The Films Of Roman Polanski: Cul-de-sac (#3)

Although Cul-de-sac is primarily a suspense film, it is the first of Polanski’s movies that can be considered part comedy.  It also combines themes from both of Polanski’s prior movies, those of home invasion, humiliation and psychosexuality.  Much like in his first film, Knife In The Water, the characters are once again trapped by a body of water, this time not on a boat but on an island. Cul-de-sac would be Polanski’s last black and white film to date.

The first shot of the film is a car slowly moving down a long stretch of road along the English coast.  In the car is a critically wounded gangster and pushing the car, his partner Richard, played by Lionel Stander. Richard leaves his partner to search for help and finds it in the form of a castle inhabited by a submissive Englishman (Donald Pleasence) and his belittling french wife (Françoise Dorléac.) Taken hostage in their own home, the couple soon starts to develop an unusual relationship with their captor that leads to humorous acts of humiliation and degradation.

To call the film’s comedy dark is an understatement.  It’s a look into an extraordinary moment in the lives of three incredibly unlikable people – the gangster, who’s somehow the most lovable even when threatening death upon strangers, the husband, a weak man who has given up everything to please his attractive young bride, and the wife, who doesn’t care for her husband in the least and still sleeps with whomever she pleases.  When this sad group of misfits is forced into a high stress situation, they develop a sick sort of reliance on each other that is orchestrated perfectly by Polanski.  The three continuously humiliate each other only to then let their insecurities force them to seek acceptance in those they just ridiculed.

This is the first Polanski film to get everything just right.  His first two features had a rough-around-the-edges feeling while Cul-de-sac feels highly polished.  The acting, camera work, cinematography, and story are for the first time all equal to the skill of Polanski’s directing.  All three of the films’ stars deliver brilliant performances that are both real and extremely comical.  The story, although still in an isolated setting, allows Polanski to explore a larger area, as opposed to the extremely restricted settings of Knife In The Water and Repulsion. These upgrades make Cul-de-sac the first Polanski masterpiece.

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