Director : Roman Polanski
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1966
Stars : Donald Pleasence (George), Françoise Dorléac (Teresa), Lionel Stander (Richard), Jack MacGowran (Albie), Iain Quarrier (Christopher), Geoffrey Sumner (Christopher's Father), Renee Houston (Christopher’s Mother), Robert Dorning (Philip Fairweather), Marie Kean (Marion Fairweather), William Franklyn (Cecil), Jacqueline Bisset (Jacqueline), Trevor Delaney (Nicholas)
Although Cul-de-sac was Roman Polanski’s third film, it was the one he had most wanted to make since leaving Poland after his first feature Knife in the Water (1962) and it remains to this day one of his favorites. Again co-written with Gerard Brach, with whom Polanski had worked on his psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion (1965), Cul-de-sac is a compendium of the director’s favorite themes, a kind of one-movie Essential Viewer’s Guide to All Things Polanski. However, as is typical of many eccentric filmmakers, Polanski’s best work is often not the result of his having free reign to indulge his obsessions; rather, his best films, which include Macbeth (1971), Chinatown (1974), and The Pianist (1999), result from his having to funnel those outré tendencies through some kind of external guiding restraint, whether it be the Hollywood studio system or the structures of a particular genre, which he more often than not turns inside out.
Cul-de-sac, on the other hand, is pure Polanski through and through, made with no restraints and little outside influence, but it stumbles on its own absurdist tendencies, demonstrating how sometimes too much is too much. Polanski’s morbid humor, cruel sense of irony, and fascination with both isolation and mental illness give his films their sharpest edges and most incisive moments of social commentary, but they are always most effective when in dialogue with something pre-existing, which is why his best films have tended to be adaptations of others’ work. When left entirely to his own devices, as he was on Cul-de-sac, Polanski runs the risk of becoming too self-indulgent and myopic, spinning an elaborate web of absurdity that runs the risk of becoming off-putting to the point of tedium. Of course, those who appreciate Polanski’s cinematic gifts and revel in his twisted sense of humor may very well find Cul-de-sac to be one of his finest works.
The story takes place entirely on Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island), a small, sparsely populated part of Northumberland, England, that is cut off from the mainland twice a day by the tide, which literally swallows up the connecting roadway. At the beginning of the film we are introduced to two gangsters, Dickie (blacklisted American actor Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran), who impose themselves on George (Donald Pleasance) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac, sister of Repulsion star Catherine Denuve), a recently married couple living in a rambling castle on the island. Dickie and Albie have both been wounded from some prior incident, and they are waiting for arrival of their boss, Katelbach, which has led many to compare the film to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot (it also helps that MacGowran was one of Beckett’s favorite actors and the film’s original title was If Katelbach Comes).
While Dickie and Albie--the former a hulking lunk with a Harvey Fierstein rasp and the latter a diminutive, bespectacled accountant-type--make for a strange pair, George and Teresa are even stranger. A former businessman-turned-would-be artist, George is the epitome of the finicky emasculated Englishman, a point that Polanski drives home early in the film with a bit of playful cross-dressing that renders him both ludicrous and pathetic. Teresa, his much younger French siren of a wife, dominates their relationship (they have only been married for 10 months), cavorting with another man on the beach and openly mocking her husband at virtually every turn, particularly when he fails to live up to any manly expectations in terms of defending their hearth and home from the intruding gangsters. As played by Pleasance, George is essentially a parody of hysterical femininity in male guise, as he is constantly breaking down, shrieking, or otherwise cowering while Teresa looks on in disgust; his pathetic nature is exemplified by his embarrassingly rote paintings, which demonstrate no artistry or vision. Both characters are deeply unsavory and draw little sympathy, which is probably why we feel drawn most to Dickie, who despite being a man of violence maintains an ironic air of general human decency, especially in his tender exchanges with Albie, whose wounds grow increasingly life-threatening .
While the human drama on-screen is less compelling than it is simply bizarre, the visuals in Cul-de-sac are consistently impressive. Working again with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, with whom he had previously worked on Repulsion, Polanski crafts a visually arresting film that makes fine use of the unique locale and its dramatically overcast skies and rugged terrain. To amplify his characters’ fundamental indecencies, he uses many of the same grotesque visual tricks that made Catherine Deneuve’s descent into madness in his previous film so compelling, including extreme close-ups and canted angles that ensure a constant sense of unease. In this sense, Cul-de-sac is very much of a piece, an unrelenting and uncompromised portrait of variously deranged characters locked into an interpersonal duel from which there will be no victors. Repeat viewings certainly reward in terms of drawing our attention to the film’s craft and its bizarre nuances, but most viewers will probably feel that once is enough.
|Cul-de-sac Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray|
|Cul-de-sac is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||English PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 16, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s digitally restored 1080p high-definition transfer of Cul-de-Sac was taken from the original 35mm composite fine-grain master positive and approved by Polanski. It is overall an excellent presentation of the film, properly framed in its European theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Those who own the Anchor Bay DVD will note that the image is certainly darker, but it looks much stronger and more consistent, with better detail despite being slightly soft by high-def standards. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm fine-grain master positive soundtrack print, is quite good, as well: clean, clear, and lacking in aural hiss and aural artifacts.|
|From the 2003 Anchor Bay DVD Criterion has ported over “Two Gangsters and an Island,” a 23-minute featurette about the film’s rather contentious production that includes then-new interviews with Polanski (who is wonderfully candid, especially in his description of working with Lionel Stander), producer Gene Gutowksi, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. Also on the disc are a half-hour television interview with Polanski from 1967 and two theatrical trailers.|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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