ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Cul-De-Sac (1966) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)
A pair of wounded gangsters on the run named Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran) stop off at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in England. While Albie is too injured to leave his car Richard goes to look for a way to patch him up. He comes across a castle, which he discovers is inhabited by a pair of rich bohemians: artist George (Donald Pleasance) and his French wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac - the sister of Repulsion star Catherine Deneuve), along with a huge number of chickens. Amid failing attempts to get in contact with his far-away boss, Richard takes the couple hostage and forces them to provide medical aid for Albie - and then, when the latter dies, assist in burying him. However the more time Richard spends with this odd couple the more the relationship dynamics between all three of them shift in unusual and unexpected directions.
Watch a trailer:
Roman Polanski’s previous film Repulsion (1965) is widely regarded as a classic, while the subsequent year’s Cul-De-Sac seems to eternally live in its shadow. However comparisons aren’t really apt despite both being centred around confined settings and possessing dark psychological aspects. While Repulsion sits firmly in the horror genre, Cul-De-Sac veers far more into outright comedy. Whereas Catherine Deneuve’s Carol is a dangerously repressed introvert, the characters here (in particular the eccentric George) are as colourfully bold as they come. While Repulsion is tightly-coiled and claustrophobic, Cul-De-Sac goes to the opposite end of the spectrum and features Polanski at loosest, most free-form, jazzy and playful. The extensive imagery of birds and flat seaside landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see emphasises the sense of freedom.
Cul-De-Sac is all about the free-flowing nature of the relationships between the central trio and how they find out about their own identities as the film progresses. George is basically a bit of an effeminate dandy even to the point of putting up the most token, minimal resistance to the would-be humiliation of being cross-dressed by Teresa during an early scene. His reactions to being Richard’s captor, while initially hysterical, take an unexpected turn. Rather than standing up to his crass, brutish behaviour he forms a kind of friendly camaraderie with him, and in time ultimately apes his brutish authority in the manner of one who becomes the sidekick of the school bully. Teresa, on the other hand, while not overly masculine does seem to “wear the trousers” a little more in the marriage. She gets increasingly miffed at George’s inability to fulfil his stereotypical role as her protector, instead going out of her way to goad and provoke Richard into conflict. It’s a reversal of the usual “Stockholm Syndrome” scenario that we see in, for example Sam Peckinpah films, in that it’s the woman who takes the stand while the man resigns himself to drunken camaraderie with his forced new best pal.
Even the granite-like thug that is Richard starts to gain a fresh definition in his relationship with the pair, in particular later on in the film when a group of the couple’s friends drop by for an unexpected visit. There's a “class struggle” aspect with the couple’s circle of friends on one side, and the rather crude Richard who has little time for the niceties of life (he passes George’s art giving it little more than the most cursory of glances) on the other. We see that George and Teresa, despite their aspirations towards the former, do definitely have a bit of the latter in them.
There are a lot of laughs here that coming from the oddities in the behaviour of the characters, at times veering into outright slapstick. Much of it comes from how dotty and borderline insane Donald Pleasance is here, though Lionel Stander’s almost laughably unsophisticated character and the spontaneously out-of-left-field actions instigated by Francoise Dorleac’s Teresa do provide some very funny moments. A major scene stealer towards the end however is a little boy who clearly hasn’t heard of the adage “look, but don’t touch”, and as a result ends up causing all kinds of trouble.
As well as the three highly enjoyable main performances Roman Polanski’s direction is often quite impressive amid all of the comedic chaos. The near-wordless early sequences of Richard exploring the castle, bemused by the odd world he has stumbled across, are a highly enrapturing piece of pure freewheeling cinema. There’s a pivotal lengthy middle scene on the beach, shot in one take, where George and Richard embrace in drunken male camaraderie while a flustered Teresa looks on, either out of shot or far in the background. The film’s dark conclusion is also eerily enhanced by some atmospheric nighttime shooting.
Cul-De-Sac is a little too weird and rambling to stand as one of Polanski’s best films but it is a lot of fun if you go with its bizarre, unexpected vibe and enjoy wallowing in the darker side of comedy.
Runtime: 113 mins
Dir: Roman Polanski
Script: Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Francoise Dorleac, Lionel Stander, Jack MacGowran
Criterion’s Blu Ray features a restoration approved by Polanski himself. It looks fabulous with the blacks, whites and range of greys between coming out as if they were filmed yesterday. Great stuff considering the film’s age.
The sound is monaural but flaw-free throughout. The actors’ lines are clear and very present.
We get an accompanying booklet with an essay entitled High Tide by David Thompson. He takes a look at the film which Polanski described (in 1970) as the finest of his own works. He covers its themes, the difficulties and tensions that occurred during filming, and the arguable parallels between the film’s elements and the director’s own life. He also discloses how producers Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser (who ran a Soho soft porn cinema club) weren’t interested in financing such an uncommercial feature until Polanski’s Repulsion - which they also funded - was such a surprise success. A literate and well-researched essay.
On the disc itself we get the following:
Two Gangsters and an Island
A 2003 video piece on Cul-De-Sac featuring interviews with Roman Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, cinematographer Gil Taylor and others. The director talks about the sense freedom he had to make the film, his casting decisions and the difficulties in shooting. It turns out that Stander in real life was as brutish as his character is in the film, even to the point of hitting Francoise Dorleac for real during the belt-whipping scene. The film fell far behind schedule, forcing the single-take 8 minute beach scene to be completed in just one day. The plane seen flying past in the background of this scene was apparently almost impossible to coordinate accurately, and only managed to arrive on queue out of sheer good fortune.
A 1967 interview with Roman Polanski from BBC TV series The Movies, following the completion of The Fearless Vampire Killers. This second extra is even more interesting than the first as it covers the director’s early life in Poland where his mother was killed in the war and his father taken to a concentration camp. We hear that he loved the cinema right from these early days - despite being urged not to go as “all pigs are in the cinema” owing to the surfeit of German propaganda that played. The programme then runs through clips and discussions about his films up until then including - a rare treat - clips from two of his shorts from the Polish film school.
Although Polanski is an understandably contentious figure today this is essential viewing.
A fine Criterion presentation of a fascinating and highly amusing lesser-known Polanski.