Repulsion (1965)

NOVEMBER 22, 2009


Horror or not, I really should watch more of Roman Polanski’s films. I haven’t outright loved any of them, but they’re all interesting, and like Kubrick, he doesn’t seem to be interested in making the same type of movie over and over. And even though Repulsion is part of a loose thematic trilogy (along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant), it only shares basic plot elements with Rosemary (I haven’t seen Tenant yet, so I cannot judge), i.e. a female lead, an apartment building - it’s hardly a case of a director repeating himself.

And it’s quite accomplished, despite being one of his earliest films and his first in English. 90% of the film takes place in the apartment, and it’s to his credit that the film still has an energy to it. Most films that are confined to a single small location (i.e. Speed) rely on the action of the story to keep from feeling too cramped, but since Repulsion is by design a slow moving film, it’s even more impressive that from a strictly visual point of view, the film can hold viewer interest.

It might get a bit too slow at times though, and I think the film as a whole might be improved with maybe 10-15 minutes chopped out. I understand that we are watching her slowly descent into madness, but at times its so slow it just seems like nothing is happening at all. And I might even have proof of that - Polanski makes the hilariously odd choice of denoting the passage of time via rotting potatoes, but there are 2 such shots (spread out over maybe 15 minutes) in which I couldn’t tell any difference in their deterioration. It’s a tough enough sell as is - our heroine barely speaks, is alone most of the time, and is hardly pleasant to be around - we don’t need to be bored on top of being uncomfortable.

One thing I definitely liked was the ambiguity of it all. Any remake/ripoff would spend 10 minutes or more explaining why she was crazy, and have flashbacks to the day that photo was taken to explain why she’s looking off into the distance, and other useless shit that only morons would possibly appreciate. But here, her less-than-detailed persona allows the viewer to make up their own reasoning, without it being forced down our throats. And since her victims come to her place of refuge and she acts out (i.e. kills them) out of her own fears, we don’t NEED a motive or anything. I always bring up Halloween as an example - by making him Laurie’s brother, it actually retroactively renders some of the first movie nonsensical (why is he tailing Tommy and Annie then?). Polanski doesn’t have to worry about such things - the motive is what you decide it is. (For what it's worth, I assumed her sister was the favorite of their father growing up, which made her feel inadequate and also begin to start hating men in return).

Also, given Polanski’s once again topical legal issues, there’s something sort of perversely interesting about watching his film about a young girl who is petrified at the idea of being attacked by older men.

Criterion recently re-issued their 2003 Special Edition on Blu-Ray, which is what I watched. Despite being 45+ years old, the film looks immaculate in high def; you can often see individual strands of hair on Catherine Deneuve’s increasingly messy appearance. The extras are a bit slim, but worth a look. First up are a pair of trailers that spoil most of the movie, which are always fun to look at once you’ve actually seen it. Then there’s a 2003 retrospective doc featuring Polanski and several of his crew (but no actors), where they cover the usual stuff (how the film got put together, petty clashes with producers and such, etc). And it starts with Polanski telling the interviewer that he refuses to explain anything about the film, which makes the other piece all the more interesting. That would be the making of, which was produced for television when the film was first released in 1965. In the piece, Polanski is quite open about the film, and even frustrates himself trying to explain a minor little detail about the film’s dialogue style. There’s also a hilarious bit where he talks with Deneuve about how he doesn’t want anyone in the film to do anything strange for no reason, right before inexplicably jacking up the tripod arm that she is leaning on. And as someone who watches these sort of things several times a week, I was fascinated by how much of its focus was on actual information and filmmaking, instead of sound-bytes, talking heads, and overuse of film clips like the studio sanctioned shit we get for modern films.

There is also a commentary track by Polanski and his leading lady, but my plan to watch the 20 minute making of and then fall asleep with the commentary was thwarted by the fact that the making of was in French, which translates to “puts me to sleep instantly” (such a lulling language...), so I woke up at 2 am with the menu on a loop and still holding the remote in my hand. I watched the making of the next morning, but due to the fact that it’s on Blu-Ray, had no way of listening to the commentary at work like I usually do. I’ll try to get to it in the next couple days though. Hopefully it’s in English.

What say you?

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. I think that what you saw as a couple of potatoes was a coney, a rabbit, commonly available in any British meat shop. I think the boyfriend and the sister discuss it when they buy it before impulsively going off on their vacation. It is shown gradually rotting in just the shots you describe, and looks rather like a human fetus. But then, I was lucky enough to see "Repulsion" in a theater at a college, an immaculate print on a huge screen (but decades ago, so I'm a little shaky on details). There was a discussion in a Sixties book on horror films on the question of whether Polanski's treatment of the heroine was sympathetic or not. The author said yes, but I never did feel much in the way of human compassion in any of Polanski's movies, and I've even been able to see such odd items of his as "The Tenant." (which is grim and weird enough to quality for a day's horror movie, easily.)

  2. Seen a couple of times, I was surprised you didn't mention the degradation of the Rabbit, as its one of the more off the rails moments. Especially in an England as fastidiously clean as people who lived in the early - mid 60's like to say.
    However long the rabbit takes to congeal is the length the film is taking place once she goes into shut in mode.
    Films great, but hard to watch, especially when I deal with issues like I see in her every day.

    Get the Tenant out, its the stranger yet. I think they should perhaps be called the "Possession" trilogy.


Movie & TV Show Preview Widget