Considering Roman Polanski's little-seen Cul-de-sac
by Tony Dayoub
Earlier this month, the Criterion Collection released Roman Polanski’s absurdist film Cul-de-sac (1966) on DVD and Blu-ray, perhaps to coincide with the exiled director’s birthday on August 18. Its story centers on the irritatingly meek George (Donald Pleasance) and his liberated young wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac). Both live in a castle on an isolated English isle in Northumberland whose road to the mainland is cut off for hours each day whenever the tide rises. Fleeing in the wrong direction from a botched job, that’s how two bumbling gangsters — Dickie (Lionel Stander) and the fatally wounded Albie (Jack MacGowran) — end up stuck there, their broken-down getaway car engulfed by the encroaching sea. Dickie can’t drive, clipped pretty badly in the arm himself. So he calls his unseen boss, Katelbach, asking to be picked up. In the meantime, Dickie, George and Teresa engage in a battle of wills rife with elements of sadomasochism, class distinction and gender politics.
Revisiting this black comedy in a clean and crisp edition grants it not a small measure of immediacy, and brings to mind how often Polanski has dealt with subtly different iterations of the same basic setup in which a husband and wife’s relationship is disrupted by an outsider. In Death and the Maiden (1994) the intruder is a man who may have once tortured the wife when she was a political prisoner. In Bitter Moon (1992), it’s a bitter paraplegic whose own marital problems both enthrall and repulse a young couple traveling on a cruise. In Rosemary’s Baby (1968) the trespasser is Satan himself. However, in all of these instances our entry into the story — the character we most identify with — is either the husband or the wife. Cul-de sac is unique in that George and Teresa’s marital gamesmanship — Teresa’s cuckolding of George, George’s subtle dismissals of Teresa’s intelligence (or lack thereof), Teresa’s feminizing of George by forcing him to cross-dress — is used to distance the viewer, who instead appreciates (or doesn’t) the couple with the same incredulity that the gangster Dickie does. So in Cul-de-sac, one initially identifies with the interloper more than either husband or wife.
CONTINUE READING AT NOMAD EDITIONS: WIDE SCREEN