Roman Polanski's masterpiece Repulsion comes out on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray today. Because of its subversive, suspense/horror nature, it has never truly been counted as a proper cinema classic until now; that Criterion packaging has a way of turning any film into a classic. In it, Catherine Deneuve stars as a sexually repressed young woman who is left alone in a London apartment for a weekend. Before long she begins to experience all types of horrible images, from hands sticking out of a wall to rape and murder.
The great thing about Repulsion is that it's a perfect summation and distillation of Polanski's pet themes: the single, lone hero against the world; maybe it's paranoia and maybe it's not, but the battle remains the same. (Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.) Like Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Brian De Palma, Polanski has made a career of exorcising his inner demons on film, and the result has been remarkably consistent, even though he has touched upon many different genres. Unlike his three colleagues, however, Polanski has come the closest to mainstream acceptance, in that he won the 2002 Best Director Oscar for The Pianist. Despite that, however, he remains an outsider, a marginalized figure, rather than the world master he should be.
The 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired arguably earned more media attention than Polanski's own latest film, the 2005 release Oliver Twist. This is perhaps understandable; the documentary contained juicy details about the sex scandal that haunts Polanski to this day and keeps him from ever re-entering the United States, whereas Oliver Twist was merely the latest in a long line of adaptations of a classic novel. To me, though, Oliver Twist was more interesting, mainly for the opportunity of watching the master back in action, but also in the unique way it actually fit into Polanski's filmography. Think about Oliver in the same way you might think of Denueve, and it's a perfect parallel. Oliver is up against the entire world, which seems excessively cruel and violent, but how much of it is real?
Then there's the matter of Polanski's other films. He worked throughout the 1980s and 90s with barely a blip of attention, and yet made many more vintage Polanski films, including Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden and The Ninth Gate. The latter film, starring Johnny Depp, collapsed into an absurd finale, but the first hour at least was far more interesting than most people's entire films. He has earned three additional Oscar nominations for Best Director, but the fickle Academy only chose Hollywood-stamped hits, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, and a lengthy costume epic, Tess, as well as his Holocaust film. They would never in a million years nominate something as purely visceral as Repulsion or The Tenant, even though they were made by the same guy, using the same techniques.
In other words, the film community only pays attention to Polanski when it suits them. But this is a master who deserves all our attention, all the time. All of his movies deserve Criterion releases. (His extraordinary, Polish-language feature debut Knife in the Water, is also available.) He's still vital at age 75, and still actively seeking projects. (We should forgive him for appearing in Brett Ratner's Rush Hour 3 -- a momentary lapse of reason, perhaps.) In this country, we have a way of neglecting the elder masters in favor of the flavor-of-the-month, but it would be a mistake to ignore Polanski while we've still got him around.