The Criterion Collection: Cul-De-Sac Blu-ray review
A real oddity from the back catalogue of Roman Polanski, Cul-De-Sac is an absurd comedy-cum-psychological thriller. A film with an incredibly bleak view of the world, even by Polanski’s standards, it poses far more questions that it ever attempts to answer. Toying as it does with conventional genres, but then always taking an unexpected turn, Cul-De-Sac can make for a quite frustrating viewing experience.
It begins with a car being pushed along a tidal causeway by an injured man. In the front seat is an even more gravely injured man. They have Tommy Guns. They have clearly been involved in some sort of heist or gun battle gone terribly wrong. The man pushing the car is Dickey, played wonderfully by the gravel-voiced tough-guy American actor, Lionel Stander. The man dying in the front seat is Albie (Jack MacGowran). This immediately throws you off balance. How did a Tommy gun toting American gangster end up in a remote corner of the Northumberland coast? A question the film never answers, and one you imagine that Polanski didn’t give a second thought to.
Dickey seeks shelter at the isolated Lindisfarne home of a married couple, George (Donald Pleasance) and Teresa (Françoise DorlÉac). George is a timid and somewhat effete retired businessman. We learn that he cashed in his fortune, bought this castle, and swept away with his young French bride – the bored and beautiful adulteress Teresa.
Dickey sneaks in and uses their telephone to contact a mysterious Godot-like crime boss (Mr. Katelbach) to help get him and Albie out of this mess. George and Teresa – in the middle of a rather kinky piece of cross-dressing foreplay – discover Dickey in their house, and through force of will and personality alone, he takes the couple hostage.
The setup very much leads you to believe that this will be a typical home invasion horror. But that would be too normal for Polanksi. Once the pieces are in place, Polanski is very much in his comfort zone – making his characters squirm in increasingly uncomfortable claustrophobia and paranoia.
The next hour of the film is devoted to the shifting power struggles between Dickey, George, and Teresa. Polanski uses this unconventional trio to explore themes of class, sex, and masculinity. George has been systematically stripped of his masculinity. Dressed in his wife’s nightgown, and constantly hen-pecked by her, whilst she fucks the young neighbour. Then comes Dickey, this giant, deep-voiced brute to slap him around in his own home.
When some of George’s old friends pay a surprise visit – in order to avoid difficult questions – Dickey is forced to pose as the butler, allowing George to shift some of the power back in his favour – even if it is only fleeting. This sequence is the comedic centre of the film, however the despairing bleakness really drained the laughs out of it for me. Yes there is a certain amusement to be found in the vicious barbs, and absurd farcical scenarios, but the tone of the film is relentlessly grim.
Visually, Cul-De-Sac is never anything but wholly arresting, full of strange angles, close ups and exquisite monochrome. But this is mid-level Polanski at best. Not thrilling, insightful, or funny enough, to ever really pull it all together.
Disappointingly – by Criterion standards anyway – it is also a fairly lightweight selection of extras on the disc. Two Gangsters and an Island is a short documentary about the making of Cul-De-Sac. There is an interview with Polanski from 1967, and two theatrical trailers. In the booklet there is an essay by film scholar David Thompson.