Repulsion (1965)
Criterion Collection
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux, Ian Hendry, John Fraser
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentaries, Trailers

Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" wastes no time before plunging its audience into the frighteningly disturbed mindset of its central character, Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve). The film opens on an extreme close-up of Carol's right eye as the credits scroll through at crude angles, uncomfortably threatening to pierce through her exposed cornea. It is an aptly Freudian image, establishing from the onset both the psychosexual dangers that will plague Carol throughout the rest of the film and her inexplicably warped perception of reality.

Carol is a pretty, blonde, Belgian girl who shares an apartment with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in London. She works as a manicurist in a posh beauty salon and attracts the attention of every man she encounters. She also has a pathological repulsion to all men, harboring a deeply-rooted insecurity that marks her as socially inhibited and frigid. That does not stop a seemingly nice young man, Colin (John Fraser), from attempting to woo her, but her antisocial behavior makes her less than easy. At home, she is put off by her sister's married boyfriend (Ian Hendry), who makes a habit of leaving his toothbrush and razor in Carol's bathroom glass. The only time she seems capable of functioning halfway normally is when she is surrounded exclusively by other women, either at the salon or in her apartment with her sister.

But even her private dwellings lose their comforting security when Helen packs up and heads to Italy with her boyfriend for a few days' vacation. Left alone in the apartment, Carol's insecurities begin to manifest themselves in increasingly realistic hallucinations. Triggered by her unceasing fear of sexual violation, nightly fantasies of being raped by a spectral figure drive her closer to mental and emotional breakdown, and her latent violent tendencies begin to surface.

"Repulsion" was only Polanski's second feature, and his first in English, following the high acclaim of his Polish debut "Knife in the Water" (1962). But many of the themes he would explore to great effect in his later works, particularly in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), are already evident. Specifically, he presents the film almost entirely from the subjective viewpoint of a young woman whose personal fears have damagingly skewed her ability to separate reality from fantasy. The film came at a crucial point in the mid 1960s, as the horror genre was moving away from the foreign locales and monstrous creatures of classical genre staples to a more contemporary, urban setting. Like Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), it puts forth a disturbingly convincing portrait of the true horror of escalating madness. Indeed, critic Kenneth Tynan referred to the film as "'Psycho' turned inside out" at the time of its release. Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski offers no immediate closure to his unsettling story. There are subtle hints at the cause of Carol's condition, but no conclusive summation.

Part of what makes "Repulsion" such a deeply affecting work is Polanski's mastery of sound and visuals to convey Carol's fragile mental state. He intensifies her isolation by heightening the claustrophobia of her apartment and its immediate surroundings. Cracks on the wall, shadows, the sound of water dripping, sirens outside, and church bells across the street conspire in a frightening eruption of banal but relentlessly unnerving signals of entrapment. Gilbert Taylor's black-and-white cinematography conveys a bleak and depressing view of Swinging London that is far removed from the carefree and brightly shallow depictions of the late 60s, helped no doubt by Polanski's own foreignness in British culture. Chico Hamilton's jazz score, with its loud starts and fits of brass and percussion, likewise contributes to the unsettling atmosphere, mirroring Carol's erratic behavior and sudden mood swings.

Yet to achieve iconic status as an international star, 20-year-old Catherine Deneuve was ideally cast, her detached countenance rarely used so well again. With her face frequently distorted by unusual camera angles, she downplays her beauty in favor of an unflinching, sometimes animalistic derangement. She is virtually silent throughout much of the film, relying largely on her face and body language to bring out Carol's permanent discomfort. The character is offset by her promiscuous sister and perky coworker (Helen Fraser) who talks incessantly of her on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend. Representing normalcy, these women serve to emphasize just how cut off Carol is from the rest of society, and Deneuve's wide-eyed alien is at once sympathetic and repulsive in her own way.

While "Repulsion" does not fall into most of the typical trappings of the horror genre (Polanski insists it is not a horror film), it is nonetheless a genuinely horrifying movie from beginning to end. It is the film's very banality and stark realism that creates chills as this nondescript beauty descends further toward an unexplained madness. One of Polanski's gifts as a filmmaker, and one that has marked most of his great work, is his ability to find the grotesque and indecent in the most ordinary and outwardly comforting situations. And although "Rosemary's Baby" is generally given credit for helping to usher in the contemporary horror film three years later, "Repulsion" brilliantly lays the groundwork for that later masterpiece and succeeds in being a frightening, provocative work of art in its own right.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of "Repulsion" is nothing short of a godsend for fans who have spent years enduring subpar, borderline unwatchable public domain editions. Boasting a 1.66:1 high-definition transfer approved by director Roman Polanski, this is undoubtedly the best the film has looked in ages. The image is crisp and sharp, displaying fine grain throughout. Contrast is excellent, enhancing the film's rich use of shadows with inky black levels. Some visible scratches and vertical lines appear occasionally, but they are negligible (in fact, they actually compliment the film's increasingly grotesque appearance). Now 44 years old, "Repulsion" has been cleaned up beautifully, and the 1080p transfer presents all of the film's visual details with a clarity that, until now, seemed all but lost. This is another in a string of top-notch Blu-ray releases from Criterion, and anyone who believes that older, black-and-white films will not benefit from high-def transfers need look no further than this company's peerless work.

The audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, as is customary for Criterion's releases of older films. Dialogue generally sounds fine, while the sound effects and Chico Hamilton's score are the real showcase. At times, the music can blast quite loudly and unexpectedly, and the perfect silence preceding it, without hiss, increases its effectiveness.

The first, and best, supplement is a commentary track featuring Polanski and Deneuve that was originally recorded in 1994 for Criterion's laserdisc release. The two were recorded separately, but they impart a wealth of information about the film's production and their experiences making it. Polanski reflects honestly on many things he would do differently today, making this quite a relief from the typical self-congratulatory commentaries we usually hear on DVDs. Likewise, Deneuve openly discusses Polanski's sometimes difficult ways of directing while acknowledging that he did what was best for the film.

"A British Horror Film" is a 24-minute documentary produced in 2003 by Blue Underground UK. Featuring interviews with Polanski, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, art director Seamus Flannery, producer Gene Gutowski, and executive producer Tony Tenser, this is a very good addition that provides further insight on the film's production. It is great to hear the multiple viewpoints from the interviewees as they discuss their individual contributions as well as their overall impressions of the film.

Next is a vintage documentary that originally appeared as a segment on French television show "Grand écran" in 1964. Lasting 22 minutes, it provides rare behind-the-scenes footage of the production. In addition to on-set interviews with Polanski and Deneuve, we also get to see the two working together, with Polanski physically acting out the roles for his actors to ensure that they deliver exactly what he wants.

Finally, we are presented with two original trailers. An insert booklet also contains a nice essay by writer Bill Horrigan. The special features were fewer than I initially expected, but I really can't complain about what has been included, as it all offers new and fascinating insight into this long neglected film.

American viewers have waited a long time for a decent edition of "Repulsion" to hit Region 1, and Criterion's Blu-ray does not disappoint. The film looks better than it has in a long time, and a collection of fascinating supplements add to our enjoyment and appreciation. This is a highly recommended release for fans of intelligent, psychological thrillers.