*This post contains spoilers in the event that you have not seen Cu-de-Sac.
The term “Cul-de-sac” is usually defined as a street or passage closed at one end or a route or course leading nowhere. After Roman Polanski had made Repulsion, he turned his attention to very different forms of isolation, paranoia, psychology and identity impacted by both surroundings and circumstances. The title of this strange and vibrant film is particularly appropriate on more than a few layers.
The film begins with two wounded gangsters on the lam from an apparently failed heist. Their tiny stolen car gives out on a lonely stretch of road. Lionel Stander plays “Dickie.” His wound is minor, but his partner has been shot in the gut. As Dickie attempts to push the car off the road he slams it into an odd concrete bar. These two men are lost and they are unaware that they have driven down a road that becomes useless when the tide comes in.
The two failed gangsters have attempted to find passage that only leads to water submergence. As Dickie heads off on a walk to find a phone, he promises his pal that he will return as quickly as possible. Little does he know that his walk will only take him to an 11th Century castle on the sea.
The chateau is none other than the famous Lindsfarne Castle on the UK’s Holy Island in Northumberland. It overlooks the ocean from one side and the tidelands on the other. This is the home of middle-aged George and his young French wife, Teresa. Played by Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac, these two form a dead end that will present an even greater challenge for the gruff but somehow vaguely innocent gangster. While Lionel Stander’s performance is filled with brutality and rage, there is a feeling that this man’s “bark” is far worse than his “bite.”
When Polanski introduces the audience to Teresa, she is topless and shamelessly rolling about on the sand with a handsome young man. This boy’s parents are on the other side of the castle chatting with George. It only takes a minute to realize that these two visitors are more than a little anxious to escape the company of George and his wife. And even though it is obvious that their son has just had sex with Teresa, he doesn’t seem to mind skipping out as quickly as possible. All the while chickens appear to run free.
There is a chicken coop, but it is a state of almost ruin. Dickie slips in to have a few eggs and waits for the right moment to step into George and Teresas’ domestic world. Suffering further injuries as he attempts to use the coop’s ladder, one almost gets the sense that Dickie might be better served to make his way back to his partner in crime for a “re-think.”
When Gilbert Taylor’s masterful camera allows us inside the castle and bedroom we discover a seemingly bored young wife and a nervous hen sort of a husband. It is amazing how believable and natural Pleasance and Dorleac pull off their first shared scene.
It is not a sex scene. It actually leads to nothing remotely sexual, but to an interesting sort of psychological gender game in which Teresa convinces George to wear one of her frilly “nighties” and proceeds to apply make-up to his face. While George does protest, he seems to find as much amusement in the game as his wife. He begins to prance and speak with girlie voice. Teresa immediately moves into the role of the dominant male.
As they laugh and play, there is a clear difference in the way each character is going at the game. George is amused and comfortable, but his wife’s amusement seems to be tainted with a hint of the cruel. There is a joke going on that George does not “get” and he is the “butt” of it. As Dickie makes his move into the castle, Teresa hears him. She is concerned, but George is frightened. Were it up to George, they would stay up in their bedroom. This is not an option as Teresa basically demands that he check it out. Then, as if not able to trust him, Teresa shadows George as they make their way downstairs where they will meet Dickie.
The castle’s interior is shot in a why that feels more than a little claustrophobic. A space that seems to spiral up rather than move out. An oddly paired couple living in eccentrically isolated bohemia. This does not fit our perception of a home. Yet this is the house and Dickie is mastering a home invasion. Roman Polanski is about to pull, twist, strain, tilt sideways and subvert every perceived idea of home invasion crime.
It isn’t that George and Teresa are unafraid of Dickie. They are. Most especially is afraid is George. Teresa’s fears are quickly overwhelmed by her frustration at her husband’s cowardice. In fact, the friction building between husband and wife will begin to challenge the worries of Dickie’s gun and invasion of their home. A thin and hopelessly beautiful woman and a shivering short man wearing Cleopatra style make-up and a sheer nightie hardly seem like a pair of hostages posing any level of concern for the gangster. Dickie feels assured in his role as the captor and potentially dangerous criminal. From Dickie’s perspective, he’s got this under control and both people safely under his thumb. But perception is a tricky thing. What Dickie can see is not what he is about to get.
