Roman Polanski’s second feature, and his first after emigrating from communist Poland, “Repulsion” quivers with liberated energy and forces both cathartic and annihilating.
Detailing the abrupt mental deterioration of a nail-chomping beautician named Carole, played by Catherine Deneuve, the 1965 film, due out in a new DVD and Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection on Tuesday, is consistently engrossing, even though, or perhaps because, it is essentially one long Freudian gag.
Making her own English-language debut, Deneuve is both Rosemary and the devil in one unblemished package. The ideal of feminine beauty, and treated accordingly by Polanski’s libidinous camera, Deneuve’s naif is alluring but untouchable, her outward prudishness masking a pervasive psychic rot.
Polanski places the audience inside his heroine’s diseased mind. When her psyche begins to fracture, spurred by the invasive presence of her sister’s boorish, heartily sexual boyfriend, the walls of their shared apartment crack apart, revealing a suppurating, organic-seeming mass beneath the dingy plaster.
Once Deneuve’s sister decamps for an amorous vacation with her married lover, the movie abandons all sense of the outside world. Time is told by the sprouting potatoes on the kitchen counter and the steady decay of a skinned rabbit, which Carole eventually relieves of its head. Accompanied by the tolling of cloister bells and jazz drummer Chico Hamilton’s clangorous score, the character envisions herself assaulted by strange men who leap at her out of the shadows.
Polanski emphasizes the apartment’s oblique angles, enhanced by distorted sets and gradually widening lenses, so that by the end of the film Deneuve seems to be wandering a vacant landscape furnished by the odd settee and end table. Criterion’s excellent Blu-ray edition holds the focus all the way back, underlining the depth of her mental deterioration; the disc also includes commentary from Polanski and Deneuve and a making-of documentary, both taken from earlier releases.
Polanski and his co-scenarist, Gerard Brach, stuff their gonzo psychodrama with a riot of phallic symbols, from the straight razor that defiles the sisters’ bathroom to the candlestick Deneuve uses to bludgeon an aggressive gentleman caller. A newspaper item lays it on even thicker with a report of eels bursting forth from a government minister’s drain.
As in all of Polanski’s best films, the excess is contagious. Rather than repulsing us, the movie solicits our collusion in its heroine’s spiraling psychosis. The men who “molest” her, from John Fraser’s passive-aggressive suitor to Patrick Wymark’s bullying landlord, are every bit as repellent as she finds them, if not so deserving of their abrupt ends. They belong not to the free-swinging London where Polanski spent his nights but to an earlier, more furtive age.
The closing shot of a disturbing family photo suggests that Deneuve’s character might have been the victim of such unhealthy advances as a child, but the movie’s real villain is the repressive atmosphere that pervades every scene, filling innocuous interactions with salacious dread.
Even as she registers a growing sense of unease, Deneuve retains the dislocated stare of a woman lost in a dream; the first words in the film are those of a customer asking her if she’s fallen asleep. The stilted quality of her English and the never quite in-sync dubbing enhance the sense of remove.
For all its shock tactics, “Repulsion” is remarkably cold-blooded. (It’s markedly less hysterical than “The Tenant,” in which Polanski himself played the persecuted lead.) You have the feeling you’re being manipulated by a master, one whose hands never sweat and whose eye never blinks.