would seem that this would be the perfect film to matrix into the 5.1 spec, since the environment really does come after Carole from all sides, that ain’t Criterion’s thang, and who can argue with the original mix? Great job.
A grab bag of different extras from different sources, this is sure to please Repulsion fans in some form or another. The first is the audio commentary with Roman Polanski and Catherine Deneuve from separate recording sessions edited together in 1994 for the Criterion Laserdisc. While Deneuve certainly has many interesting things to say about the film, her performance and Polanski’s way with actors, it’s Polanski who dominates this track, remembering and reflecting on all facets of the film. He’s often self-deprecating when it comes to techniques used in the film, and at one point even criticizes the pacing, saying that although his style hasn’t really changed over the years, he’s certainly perfected it since Repulsion, and to that I offer no argument. It’s a touch dry, as were many of the older Criterion commentaries, but still filled full with insight.
Next up is a 22-minute clip from French television chronicling the making of the film. It’s a particularly revealing piece, since much of it consists of behind the scenes footage of Polanski working on set, describing shots to his crew or acting out sequences with his cast. You can tell he’s a man completely in control of his craft, and simply just observing him here offers much to learn. Adding to the lesson, though, are actual interview segments with Polanski, Deneuve and Yvonne Furneaux. I had some weird PAL to NTSC banding during playback, but it didn’t affect the lush look into Polanski’s process.
So we’ve got an old French, 1964 television clip and a 1994 Laserdisc commentary, what next? How about a 2003 featurette from none other than Blue Underground? Yep. David Gregory directs “A British Horror Film”, with new-ish interviews with Polanski and the producers. Deneuve may be sadly missing, but the boys here still describe much of interest in the making of the film, from consistently going over budget to first having to sign on with a soft-core production company just to get the thing made. Running 22-minutes, it’s tightly edited with Gregory’s usual flare for pacing and use of film footage to enhance anecdotes.
The Blu-ray is rounded off with two trailers interesting in how vastly different they are from one another. One, presumably for UK audiences, is presented very much in the bombastic, hyperbolic Hammer mold, with wall to wall narration and exaggeration on all the depravity of the plot. The US trailer, by comparison, takes the high brow route, with lengthy quotes from big name critics (the perpetually boring Bosley Crowthers, among them). There’s also a nice booklet with an essay that provides not only a good history of the film, but also dissects some key themes. It should also be noted that Criterion has done well packaging wise by keeping the width and height dimensions of the usual Blu-ray casing, but instead has elected to use their own clear casing with a spine thickness the same as DVD. It still fits in with regular Blu-ray or HD-DVD casing, but feels much more robust and substantial. Kudos to them, and hopefully other companies adopt this standard now that Blu-ray has won the HD war.
Repulsion is a visual feast of arthouse notions of framing and mise-en-scene transplanted within the realms of subjective horror. Only in the hands of Roman Polanski could a crack in the pavement seem entirely ominous. As masterful as the visuals are, though, the narrative is non-existent, the characters ill-defined and the overall impact dulled by repetition and routine. Consider this an impressive tech demo for the fuller, finer testament to urban horror, The Tenant. Now that’s a film. Still, for Repulsion fans, Criterion has put together an enticing package, with an absolutely stunning visual transfer, a perfectly clear mono mix and a multimedia mélange of extras that really add to the film, both in terms of critical commentary and in terms of illuminating the on-set experience. Considering there’s a $30 difference between the list prices of The Tenant and Repulsion, it’s tough to recommend this to those new to Polanski. Sign a lease with the dirt cheap The Tenant first. Those already magnetized to Polanski’s first horror flick, though, will no doubt eat this up like baked rabbit.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Yeah, I just thought the character were never really defied by any of their actions. Maybe I need to see this again just to be able to try and "get" it?
im gonna get the DVD soon
Only a B?! For shame... ;)
"As masterful as the visuals are, though, the narrative is non-existent, the characters ill-defined and the overall impact dulled by repetition and routine."
