Carol (Catherine Deneuve; beautiful and innocent, a perfect casting choice) is a psychologically-damaged, sexually-mishandled manicurist left alone for a few days in her sister Hèlène’s (Yvonne Furneaux) flat while she vacations with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry), who refers to Carol as a “strung-up Cinderella.” But Cinderella never even had nightmares about what Carol experiences in apartment #15.
Repulsion (1965) is a haunted girl story, and the first of what would becomes Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” preceding ‘68’s Rosemary’s Baby and ‘76’s The Tenant. Like both, Repulsion paces itself, and it’s not until the 40-minute mark that the plot (whatever that is, in this case) begins. Polanski’s reasoning for this was so that when the first scare came, it would have a greater impact on the audience.
And it is. But too often does Polanski cheat his crowd of additional frights, like when he uses abrupt fadeouts during the film’s most frightening moments. Take one of the worst cases, when a dozen hands reach from the walls, grabbing for the distraught Carol. They reach further, feeling her hair and skin, and then…Fade Out. Cut to the next day, a close-up of a ringing telephone. Who gives a damn who’s calling? What happened with those hands? Was Carol having a nightmare? Are we?
It would be convenient to chalk this up to a sign of a young filmmaker with inventive ideas but with no clue how to execute them, but then how to explain the effectiveness of Knife in the Water (Polanski’s debut)? No, these, like the heavy-handed symbolism (the walls are cracking and Carol is cracking up, get it?) are bad and distracting directorial choices.
This isn’t to say that Repulsion isn’t scary. There are, throughout, many disturbing images, like the body in the bathtub (an undeniable homage to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diabolique), the candlestick that drips more blood than wax, and the rape scene (stripped of all sound, which somehow makes looking away that much harder). And that’s without mentioning the rotting rabbit carcass in the refrigerator.
So it’s easy to see why Repulsion, despite its obvious imperfections, is considered essential viewing in the psychological horror subgenre. It’s in the eyes.
A British Horror Film (24:03): This 2003 documentary features interviews with, amongst others, cinematographer Gil Taylor, producer Gene Gutowski, and of course Polanski, who starts off with, “Don’t even ask me to explain any of my pictures.” In lieu of interpretations, we instead get stories from the production, from financing to the effects.
Grand Écran (21:30) is a 1964 documentary that was filmed on the set of Repulsion. While we get interviews, the real treasure here is the invaluable footage (however rough) of Polanski working with his cast.
Also included on this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 12-page booklet with an essay titled “Eye of the Storm” by Bill Horrigan, director of Media Arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.