Review Date: July 27, 2009
Released by: Criterion
Release date: 7/28/2009
Region A, HDTV
Codec: MPEG-4 AVC, 1080p
Widescreen 1.66:1 | 16x9: Yes
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
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
, 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
, 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.
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
, 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.
Movie - B
Image Quality - A*
Sound - B+
Supplements - A-
- Running Time - 1 hour 45 minutes
- Black and white
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- English subtitles
- Commentary with Roman Polanski and Catherine Deneuve
- "A British Horror Film" retrospective featurette
- French television documentary on the making-of
- Theatrical trailers
- Printed essay by film scholar Bill Horrigan