Cul-De-Sac is similar to Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, in that it’s an offbeat character study of a couple whose relationship is put under stress by the intrusion of a strange man. The stakes are upped, however, by the fact that the intrusive man is accompanied at first by his brother, while the hostage scenarios is interrupted by the visit of a number of acquaintances of the couple. In short, there are more variables in the dramatic equation, allowing Polanski a broader social scope for his satire. Another similarity with Knife in the Water is the setting, with water all around and grassland ashore, although in this case the key location is an island rather than a boat. Perhaps Polanski has a thing for waterside grasslands, because I seem to recall similar terrain in The Ghost Writer (2010) as well, although in that one the situation is reversed: a troubled couple disrupt the life of an isolated man.
The set-up is that two gangsters have botched a job (I don’t think we ever learn what the job was) and have both been shot, one of them badly. They have fled to Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast, and there they invade a castle inhabited by a retired English businessman (Donald Pleasance) and his young French wife (Francoise Dorleac). Right away we learn that the wife is having a dalliance with the neighbors’ son, and for that matter we learn that the least-injured gangster, Richard, is a bit of a dunce. The husband is an ineffectual wimp who is treated with open contempt by his wife. At first the invasion of the gangster only heightens the tensions between the couple, but gradually the relationship between the couple and Richard get extremely complicated.
Polanski specializes in unpleasant characters, and none of these people ever really gains our sympathy, although they may rise and fall in our estimation. My four word précis on this film is: unpleasant people acting weirdly. As always, Polanski’s visual compositions are amazing, creating a profound sense of isolation and alienation. He keeps us off-balance with the unusual way he works out the scenario, playing against genre and turning a thriller situation into something like a deranged comedy of manners. Allegiances shift and dissolve and mutate, and that’s interesting for a while. On a first take, however, it got less interesting as the situation descends into climactic chaos and spins apart. On the other hand, the one word punchline delivered by the husband in the final shot seemed almost Rosebud-level poignant. By that time I’d lost patience with the monkeying around and gyrations of the characters, but maybe the structure would work better for me on a second exposure.
I got a little hint of Buñuel at times, both in the black and white photography and in the sense of black social satire mutating into non sequitur symbolism. Lots of chickens and eggs, I’ve gotta say. Waiting for Godot to hatch.
[Screencaps taken from Strade Perduta.]