When Tony Tenser first saw Repulsion, which was made for the cheapjack production company Compton-Tekli, he is reported to have said to Roman Polanski, "We ordered a Mini Cooper and you delivered a Rolls Royce!" Not only is it a great anecdote, it's also quite true. Given minimal resources, Polanski created something new, stylish and utterly terrifying.
Ironically, perhaps, Repulsion contains most of the elements which make up a classic British exploitation movie of the period running from the mid-60s to the late-70s - sex, violence, blood and sleaze - but arranges them in such a way that audience expectations of satiation are likely to be disappointed. Placing us directly inside the damaged perspective of a mentally disturbed young woman, Polanski and his co-writer Gerald Brach make these familiar elements deeply strange and disturbing. The presence of so many familiar British cinema faces - John Fraser, Ian Hendry, Patrick Wymark, Renee Houston - in such a setting is equally disorientating, almost as if Catherine Deneuve's delusions are being influenced by the movies she would have been watching at the time.
What follows is Anthony Nield's review of the film, published on DVD Times in 2003. I pretty much agree with his conclusions and I particularly like his apposite references and comparisons to other films of the period.
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.
To briefly address Anthony's two final points, I think the use of the spoon players is just an element of additional cultural strangeness to establish the alien nature of the world in which Deneuve has found herself - reflecting the experience of Polanski when he first came to London himself. As for the decomposing food, it's certainly an unsubtle metaphor but it works well enough on the basic grossout level of 'euurgh' which is what, I suspect, was intended - and it is also, of course, a convenient way of showing how much time has passed. I'd also add a word for the aforementioned supporting cast who do wonders with small roles. The great Patrick Wymark is particularly memorable as one of the sleaziest landlords in Sixties cinema. Throughout, the film looks marvellous which is particularly remarkable considering that the DP was changed towards the end of production.
Odeon's new DVD release of Repulsion is a very pleasing package that complents Anchor Bay's 2003 release with some slightly different extras and an improved transfer.
The 1.66:1 transfer is anamorphically enhanced and is excellent. There's a small amount of natural grain throughout but the overall effect is beautifully crisp and clear with splendid contrast throughout. It's a very dark film and the shadow detail is superb. The English mono soundtrack does the job very well, presenting the complex sound mix with accuracy.
By far the best of the extra features is a 45 minute interview with Polanski conducted by Clive James in 1984 and originally shown on ITV. It's fascinating partly because Clive James is such a probing and insightful interviewer and partly because it Polanski, sometimes inadvertantly, reveals much about himself. When talking about his childhood in occupied Poland he is open and expansive and he discusses the 1960s with great affection. But when the talk comes on to his sexual preferences and his legal trouble which resulted from them, Polanski immediately starts to look shifty and gets aggressive. While one regrets that James doesn't discuss the films in more detail, it seems to me entirely reasonable to press Polanski on the point of his oft-stated taste for very young females, especially when the director starts making outrageous generalisations about what "any man would do". It's also a particularly significant point, in my view, because Polanski's work undergoes a noticeable decline after 1977, with occasional exceptions, and this is surely not unconnected to the events in his life.
We also get the commentary from the Anchor Bay disc which is a good one, featuring Polanski and Deneuve who are, regrettably, recorded separately. The director has more to say than his actress but it's a full and interesting track.
Also on the disc is a short interview with Stanley Long, who took over DP duties from Gil Taylor towards the end of the shoot, a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.
The only real drawback here is the lack of subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Repulsion is an excellent, thrillingly imaginative film which still packs quite a punch - as is reflected by its 18 certificate which is unusual for such an old movie. This DVD presents it beautifully and even if you have the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD, it's worth getting for the excellent Clive James interview.