Roman Polanski’s still-thrilling Repulsion is an experiment in sang-Freud: Its two-way prism of audio-visual embellishments intuits a woman’s fractured psyche and catches super-cool flashes of the audience’s perverse cine-desires. The interior and exterior environs of the film are locked in heady combat, a commentary perhaps on the push-pull effect of the movies. Outside the apartment Catherine Deneuve’s Faberge blonde shares with her older sister, Polanski reveals a smooth and jazzy world simmering with casual but richly observed behavioral and dramatic incident. Detail is no less meticulous inside, but the space is fleshier and ever-shifting, with Polanski kneading his audience and main character like lumps of Play-Doh. The feeling the film elicits is tense, totalitarian, and allusive: Polanski’s warping aesthetic is pure obstruction, and the audience’s search for significance in it becomes a means of deciphering Carole’s repulsion for men. But the rationale for Carole’s sickness comes to matter less than the evocation and evolution of the sickness itself—from the woman’s “abandonment” by her sister to the most memorable rotting corpse the movies have ever seen (sorry Bernie!). (Abel Ferrara’s unofficial remake Driller Killer is a cruder but similarly intense vision of the world and the individual in symbiotic crisis.) A searing, clockwork synergy, the lucid sights and sounds of Carole’s world are conduits and conspirators of madness and pleasure. Polanski’s triumph is a weird, tense depolarization of space, a chipping away at psychological walls so that fear and desire become synonymous: Carole fantasizes about the construction worker that cat-called her days earlier (a crack on the sidewalk seemingly radiates from her vagina) and, later, puts on makeup to welcome a fantasy rapist. The film is like a slyly misanthropic theme-park ride for the sane—a satiric, disturbing approximation of insanity by way of a master-class mosaic of aural detail and visual sleights of hand.
The image on this long-awaited DVD release of Repulsion is, on one hand, absolutely pristine in spite of the distracting grain level, boasting stellar shadow delineation and no haloing, combing, or other digital artifacts, but given the nature of the film, there's something almost off-putting about this cleanliness, as if the film has been sanitized through a gruelingly excessive digital restoration. (I would have preferred a few scratches on the image to match the fissures on Carole's wall, but beggars can't be choosers, I suppose.) And while the audio track is only a measly mono one, it really shows its muscle whenever Chico Hamilton's score barges in.
A carryover from Criterion's famous laserdisc edition of Repulsion, the composite audio commentary by Roman Polanski and Catherine "Eyes Like a Little Horse" Deneuve is fascinating for how the director and actress openly lay out their creative insecurities. Polanski doesn't seem to regard the film highly, stating that he would go on to perfect the style evinced throughout the film in his later work, openly condescending to critics for their wild interpretations while at the same suggesting that the film invites complex and unexpected readings; Deneuve, meanwhile, alludes to having had a hard time working with Polanski but admits that he was very good with actors, often attacking scenes as if he were an actor first and a director second. Other extras: a 2003 documentary on the film produced by Blue Underground and featuring interviews with a defensive Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; a fascinating 1964 documentary filmed on the set of the film; two amazingly grungy-looking trailers; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar and curator Bill Horrigan.
One for the ages, Repulsion is a master class of hypnotic movie brio, the visual and audio keyed impeccably and disturbingly to the psychological.