The summer that brought us Woodstock and the moon landing also lives in infamy for the Manson murders, which means a rehash of the life, times, and crimes of Sharon Tate’s widower, Roman Polanski. Pulling focus toward an Oscar-winning career that includes Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974), and The Pianist (2002) is the new Criterion Collection DVD of Repulsion (1965), his first English-language film. And one that very much retains its power to shock.
Polanski was acclaimed in his native Poland for his short films and his first feature, 1962’s Knife in the Water, which was an Academy Award nominee for foreign-language film. That distinction brought him to the attention of Britain’s Compton Films, an exploitation outfit looking for a little cachet. Written by Polanski and his frequent collaborator, GÃ©rard Brach, the movie was to be a portrait of intense psychological distress, suitable for an upscale crowd—but, in a gender switch on Hitchcock’s endlessly influential Psycho (1960), the killing implements were to be wielded by a sexy young woman, played by 22-year-old French import Catherine Deneuve. Compton, the makers of The Black Torment and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, could have its cheesecake and eat it, too.
Given what he calls a “cheapo-cheapo budget” in a retrospective documentary on the disc, Polanski upended the basic instincts of the material. Fresh from one of my favorite films, Jacques Demy’s gloriously bittersweet musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Deneuve was downgraded from color to black-and-white, with an emphasis on the black—the veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove) worked without a light meter, ensuring that Swingin’ London would swing more like the gallows than the Beatles. The actress illuminates the gloom of the South Kensington flat where her character, Carol, lives with her sister. But the vibe she gives off incinerates rather than warms.
Carol, a manicurist, is lost in waking nightmares that, to the unobservant, are more like daydreams. Neither her sister, HÃ©lÃ¨ne (Yvonne Furneaux, a veteran of the Hammer horror The Mummy in 1959), nor HÃ©lÃ¨ne’s married boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry), are aware of the extent of her problems, nor, initially, are we. In a movie noted for bludgeoning scenes of violence Carol, a Belgian adrift in an unfamiliar culture, is allowed to unwind with a kind of morbid delicacy, which accelerates when HÃ©lÃ¨ne and Michael leave for an Italian getaway. Carol’s timidity around men, including prospective boyfriend Colin (John Fraser), escalates into full-fledged panic as the apartment itself seems to corrode and buckle, mirroring her fragile emotional state. The genius of Polanski’s approach is that he doesn’t distinguish between Carol’s reality and unreality with dissolves or other editing tricks—though he and Brach did no research for the film her hallucinations, sensitivity to noise and general displacement will be familiar to anyone who’s ever suffered severe depression.
Then again, the movie isn’t a documentary. Subsequent developments with Colin, and Carol’s lecherous landlord (Patrick Wymark), live up to the trailer’s pledge to shake us up with “A frightening film that takes the everyday world and distorts it! A terrifying look at the dark side of innocence losing control!” And that’s leaving out the recurrence of the skinned rabbit, or the famous clutching hands that burst through the walls to molest Carol. But there’s an underlying sympathy to the horror, embodied in Deneuve’s sensitive performance. She could be Norman Bates’ Continental cousin. It’s worth noting that as in Psycho, it’s not just the psycho who takes the acting honors; Wymark, always a standout performer, lives in the skin of his character, and Hendry’s final scenes are expertly played and terribly gallant, in the context.
I owned Criterion’s 1994 laserdisc of Repulsion, which the DVD trumps with better image quality and additional supplements. Retained, fortunately, is a commentary track with Polanski and Deneuve, who were recorded separately—all the better for the old friends to be candid about one another (Polanski wonders why Deneuve, known for her coolness, didn’t become a more “emotional” actress; she, in turn, regrets taking the director’s suggestion to do a Playboy spread in support of the film, as it violated the frigidity of her character.) Extras include a French TV documentary made on-set and that retrospective documentary mentioned earlier, A British Horror Film (2003), which was originally produced for a European DVD of the film. It begins with the interviewer asking Polanski to comment on the film’s allegedly explanatory final shot, to which the director, contentedly enigmatic, replies, “You can do what you want, it’s a free country. But don’t ever ask me to explain any of my pictures.”
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