That's exactly the point of an art film, no? The emphasis placed on plot over narrative? The precise LACK OF a narrative is just what Polanski was going for. As well, the characters in this film are exemplary of the characters portrayed in art films. By saying the characters are ill-defined, you basically summed up pretty much every character in every art film. Giuliana's character is anything BUT defined in Antonioni's Red Desert, Michel Poiccard is also ill-defined in Godard's Breathless, and the same can be said for characters like Elizabeth in Bergman's Persona and Johan in Hour of the Wolf. (It's not hard to see the influence of Bergman here in Polanski's film).
I dunno...I think you maybe approached it wrong. Or, maybe you didn't get out of it what you were expecting? Either way, the things you pointed out as flaws were definitely intentional by Polanski. The Tenant I don't believe is a more fleshed out version of Repulsion, rather it seems to be more of a narrative version of it. That's what I think, anyway...
Never knew Gil Taylor was never nominated for an Oscar, though. Disappointing...
At the top of the review, you might also want to change the widescreen info from 2.35:1 to 1.66:1. ;)
Nice to finally have this in its proper ratio. Thanks Criterion.
This is one of the greatest horror films ever made and absolutely the greatest psychological film of its era! As a horror film, it gives Psycho a run for its money!!
It's also a hundred times better than The Tenant!
wait a minute, did i just see matt and dvdfanatic agree on something?
Hey, there's a first time for everything. ;)
But I wouldn't say Repulsion is 100x BETTER than The Tenant, I just think that The Tenant is the more narrative of the two, or well...a more narrative variation of Repulsion. They're both fantastic films, but they're very different. There were also a number of fantastic psychological thrillers from the same era, so I dunno about saying that Repulsion is the best from the era, considering Frankenheimer's Seconds with Rock Hudson. Such a great film.
But still...wouldn't exactly call either Psycho or Repulsion horror films. They border on horror...but I agree pretty much with what DVD-fanatic was getting at.
...did rhett actually give Final Exam a higher rating than Repulsion??? For shame, rhett...for shame.
Great review, though! :)
Ugh. More fuss over a letter. I'll just give the next film a Q and see what happens.
If an alien came to earth and wanted to understand the essence of film as an art medium would I recommend Final Exam over Repulsion? Hell no. But if given the choice this very instant, there's no question I'd rather watch Final Exam than Repulsion. To me, it's the more enjoyable movie.
The point of an art film is never, to my knowledge, to make the central character as impenetrable and poorly defined as possible. The characters you've cited as examples are great characters, intriguing characters. Michel in Breathless is probably one of the most compelling leads in any film, art film or otherwise, and certainly one rich with character and personality. Giuliana in Red Desert is certainly an enigma, but her search leads to understanding and to the deciphering of her hang-ups as a character. Her flashback and her tell all with her husband at the end are amazing character moments, rich with emotional power. Persona's a tough nut since it breaks the fourth wall and ends up being about film as a process of image construction, but even still the characters there have qualities that draw us in as viewers.
In Repulsion, Deneuve just isn't the least bit interesting. She's got no character, and what's worse is that her descent into madness is pretty inconsistent when it comes to performance. Her candlestick clubbing is about as tense as a Teletubbies episode. Throw out the narrative in The Tenant and just look at character - the little man Polanski created there is just an infinitely more interesting character, and one that really has an arc.
Repulsion doesn't need character or story, there are great art films like The Holy Mountain, W.R. Mysteries of the Organism or Playtime that have none of that. But those films have variety - Repulsion does virtually the same thing for the entire run-time, imagined rape after imagined rape, dead rabbit after dead rabbit, cracked wall after cracked wall, and all the while it does not have a character or a story to fall back on. Just a premise. I can appreciate subtlety as much as the next guy, but having seen Polanski do similar better in movies like Knife in the Water, The Tenant and even Cul-de-sac, I can't help but compare.
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