"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, July 31, 2009

DVD of the Week: Repulsion: Criterion Collection

Repulsion (1965) was Roman Polanski’s second feature after the auspicious debut of Knife in the Water (1962) and established him as a filmmaker with a knack for conveying psychological horror. The film is also a startling study of loneliness and one person’s descent into madness. The success of Repulsion would soon attract the attention of Hollywood and lead to the playful horror film Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and the horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

We meet Carol (Catherine Deneuve) working at a beauty salon in London. She keeps nodding off much to the annoyance of her client. She then meets her boyfriend and they have a conversation where she appears to be distracted and barely contributing. Carol seems unable or unwilling to relate to anyone, even her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). She sits alone in her apartment and Polanski amplifies the sounds of dripping water and a ticking clock to reflect her slowly deteriorating mind. There are also shots of Carol walking the streets of London to the jazzy soundtrack of Chico Hamilton that provide a snapshot of the city – one of the hippest places in the world at the time. Carol forgets about a dinner date with her boyfriend and he finds her on a street bench staring at a crack in the sidewalk. What makes what’s happening to her all the more disturbing is that Polanski gives us no explanation as to why this is happening to her – it just is. When Helen, one of Carol’s last ties to reality, leaves for vacation with her boyfriend, she really goes off the deep end which culminates in a truly chilling conclusion.

Catherine Deneuve delivers an astonishing performance as a lost, lonely woman losing touch with reality. So much of her performance is internalized and she conveys Carol’s madness in the listless way she seems to be going through the motions, or in her eyes, the glazed expression she has while zoning out at work. In the hands of a lesser actress some of the things she does or the way she behaves could come across as silly but there is a complete conviction to her performance, a willingness to go all the way which is impressive to watch. There are large portions of the film where Deneuve is acting on her own and reacting to her environment, or what she perceives to be her environment, that is not an easy thing to pull off but she is more than up to the task.

Throughout most of Repulsion, and especially after Helen leaves for vacation, we question what is actually reality and what is only happening in Carol’s fevered imagination. At a certain point it becomes obvious that she is becoming a danger to herself and to those around her and yet no one seems to notice or wants to get involved, her sister included. But then do any of us stop to help that crazy homeless person talking to themselves? The sad reality of Repulsion is that Carol has so far alienated herself from society that she is beyond help and that is the true horror and tragedy of Polanski’s film.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by director Roman Polanski and actress Catherine Deneuve. Polanski considers the film one of his “shabbiest” in terms of technique. He says that the entire film is intended to be seen from Carol’s point-of-view. Deneuve says that she lived in London and says that it is easy to feel lonely in the city. She talks about the challenge of filming on the noisy streets of the city. Polanski points out shots or camerawork that he would do differently now while Deneuve says that he was difficult to work with but that it helped her performance.

Also included are two trailers.

“A British Horror Film” is a retrospective featurette with key crew members, including Polanski. They talk about the origins of the project – how they came up with the story, the financing and so on. Everyone interviewed tells engaging anecdotes about how the film was made.

“Grand Ecran” was made for French television and features rare footage of Polanski and Deneuve at work on the set of the film. It provides fascinating insight into the director’s working methods at the time.


  1. Great to see you covering this one. In many ways, this is perhaps my favourite Polanski film.
    Have to treat myself to the Criterion set, though the Blu is region-locked.

  2. I love this film. It's definitely one of my favorite Polanski films. Plus I love seeing Catherine. She's incredible here.

  3. Steve Langton:

    It's a really snazzy DVD and makes me wish I had a Blu Ray player. I don't think it's my fave Polanski but it is right up there. I think that spot would have to be reserved for CHINATOWN.


    Yeah, she is great in this film and an incredible actress in general. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I have this, but not on Criterion. I originally got it due to my slight blonde French woman fetish, but it is very enjoyable. They did a great job of making things trippy without getting to out of hand.

  5. Darius Whiteplume:

    Agreed. I thought that the psychological elements were handled very well and really added a tangible feeling of dread which you hardly get in horror films nowadays. Everybody seems to be into cheap jolts and shock tactics while REPULSION is genuinely unsettling.