Similar to his earlier film Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac is a subtle exploration of shifting power in a mismatched threesome. Polanski’s decision to set the film in a single, claustrophobic space, results in a revealing black comedy about class and gender struggle.
Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac play George and Teresa, newlyweds living in an English castle on an isolated island—cut off from the rest of the world for hours every day by the tides. He’s an effeminate Englishman; she’s a lusty Frenchwoman with a penchant for seducing the neighbor boy. Their odd sense of contentment is interrupted by the arrival of a hapless criminal duo. Dickie (Lionel Standler) and Albert (Jack MacGowran) find themselves stranded on a beach when their getaway car runs out of gas. Leaving the wounded Albert in the car, Dickie comes upon the home of the couple and takes them hostage. While waiting for help, husband, wife and stranger battle it out for control of the situation in a series of absurd power games. First, Dickie has the upper hand, ordering George and Teresa to push the beached car up to the castle, and when Albert dies, to dig his grave.
In the morning, old friends of George’s unexpectedly turn up. Dickie, grisly and unshaven, masquerades as a butler. During the dinner party, there’s a rather funny and ironic sequence that involves pressure cookers, Sir Walter Scott, Dior ties, box kites and omelet’s (the couple, it seems, subsists entirely on eggs) After that, a little boy blows out a stained-glass window with a shotgun, and George orders the guests out of his “f-f-fortress.” As George’s confidence grows, his life spins out of control; his beloved property is damaged and he loses his friends and ultimately his wife.
Polanski revels in the absurdity of the characters and their situation. George is a narrow-minded wimp who lost his first wife and is cuckolded by his second (“she’s a naughty little girl – I worship her, I’m crazy about her”). Dickie, a boorish American, does his best to act the part of a tough gangster, but his belief that his phantom-like boss is coming to the rescue puts his confidence in question. Teresa, a lusty French gamine who cavorts in the sand-dunes with the neighbor’s son, is at ease with her body, and enjoys emasculating her husband.
Cul-de-sac owes much to Absurdist Theatre, in particular, Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party with which the film shares much in common: George and Dickie play a similar futile waiting game to that of Vladimir and Estragon, and there is more than a touch of Pinter’s Goldberg and McCann in Polanski’s gangsters. The director maintains a tangible tension throughout. Polanski maintains a sense of dread through the use of several long shots (one lasts nine minutes), and a vast array of well timed sound effects, including chirping, and clucking).
While dark, Cul-de-sac is probably is Polanski’s funniest film. Admittedly subtle, it may not be a favorite of those who prefer the director’s more gothic horror movies, but it’s a wonderful study on the absurdity of life. Also, for those of you who only know Lionel Standler as the kindly chauffer on the 1980’s sitcom Hart to Hart, this is a chance to see him in something completely different.
Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is clear and crisp. There is quite a bit of age-related inconsistency with the transfer print—it shows its 45 years at times—but contrast is solid, and the grain and detail quality is top-notch.
he LPCM Mono audio track is crisp though nothing special. Krzysztof Komeda´s jazzy score sounds a bit tinny at times, but is strong overall. Stander´s gravelly voice is the most important audio element and it is well treated by the lossless audio. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The following special features are included:
- Two Gangsters and an Island – director Roman Polanski, producer Gene Gutowski, producer Tony Tenser, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and others discuss the various obstacles they had to overcome before and during the shooting of Cul-de-sac. The video piece was produced in 2003. (24 min, 1080i).
- “The Nomad” – in this early interview, broadcast by the BBC in 1967, director Roman Polanski discusses his life in Poland and career. The interview is conducted by Boleslaw Sulik, a Polish film critic and writer living in England. (28 min, 1080i).
- Trailer 1 – an original trailer for Cul-de-sac. (3 min, 1080p).
- Trailer 2 – an original trailer for Cul-de-sac. (3 min, 1080p).
- Booklet – a 16-page illustrated booklet featuring David Thompson’s essay “High Tides” (the author writes on film, coedited the book Scorsese on Scorsese, and directs documentaries, often on filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, Milos Forman, and Robert Altman).