By Matthew Sorrento | July 28, 2009

For Hitchcock, it all began when his father sent him to the police station with a note, and the British police locked him up for being a bad boy (or so the story goes). From then on, Hitch was preoccupied with an innocent man having to prove his innocence, a theme recurring in his work. If he did borrow the voyeuristic gaze from Fritz Lang, around whom Hitch worked as a set designer in Germany before beginning as a director in Britain, it may have germinated as little Hitchcock looked, helplessly, from behind the bars, before the cops let him out a short time after.

For young Roman Polanski, it all began when the Nazis took over his city of residence, Warsaw, in their campaign to conquer Poland. After his family dodged a number of raids in the Warsaw ghetto, Polanski escaped and was living with a Catholic farmer. The details of Polanski’s escape are as legendary, if more solemn, as Hitch’s “origin” tale. Young Polanski was once granted exit from the ghetto by a Polish militia-man working for the Nazis, who told him, in a growling hush, “Don’t run!” (This event would later inspire Spzilman’s escape from the ghetto in “The Pianist.”) For Polanski’s final escape, his father guided him through a fence to the free part of the city, just before his father would be taken away to a camp. According to some sources, Polanski even served as target practice for Nazi soldiers.

In his traumatic personal history we find the source of his career-long thematic style: the exploration of isolation. The theme first appeared in his shocker “Repulsion” (1965), which shows a sensibility that Polanski would revise throughout his career. Think of the best moments in “Rosemary’s Baby,” in which Mia Farrow resists the isolated dread that announces the beginning of her imprisonment; the loopy solo show of “The Tenant,” in which Polanski plays a man gone mad by an apartment’s curse; even the best moments of the director’s “Macbeth”; or his masterwork and Palme d’Or/Oscar win, “The Pianist,” in which he brings his trademark style back to the real-life subject matter that inspired it. The theme blooms in a clever black-and-white pleasure from ’65.

Polanski made “Repulsion” in Britain after he fell on hard luck. His feature debut, “Knife in the Water” (also a fine set from Criterion that includes Polanski’s short films), is a character study in which a couple and a student take a sailing trip together. Polanski focuses on the frailties of personal relationships while opening up a restrained setting, as did Hitchcock in “Lifeboat.” The connection may not be so far off, since the state-run Polish filmmaking industry (centered on the film school in Łódź, where Polanski attended) offered its students ample funding and resources, including prints of Hollywood works the school found to be technically profound. Polanski has noted that he watched as many Hollywood classics behind the iron curtain as did the citizens of London or Paris. But he was lucky that he attended during a brief thaw in the communist nation’s policies towards the arts. The state film office even demanded that he enter Marxist dialog into his very apolitical film.

But he could grow only so much in the Polish film system. After a brief time in Paris, which he found not so welcoming to rising filmmakers, he headed to England to leave “arthouse” filmmaking and try out a genre work. Producers took to Polanski’s concept of a simple horror film, essentially a one-woman show. Such an actor-focused project would be hard for any performer to turn down, and thus a young Catherine Deneuve was thrilled to take the lead. It was a ballsy role in which young woman would be transformed into a domestic psychotic. The film was Deneuve’s first step in developing her signature style, an alluring yet cold presence, and a practicing ground for Bunuel’s chilling “Belle de Jour.”

The launching grounds for “Repulsion” are obvious. The title sequence consists of an extreme close-up of Deneuve’s eye a la “Psycho,” which pulls out to frame a stunning face with plentiful chaos lurking within. “Repulsion” makes clear that our point of view, Deneuve’s Carol, isn’t so reliable. A Belgian beautician living in London, Carol is undoubtedly repulsed by all the life collected around her. Specifically, the men cause her trouble. As a model-perfect face with thick blond hair, she turns men’s heads in spite of her obvious mental issues. Carol feels extra anxiety living with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), who’s liberated about her affair with a married man. Polanski depicts Carol’s life as a series of isolated moments. Presenting her as disconnected on the job – clients think she dozes off – Polanski focuses more on her walks to and from work. Here, he cannot avoid heavyhanded Freudianisms like cracks in the sidewalk, and the film’s final shot falls into a similar trap. Even her dates with an eager lad are emotionally cut off. Aside from all the warning signs, that face would be tough to resist.

The beginning of the end comes when Helen decides to leave her alone, and it’s here where Polanski finds his filmic excellence. The director deploys suspense techniques with surrealistic touches – both of which would seem dated today were they not so sharply weaved together. Arms reaching from a wall feel like the products of Surrealism 101, and a rape scene (or should we say, fantasy) late in the story would be straight out of a grindhouse sexploiter were it not so cleverly shot, edited, and performed by Deneuve. Polanski shows that, like Scorsese across the pond, by his early career he was adept at placing and moving the camera. The confinements of Carol’s apartment, where “Repulsion” comes alive, are nothing less than extensive grounds to the young filmmaker. His penchant for near-sadistic violence is present – after all, he’s the director who casted himself to slice Nicholson’s nose in “Chinatown” and made Rosemary’s acceptance of her devil-child equally touching and humorous. But “Repulsion’s” lead actor seems delighted to lose herself in Carol and offers a fine pantomime suggesting both childish wonderment and terror. And the fine technician in Polanski employs sound to add nuance to the facial landscape.

Polanski cannot quite occupy the pantheon of film directors, since his career contains equal amounts of brilliance and misfires. He shows versatility in his triumphs, from the noir tribute in “Chinatown,” the Hitchcockian mastery of “Rosemary,” and his worthy literary adaptations. Yet, the dreadful “Fearless Vampire Killers” and “Pirates,” and the forgettable “Frantic” and the like, make him not such a Scorsese.

But his best films are always a pleasure, so worthy once they are spinning in your DVD player. Criterion presents “Replusion” in a fine corrected widescreen transfer, a format unavailable on video until now. We also get two solid documentary featurettes, one from ’64 and another from 2003, which highlight all the pleasures and craft to be found behind the film. It’s always a delight to hear from Polanski, and Criterion includes a 1994 commentary he did with Deneuve, surely not to be missed by fans. Before I received this set, “Repulsion” existed as a budget disc that was transferred from videotape, with the poor sound quality to match. Now Criterion has redelivered a baby from the early career of a master.

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