She’s a very pretty girl, but while people notice her body, they overlook her eyes. There’s something wrong with her, deep down, and the only reason she’s kept it hidden this long is that nobody really wants to see it. It’s a balancing act just to navigate the day, between the leering looks from strangers and the invading presence of her sister’s married lover. Then her sister and the lover go on vacation, and she’s left alone. The phone keeps ringing, a young man who thinks he’s her boyfriend won’t take “uh-uh” for an answer, and there’s a skinned rabbit rotting in the living room. And that’s when the walls start to crack.
1965’s Repulsion is Roman Polanski’s first English-language film, and though his script plays just fine, there’s a basic communication problem running through the picture; in a way, it’s a movie about what happens when a person can’t express herself, and how willingly the rest of the world fills in the blanks her silence leaves behind. The tone is set by the opening credits, as names slide by a single blinking eye, eventually pulling back to show Catherine Deneuve starring blankly ahead. She’s lovely, but hollow, and lost in a daydream that’s her only escape. As Polanski says in the commentary, “She’s a girl with a problem,” and as that problem worsens, the blankness never really leaves.
Repulsion’s first real scare doesn’t hit till around the 40-minute mark, but it hits hard, partly because of Polanski’s skill at framing, but mostly because the previous 39 minutes feel like a long wait for bad news to break. From the first shot on, there’s no question that Deneuve will crack; she gives a pitiable, unsparing performance that makes a breakdown not just inevitable, but a relief. The most shocking element may be how no one in her life notices what’s going on until it’s too late. Polanski uses all his tricks to convey Deneuve’s increasing disconnect from the world, from striking visuals that never telegraph their delusional nature to a sound design that rivals that of Robert Wise’s The Haunting for sheer, skin-crawling unpleasantness. But his greatest asset remains Deneuve’s dead stare. It’s a contrast that never fails to discomfit: striking beauty that masks a never-ending scream.
Key features: As always, Criterion brings the goods: In addition to a gorgeous print of the film, there’s a commentary track with Polanski and Deneuve, two documentaries, and trailers.