|No One Does It to You Like Roman Polanski|
In 1966 neither audiences nor critics were particularly responsive to trying to sort the whole thing out, so Cul-de-Sac’s subsequent failure at the boxoffice threatened to sink Polanski’s newfound reputation almost as quickly as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965) had established it. But in the famous words of John Huston’s Noah Cross in Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece, Chinatown, “Politicians, old buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” and indeed, Cul-de-Sac has enjoyed a major revival over the years. Embraced by Polanski as one of his best and most cinematic films, it's hailed by contemporary film enthusiasts for many of the the very things it was reviled for back in the day.
|Donald Pleasance as George|
|Francoise Dorleac as Teresa|
|Lionel Stander as Richard (Dickie)|
|Jack MacGowran as Albert (Albie)|
The brainchild of Roman Polanski and longtime collaborator Gerard Brach (The Tenant, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Tess, Frantic) Cul-de-Sac represents the specific cinematic aesthetics, sensibilities, and humor of the pair. “When we were writing this script, we simply wanted to create a movie that would reflect our taste in cinema,” said Polanski to biographer, Denis Meikle, stressing a point one can find difficult to contest. Similar in tone to many of Polanski’s short films, Cul-de-Sac has the look and feel of an extremely accomplished film-school thesis project and is the nearest Polanski has come to making the kind of 60s New Wave art film he spent a large part of his early career ideologically distancing himself from.
|Forsaken by whom? Katelbach? God? Godot?|
One of the biggest thrills to be had in watching Cul-de-Sac is to once again see a motion picture that demands attentiveness. The economics of filmmaking today (to be profitable, movies have to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible) has resulted in an uptrend in cinematic obviousness. Movies today can’t afford to be misunderstood. Everything is spelled-out, underlined, and explained with such pedantic literalness that a kind of passive, dull-wittedness has replaced active engagement in the moviegoing experience.
(An irksome side effect of this distrust of ambiguity can be seen on internet movie sites like IMDB. The comment sections of these sites, meant to promote dialogs about film, have been taken over by a combative fanboy/fangirl mentality and a zero-tolerance for differences of opinion, conflicting points of view, or multiple-interpretations when it comes to sacred cows…I mean favorite films.)
Things left vague or unexplained in Cul-de-Sac:
George and Teresa’s relationship
The circumstances behind the dissolution of George’s first marriage to the unseen Agnes.
Why the couple chose to live in such a remote location.
The particulars of what actually brings Dickie and Albie to the castle for shelter.
The interrelationships of the uninvited guests (specifically Jacqueline and Cecil).
The motivation behind almost all of Teresa’s actions.
|I'm crazy about the composition of this shot. It kicks off a virtuoso 7-minute sequence shot in one take.|
Anyone familiar with Donald Pleasence’s somnambulistic performances in the Halloween horror film franchise will be properly thunderstruck by what an expressive and animated actor he can be in the right role. With his shaved head a burlesque of the hundreds of eggs on display throughout the film (a surprise to control-freak Polanski), Pleasence is all repressed agitation and pent-up passion. His unfocused feverishness (he never quite knows where to channel it, and when he does it comes out all wrong) is met in equal doses by the icy assurance of Francoise Dorleac. Playing a paradoxical female with plenty of yin and yang to spare, Dorleac is the impulsive catalyst in this combustible mix of characters. Some critics have decried what they see as yet another misogynist Polanski fantasy in the character of Teresa, but I found it interesting that she is portrayed as not only fearless, but also the strongest and most resourceful character in the film. Self-servingly so, perhaps, but better that than one of those helpless, always in need of rescue types that proliferated in movies throughout the 60s and 70s.
|Does Teresa feel a kinship with the survivalist gangster, Dickie?|
Blacklisted veteran actor Lionel Stander, all gravel-voiced and possessed of old-Hollywood bearing, is an inspired choice for a film that derives a great deal of its tension (and absurdist comedy) from the oil/vinegar chemistry of its characters. He’s like a gangster from an old Warner Bros. movie who somehow got himself teleported into a 60s art film. There's a comical lack of complexity to this man (although there's a lovely moment when he's shown gently looking over the belongings of his friend) as he struggles to get his neurotic hostages to just shut up and do what he says.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
A terrific storyteller with a taste for the idiosyncratic, Polanski is unsurpassed in mining the tension and gallows humor to be found in disparate characters forced into interaction under claustrophobic circumstances. As he does explicitly in Carnage, Death and the Maiden, Bitter Moon, and Knife in the Water, and more subtly in Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, and Frantic; Polanski likes to have fun with the idea that anybody actually knows anything about anyone— least of all themselves.
|Typical Polanski/absurdist humor: In the midst of a deadly hostage situation...uninvited guests! That's a very young Jacqueline Bisset back there radiating reams of 60s sang-froid behind those shades.|
By all accounts an extremely difficult and unpleasant film to make, Cul-de-Sac was nevertheless a labor of love for Polanski, and that, above all, really shines through when watching it. Even without it confirmed (as it is in the Criterion Collection DVD interview with Polanski) one can sense from Cul-de-Sac that it is a film made with little thought given towards commercial concerns, and all energies trained on making the kind of film that inspired Polanski to want to be a filmmaker in the first place. It's a story about character and consequence told almost entirely through image and atmosphere. Pure cinema, as Polanski would call it.
Copyright © Ken Anderson