Cul-de-sac (1966)

Directed by Roman Polanski

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David Thompson refers to the world of Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac as the “cinema of the absurd,” a combination of tragedy and low-brow comedy that might confuse, unsettle and frustrate its audience.  Cul-de-sac is an unlikely film, made by an unlikely group of people that seems almost giddy, a celebration of its own existence.  This type of self-indulgence doesn’t always translate to a pleasant viewing experience, rather it might be like trying to join a conversation between people intent on boxing you out.

Roman Polanski himself is a tragic, unsettling figure for a variety of reasons.  He escaped German-occupied Poland ahead of the concentration camps, and bounced amongst countries as a young filmmaker.  When Poland wasn’t too keen on his early work, he jumped to France in hopes of capitalizing on the freedom of the French New Wave before landing in England.  Only a few years after this film Polanski would lose his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in the infamous Manson murders, and sometime after that he was forced to flee the United States following sexual involvement with a minor.

His life seems so absurd, and the fact that he’s still making movies (and making the occasional Rush Hour 3 cameo), is absurd as well.

Polanski didn’t have a strong grasp of the English language when he set out to make Cul-de-sac, an English-language film in which an American gangster finds himself as the fish out of water in a large castle estate inhabited by a sexually-adventurous married couple.

These are simply characters who don’t belong in the same movie.  The gangster, Richard (Lionel Stander) is gruff, heavyset, the type of guy you’d find in a Chicago Bar drinking beer while the Bears lose yet again.  He finds himself interacting with a married couple I can only describe as delicate.  Their marriage is relatively new (only a few months old), but they already seem both strangely intimate and surprisingly distant.

In an early scene, Teresa (Francoise Dorleac) insists upon dressing George (Donald Pleasence) in a gown and painting him with makeup, but the more we learn about them, the more this silly but harmless moment starts to feel antagonistic.  They have a strange marriage, and even now I have a hard time understanding it.

So the story concerns Richard, his arm in a sling, pushing a car with a fellow gangster, shot in the belly, down a dry road.  Later this road will flood with the evening tide, a phenomenon which catches Richard off guard, as does about everything in this isolated bubble of a world.

Richard first attempts to sneak into the home, hiding amongst the chickens that run wild, but soon he confronts the married couple, possibly determining them to be no threat.  The married couple helps Richard push his car up the hill as the tide rises, and later they argue amongst themselves about what to do as Richard digs a grave for his now-deceased gangster ally.

Each of the characters begin to lose their minds, and the story follows the various power dynamics they go through.  In one moment Richard is head honcho, and in the next we see Teresa flirting with him in a mysterious power play while her husband is asleep.  Well into the film a group of the couple’s friends will show up unexpectedly, and to preserve Richard’s anonymity, they pretend as though he is their faithful butler.

Much of the plot details escape me, but what stand out are the small moments of tension.  Richard argues with the married couple like they’re siblings stuck in a hot car on a long family vacation.  At times Teresa tries to seduce Richard, and in other moments she acts like the put upon teenaged child of the two men.

George more often is left out by the others.  He mostly ever expresses some kind of deep frustration, whether it has anything to do with latent homosexuality or a discomfort with the disintegration of whatever career he may have had before moving to the isolated castle.

But no matter how often one character takes charge of the group, it never lasts.  Each character is made foolish in various moments.  Richard the gruff gangster falls asleep and is startled awake when Teresa lights newspaper stuffed between his toes on fire.  Eventually he is left alone when the others finally flee the castle.

Teresa seems the most cunning of the three, but there is an amusing, somewhat jarring scene in which she mocks a child, and the child responds, “that froggy bitch pulled my ear off!”

It’s hard to get a grasp on this movie, hence the absurdity.  Right when you think you understand the tone and where it’s headed, the story takes a hard turn in the opposite direction.  No one character lives up or down to your expectations, instead they’re somewhere in the middle, and no singular power dynamic dominates the film.

The IMDB longline reads, “In search of help, two wounded gangsters on the run find refuge in the secluded castle of a feeble man and his wife; however, under the point of a gun, nothing is what it seems,” and yet one of those gangsters is hardly a presence in the film before he quietly succumbs to a bullet wound.  He’s dying when the movie begins, and his death is the only moment that follows some kind of narrative logic.

Polanski met co-writer Gerard Brach in France.  They were both struggling to get work produced, and they continued to struggle in France, despite the rise of the French New Wave movement.  In England they found funding for a project from the Compton Cinema Group, a company that had up until then only produced porn.  “Keen to invest in something more upmarket, the two men in charge– Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser– were hardly seduced by Polanski’s offbeat drama but said they would gladly back a horror film.”  It took Polanski and Brach 17 days to write Repulsion, and the film’s success persuaded the small company to back Polanski’s next film, Cul-de-sac.

So this is a film that no one particularly wanted to make, but Polanski’s previous success insisted upon it.  To call back to the fish out of water component of the film, this is a story written by two men from different countries, at least one of whom had a weak grasp on the English language, filmed with an American (Stander) who was living in England because he had been a victim of the Hollywood blacklist.  The story combines the sensibilities of a postwar American gangster film with something much more European, abstract and hard to place.

The world of Cul-de-sac is the intersection of a Humphrey Bogart crime picture and an Ingmar Bergman isolated relationship drama (like Persona) but lathered in the style of a Woody Allen film.  None of it quite makes sense, and because of that I maintain that this is an odd film, one that mostly pushes away its audience.

From what I can tell the film was not all that well received, certainly not one of Polanski’s most well-known films (like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown), and yet there’s something alive about it.  It has elements of the same darkness that define those other films as well as a strange charm, a sort of charisma to its own unabashed absurdity.

I get the sense that Cul-de-sac doesn’t care what you or I think.

Up Next: Deadpool 2 (2018), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Cujo (1983)

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