Friday, February 13, 2009
The premise of Roman Polanski's Cul-de-Sac (1966) resembles that of an ethnic joke, "An effeminate Englishman, a French nymphomaniac, and an American gangster are stuck on an island..." And in many ways, Polanski approaches his moody character study with black comedy in mind. But the film is a non-sequitur with situations that illuminate the characters in question while never really taking the plot to any logical conclusion. As the credits roll, we see a car slowly approaching. It is being pushed down a coastal road by Dickie (Lionel Stander), a burly gangster nursing a wounded arm. His friend, Albie (Jack MacGowran), lays in the car, apparently paralyzed and bleeding to death. When Dickie sees a castle in the horizon, he leaves Albie and the car to get help. He sneaks around surveying the castle and its surroundings, still alert after the presumed gunfight he just survived. He is unaware that the tide has started coming in, and Albie is helplessly fretting as water starts seeping into the car. Soon Dickie will find out that the castle's grounds sometimes become an island, occasionally cut off from civilization by the rising tide. Dickie finds an odd couple living at the castle, a young French woman in her 20s, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), and her mannered British husband, the significantly older George (Donald Pleasence). The arrangement between husband and wife is understood from the beginning, as we spy Teresa laying topless on the beach with a friend while they are suppose to be "shrimping." George is otherwise occupied with the friend's parents, showing them around the castle, oblivious to his wife's shenanigans. Teresa takes every opportunity to emasculate George, even in private. They play games in which she coerces George to cross-dress. But their relationship seems to work at some level, Polanski seems to be telling us. As we later find out, George is not ignorant of his wife's indiscretions with the young man. And Teresa seems to accept her husband's softness, maybe even enjoy it, as is evident in the picture above. It is only when Dickie intrudes on George and Teresa that the dynamic between the couple is disrupted, and a three-way battle for dominance begins. Teresa loses respect for George because he won't stand up to Dickie, and will often side with the gangster to denigrate her husband further. George starts resenting Teresa for continuing to use her feminine wiles so openly around the gun-wielding thug, and enlists Dickie in ostracizing her from any competitive gamesmanship being played out by the two men. The upper-class George and Teresa are infuriated by Dickie's transgression into their exclusive domain, and take the opportunity to force him into the role of servant when some unexpected visitors stop by. And all the while Dickie waits for his boss, the never-seen Katelbach, to rescue him from the grating obnoxiousness of the couple and their petty worries. The pivotal role here is Dorléac's, as the ebb and flow of the film's energy depends on Teresa's mercurial nature as much as it does on the Northumberland location's rise and fall of the surrounding tide. The older sister of Catherine Deneuve (star of Polanski's previous film, Repulsion), Dorléac is riveting as Teresa, at times seductive, crafty, and immature. And the actress bears more than a passing resemblance to Polanski's future wife, Sharon Tate, who would star in his next film, The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). Dorléac seemed to be headed for a significant career until tragedy struck a year later, and she died in a car accident at the age of 25. Everyone else involved would go on to greater acclaim in the future. Stander, an American living in Europe after being a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist would become better known as Max, the chauffeur on TV's Hart to Hart (1979-84). Donald Pleasence would gain great cult fame as Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978) and four sequels. Polanski's tumultuous life would also encounter tragedy and controversy, with his wife, Sharon Tate, brutally murdered by the Manson Family, and his fleeing the country after allegedly having sex with a minor. But he would go on to direct such classics as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), while revisiting some of the themes of Cul-de-Sac in such movies as Macbeth (1971), the underrated Bitter Moon (1992), and Death and the Maiden (1994). This post is a contribution to Jeremy Richey's month-long tribute to films that are M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD at Moon in the Gutter.