Not sure why it took me so long to get around to this, given my long-standing admiration for Polanski’s wonderfully lurid Rosemary’s Baby. Based on Repulsion‘s reputation as a dark psychological thriller, I wasn’t expecting it to work so efficiently as a straight-up horror movie — perhaps that classification is another case of conventional wisdom classing up an especially well-respected film by lifting it out of the genre ghetto.
Catherine Deneuve is Carole, a London flat-dweller who starts to go out of her mind from fear and paranoia after her roommate sister and her beau go on holiday, leaving her by herself in the apartment. Specifically, she’s afraid of a male intruder, imagining forcible entry by the construction worker who leers at her on the street as she travels between home and work. As the film progresses, Deneuve’s mental state becomes more fragile, and the phantasms of her overworking brain start to assert themselves in her reality.
Deneuve is fantastic in the role, putting body language and frightened eyes to good use. There’s a short television documentary included on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray versions that features archival footage of Polanski on the set, and it graphically illustrates his status as a great director — he moves lithely and precisely, like a dancer, showing his actors exactly how he imagines their performances. And the film itself is evidence of his visual imagination, expansive but not intrusive. I was especially struck by his decision to depict Carole’s decaying mental state by imposing physical changes on the apartment itself, cracks appearing on walls and the floorplan expanding to accommodate the growing terror. (It’s obviously influenced by the surrealists, et al, but it reminded me directly of the tactics of Mark Z. Danielewski’s aggressively brain-humping lit-crit horror novel House of Leaves, which I recently finished reading and which works all the juice out of that particular gambit.) It’s a scary film, an impressively expressive film, and one that neither overplays its hand nor overstays its welcome.
Criterion’s versions of the film are pretty impressive in their own right, rescuing the film from the myriad, reputedly crappy video transfers that preceded it. The high-definition Blu-ray Disc looks gritty and grainy, for sure, but it lacks the gorgeous monochromatic textures of Criterion’s reference-quality HD versions of The Third Man (now out of print; get it if you can find it) and The Seventh Seal. Yes, this may be partly a question of different film stocks and production techniques, but I do reckon grain-reduction techniques were applied over-zealously. My suspicions are backed up by a scene just past the one-hour mark when Carole’s would-be boyfriend Colin (John Fraser) is hanging out at the pub, his back turned to the camera. There’s a seam running vertically down the back of his suit jacket that flickers in and out of existence during the shot, a telltale artifact of the aggressive filtering algorithms that can remove picture data, alas, along with high-frequency picture noise. If I’m nitpicking, it’s just because it’s frustrating when a transfer is this close to perfect.