(UK - 1966)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac, Lionel Stander, Jack MacGowran, Iain Quarrier
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Thriller/Horror
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Gerard Brach & Roman Polanski
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Composer: Krzysztof Komeda

In the dark, cruel world of Roman Polanski there’s no refuge for the atypical, the unwanted, or the non-conformists. You can hoist up the veneer of normality, pretend to be unafraid or of the “proper” ethnicity, but you’ll soon be discovered. Whether it be the men with their wooden travelling companion in his short Two Men and a Wardrobe, Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Polanski himself in The Tenant, Sigourney Weaver in Death and the Maiden, or Adrien Brody in The Pianist, Polanski’s characters attempt to shelter themselves from the punishing world, living in a terror that often manifests itself through claustrophobic isolation.

Up until recently, George (Donald Pleasence) was a very successful businessman, but he’s given up his “normal” life, retreating from mankind to Holy Island in Northern England with his much younger new wife. Even a place cut off by the tide is prone to the inevitable outsider invasion that can only lead to pain, humiliation, and perhaps death. In this case, the intruders are two bumbling hoodlums wounded, one soon to be mortally, during a robbery gone awry. Dickie (Lionel Stander) plees for his boss to come get them, but as they’ve let him down we figure Godot is as likely to show up.

Cul-de-sac is Roman Polanski’s most existential film. Its bored alienated characters dread the impending doom they seem to bring onto themselves. Polanski’s previous film Repulsion was more or less as bleak and hopeless, but it was received far more positively by audiences and critics, probably because they knew what to make of it. Repulsion greatly transcended the horror tale Polanski was paid to deliver while still being recognizable enough as a genre entry to be accepted by a wide audience. Cul-de-sac is arguably Polanski’s most challenging movie because it’s such an odd mix of comedy, drama, thriller, suspense, and horror. Its primary tactic seems to be draining the signature elements of each genre, and thus the film is generally inert as everything slowly boils beneath the surface. It’s closest to black comedy, but most of the potential the laughs, come from the characters refusing to address the situation and generally hoping it will simply correct itself even though they obviously know it’ll never happen. The audience is not only never instructed whether to join the fun or recoil, chuckle or be repulsed, but Polanski seems to dare us to laugh at shootings, a burial, and all sorts of humiliations so we’ll see ourselves for the self-satisfying hypocrites we are. Regardless of the style of film he’s making, to Roman Polanski life is always a cruel comedy.

As in Polanski’s debut masterpiece Knife in the Water, the couple’s seemingly idyllic relationship is, in fact, incredibly precarious. Their isolation forms the bulk of the thread that’s holding them together, with the presence of the male interloper creating a dynamic that threatens the husband and sets off a series of power games.

Effete George isn’t man enough to please his free spirited, bohemian, control-obsessed wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac, the better looking older sister of Catherine Deneuve). As power theoretically lies in masculinity, Teresa deprives George of his bit by bit so she’ll be in full control. Their marriage is such that Teresa orders George to go fly a kite so she can have sex on the beach with their studly neighbor Christopher (Iain Quarrier).

George is a desperate man who believes he can only attain what he seeks through pleasing others, satisfying them through compliance. He’s mad about his wife, and wants her love in the worst way, delusionally trying to convince himself their love is still strong despite her unfaithfulness. George is only capable of coming back for more; it’s the only way he knows to win people over, employing this hopeless tactic even on Dickie, who despises his easy lifestyle and is glad to have a whipping boy to take out the frustrations of his boss indifference on.

George is often described as a cross-dresser, but similar to Emmanuelle Seigner & Peter Coyote in Bitter Moon, the marriage’s remaining bond lies in the willingness of victimhood. There’s no alternating here, George simply allows his dominant wife to humiliate him through emasculation, which can include wearing her nightie and mask. Dickie’s arrival disrupts their tired pattern, as Teresa suddenly wishes George were man enough to rid the island of the burly gravel-voiced brute, thus her taunts shift from further feminizing him to pointing out what a wimp he is.

Hardly as simplistic as bored bourgeois vs. blundering icy savage, George & Teresa are too badly matched and already too far gone to bond against the intruding gangster. Teresa excels at playing the condescending tough wild child, but she knows she can’t get rid of Dickie as long as her willless cuckold continues to cower in the face of the heavy. One aspect that makes Polanski exciting is he’s willing to go against the traditional plot point of the woman always sticking up for her man whether he deserves it or not and make films like Cul-de-sac and Knife in the Water where the wife is so indifferent to the man she’s stuck with she doesn’t much care which man winds up taking the other out. Obviously we’d rather feel as though we could count on our spouse, but it makes for a tenser more unpredictable film when we have serious questions as to how they’ll react. Teresa has no qualms about putting George in harms way, pulling stunts such as giving sleeping Dickie a hot foot.

Polanski identifies with self-loathing George, but this isn’t the usual tale of him hulking up, reasserting his masculinity, and overcome the odds by defeating the big bully. Some of that may be involved, but the focus is on the world colluding to drive George insane. He seems to act more like a normal man once his ulcer-ridden stomach is forced to allow some moonshine to eat away at it. But that only exemplifies the bizarre humor of Cul-de-sac, a film where the main character is so far gone a drug has the reverse effect, bringing him back “inside the box”.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *