Roman Polanski has always been interested in detailing the aspects of what Hell on Earth would be like. His films feature protagonists who are thrown into macabre situations which they can’t control or escape. From the demonic possession of Rosemary’s Baby to the poisonous politics of Chinatown, it’s in these muddled waters where he tests the endurance of the human spirit, usually leading to tragic consequences.
His evolution as a filmmaker is best seen through the arch best represented in his terrific feature-length debut Knife in the Water, in which he turned the ocean into an endless universe of fear (long before Steven Spielberg threw man-eating sharks in it), all the way to his masterful The Pianist which managed to grab the universality of WWII and turn it into a harrowing account of how a single man fights for survival.
Even if he has explored countless genres (he even made one of the funniest comedies ever), his stories always seem to be the same. Few working directors deal with their obsessions as often and as brilliantly as Roman Polanski, which is why Cul-de-sac is such a key piece in figuring out the artist he would become.
Set in a bleak tidal island, the film begins as gangster Dickie (Lionel Stander) tries to push his broken car to keep the water from getting to it. Inside the car lies his colleague, Albie (Jack MacGowran) who has received a gunshot wound. Trying to save his friend and help himself, Dickie goes to the only building in the island: a macabre castle inhabited by George (Donald Pleasance) and his beautiful wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac).
We first meet George and Teresa as they take part in a strange seduction game. She teases him with a devilish grin, while he forces himself to fall under her spell. Polanski draws out their characteristics to such extent that they sometimes feel like caricatures. He shows us that George is extremely neurotic and effeminate, making him unworthy of Teresa’s extreme beauty. However, we are also aware that even in this weird dynamic, lies something quite similar to repressed sexual desire.
It’s key that Polanski interrupts them in the midst of a sexual act, because he leaves their unfinished traits inside our head. By having Dickie interrupt them, he makes us curious about who these people truly are (even more so than what will happen to them with a gangster).
Dickie bursts into the castle and keeps the married couple hostage while he tries to get in touch with his boss, to have them rescued. The hostage situation isn’t exactly a bed of roses, as Dickie becomes involved in Teresa and George’s mind games (was Polanski maybe slightly inspired by Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when he wrote this?) leading to situations that range from the disturbing to the absolutely hilarious.
Even if it sometimes wants to think of itself as a genre picture—or a genre derivate, to be more precise—Cul-de-sac feels more like a series of monologues that clash into one another revealing aspects of humanity that haunted Polanski (and co-writer Gerard Brach, as well). As in his first film, Polanski creates an imbalance that only leads to more imbalance, teasing us with what looks like a romantic triangle (George and Teresa attracted to Dickie, Teresa and Dickie teaming up against George) he creates a tension from which he never has us come down. Through these characters, Polanski explores such topics as the idea of gender and particularly how society expects masculinity to arrive with violence (it often feels that Teresa will only desire George after he murders Dickie).
Cul-de-sac might not be the most essential of entries in Polanski’s legendary career, but it stands alone as one of his most unique works. It’s a shame that Criterion couldn’t come up with more extras to include in this DVD edition which includes a looking-back documentary about the making of the movie and a superb restored digital transfer.
The best bonus feature in this DVD might be a vintage television interview which calls Polanski “the nomad” (artistic title he would come to own up later) and has him discuss his early filmography. Watching him in this vintage footage and then listening to him talking in the more recent documentary, give us two sides of a man whose tragic personal experience has made him into something that resembles one of his characters.
Like Teresa, George and Dickie, Roman Polanski often finds himself alone against the world, trying to reach a compromise between what society wants of him and doing his best to channel his desires through his art, so he won’t succumb to the dark, often violent, demands of his inner self.