In stark contrast to the films Hammer were making at the time, Repulsion offers a different kind of British horror experience. Charting Catherine Deneuve’s mental breakdown, the film included such striking images as giant cracks appearing from nowhere in the walls, hands emerging from said location, and imagined rapists (the two scenes of the latter are carried out in complete silence, making an interesting connection with Polanski’s first two short films: Murder and Teethful Smile). Yet despite these fantastical edges, Repulsion also holds strong claims to presenting a realistic environment. Obviously, such claims cannot be made during Deneuve’s delusional states, but when taking a more objective view, the London locations appear truly remarkable. No doubt due, in some part, to the outsider’s eye of Roman Polanski, here making his first English language film.
For the most part though, the director limits himself to one location, as he had with a number of his short films and debut feature Knife in the Water. The tiny flat in which most of Deneuve’s breakdown takes place, is created as a truly claustrophobic environment. Moreover, the set design is such that it appears to be exactly what’s intended: a flat shared by two sisters. As a result, when Deneuve’s delusions do come into play they seem all the more shocking for occurring in such a familiar place.
This idea is extended when the film ventures outside the flat and into the streets, pubs and Deneuve’s workplace, a tiny salon. Once more, the director’s keen eye allows for all the right details to be in place; his noted passion for creating the right atmosphere readily apparent. What’s striking, and may be lost on modern viewers, is how much these moments resemble the British New Wave films of the time. Born out of the “Free Cinema” movement, these films aimed to create a new realism in British cinema with such works as The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner and Look Back in Anger. Indeed, anyone familiar with these efforts, will immediately see the similarities in the pub scenes and the way Polanski captures the monotony of Deneuve’s daily working life (the main reference that comes to mind is Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; Reisz himself being an East European emigre director who had escaped the holocaust).
With Polanski doing so much to ensure that the madness of his main character is played out in the correct environment, an incredible burden is placed on Catherine Deneuve’s shoulders. Essentially, if her performance fails, then so does the film. Thankfully, she proves perfect for the part. Relying a great deal on her massive eyes, she resembles a child at most times, with her innate shyness and tendency to put four sugars in her cup of coffee. Moreover, there’s a huge amount of introspection going on, and even when she speaks, it’s done so softly that one struggles to hear what she is saying. (This being intentional and not a fault of the disc.) What this allows for is a certain mystery around her, the subjective delusions being all the more intriguing as they offer the only gateway into her character. It’s also worth giving some of the credit to Polanski here. Whereas most directors are happy to over-indulge their actors when playing any kind of delusional and/or psychotic role (witness, for example Gary Oldman’s scenery chewing in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element), Polanski allows Deneuve to give away only the tiniest details, fully aware that the events of the film are powerful enough without the need for any over-the-top histrionics.
Despite the fact that much of this film is very good, there are two things that confuse me. Firstly, I’m at a loss as to what exactly the spoon players walking through the streets of London are supposed to signify (interestingly these characters have appeared in other Polanski films, he even played the spoons himself in Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula); and secondly, Polanski includes a rather blatant metaphor for Deneuve’s mental state: the rotting food lying around the flat. Whereas much of the film plays out with a wonderful subtlety, the director treats their decomposition to close-ups and long takes, just to ensure the audience is understanding the emphasis. Sadly, it’s unnecessary, though admittedly this is only a tiny complaint. As it is, Repulsion stands out as one of the finest British films of the Sixties, remarkable considering this was the decade which produced the likes of If...., Performance and The Servant.
Picture and Sound
As with the other Anchor Bay releases of Roman Polanski films, the transfer is once again flawless. The occasional scratch does appear, though considering the film’s age this is understandable. Presented anamorphically, the print does full justice to stark black and white photography and Maurice Binder’s wonderful credit sequence.
As with Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac, the sound options range from the original mono (split over two channels) to a 5.1 mix or DTS. Unlike those two films, Repulsion makes excellent use of sound, especially during the shock moments. Indeed, the use of the rear speakers in particular allows for the subjectivity of these scenes to increase dramatically. One minor problem, however, concerning both the 5.1 and DTS tracks: the dialogue (which is mainly kept to the front speakers) occasionally seems a little disembodied, and to my ear it sounded as though the actors’ voices weren‘t quite connected to their mouths. A comparison with the original soundtrack proved this was only a problem with these two mixes, though, as said, it isn’t a major flaw as it’s only noticeable during one or two scenes.
The stand-out of Anchor Bay's Roman Polanski discs, Repulsion is complemented with a wealth of excellent extras. As well as the usual photo gallery, biographies and theatrical trailer, we are presented with an excellent featurette and commentary.
'A British Horror Film' proves to be incredibly in-depth during its brief 23 minute running time. All the essential crew members are interviewed, discussing everything from how the shock effects were achieved to Komeda's score and Deneuve's performance. In fact, the only person notable by their absence is the lead actress, though she contributes a joint commentary with Roman Polanski.
Despite being recorded separately, the two participants provide a thorough discussion. Whilst Polanski speaks more often, both have interesting things to offer throughout. From the difficulties of performing the rape scenes to censorship problems the film faced, every detail is discussed minutely. Indeed, Polanski even offers an explanation as to the presence of spoon-players! The only flaw is the fact that Deneuve and Polanski didn't record the track together; as anyone who has listened to, say, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell's commentary for The Thing will be fully aware that having someone present to play-off can aid such features immeasurably.
Also present, and equally fascinating, are a brief gallery of Seamus Flannery's production designs, and an intriguing interview with Professor Richard L. Gregory. Author of Eye and Brain, the Professor once collaborated with Polanski on an unrealised project, a 3D horror film. Gregory discusses this at length, whilst also offering his thoughts on Repulsion, which he claims was greatly influenced by his book. Sadly, the interview lasts for only eleven minutes, and Gregory is has such interesting things to say, you wish he would continue longer.
As with the main feature, no subtitles are provided for the special features.
This disc is exactly what DVD was invented for: take a truly great film, give it best possible presentation, and supplement it with the finest extras. Simply put, a classic film on a classic DVD. Congratulations are in order to all involved.