Forcing his way through the situation and understanding the daunting challenges of the tides, Dickie takes charge. After making a call to the Crime Lord for whom he and his partner have failed, Dickie is certain that his boss will be coming to pick them up as soon as the tide recedes. Facing more derision from the wife and a confused mix of passive-aggressive fear from the husband, Dickie forges forward with his plan. The phone cord has been severed, his gun at the ready and his intimidation clearly asserted, he forces both George and Teresa to help him bring his partner back to the castle. By the time they reach the stretch of road where Dickie has left his fatally injured partner, the car is nearly lost in the tide.
Forcing George and Teresa to assist him in pushing the car back up to the castle, it almost seems as if none of the three notice that Teresa has taken the most difficult position of pushing the drowned car from the rear.
As this often darkly comical film unspools we see cowardice, fear, threat, menace, flirtation, gender roles, sexism, cruelty, danger, brutality, friendship, love and identity splinter off in unexpected directions. Polanski not only deconstructs the concept of Film Noir to Neo Noir, he seems to be pushing under the concepts of Neo Noir toward domestic horror. While not at all a horror film, the film is filled with suspense. But just as the suspense starts to take hold something comical happens. The audience never obtains solid footing.
In some of the movie’s most memorable scenes, George and Teresa receive some unexpected guests. Guests who Dickie thought was his gang. In a bit of brazen assertion of power, Teresa opts to treat Dickie like a servant. This is both comical and more than a little disconcerting. Teresa simply does not care that Dickie’s rage might turn on their guests which include a bratty child and a very young Jacqueline Bisset as clueless Swinging London Hipster.
It is a risk she is more than willing to take. It is hard to watch this film in the 21st Century and not be reminded of Lionel Stander’s later turn as “Max” on Hart to Hart. As he grumbles and comically falls in line with Teresa’s bold play, it is an unintended comical pop culture reference point. Dickie serves the guests. He is annoyed, but oddly concerned with performing the duties as correctly as possible.
It is during these scenes that lack of sleep act as a catalyst for George to start to reach his turning point. His patience with his guest is limited. Before long he is barking at them to “Get the hell outta my fortress!” One can hardly blame him. These “friends/family” are horrible. We have already learned that George has lost every penny to purchase their castle. He is also lonely on the island. When his guest mention a person by the name of “Agnes” it seems to strike George to his core.
Who is Agnes? This is one of those strange strands of plot that is never revealed. She is probably the former wife to George. Most likely he was widowed. It is never clear, but one thing is certain: Teresa is no Agnes. She has captured George’s lust, but she is clearly disinterested in him. And it seems that he might be losing interest in her. Before long Dickie begins to fall into line with both of his “victims.” He begins to trust them. Dickie opens up to him. Teresa has even offered a bit of support after she and George are forced to assist in burying his dead partner in crime. After the guest are forced to leave, Dickie is comfortable in lying about with the unhappy couple.
While Dickie and George nap in the yard, Teresa attempts to catch up on some magazine reading. Dickie has become a part of this dysfunctional family. Teresa is playing her favorite record album as she reads. Turns out the bratty kid who just visited permanently damaged the record. Frustrated, she matches to her record player and shuts the music off.
This is a good time to mention the film’s frantic sort of experimental jazz musical score. Krzysztof Komeda’s score is of note. It is at once a toe-tapping bit of jazz, but it features a discordant use of what was most likely a theremin. Credited in the mid-60’s simply as Komeda, the music sounds like something you might hear on the radio until it takes a quirky turn with the theremin. This fits the film like a perfectly crafted suit. It is of interest that the musical score almost comes to a complete full-on stop when Teresa stops the record. Poor Dickie doesn’t even have any control over that oddly threatening jazz music. It belongs to Teresa and it has been damaged.
The damaged record album signals the film’s final act. Teresa has had it. Yet instead of actually taking a solid course of action, she pranks Dickie. Already a confirmed sexist pig, Dickie immediately responds by giving Teresa a fairly brutal whipping. This act proves to be the final straw for George. Dickie has out stayed his “welcome.” And, make no mistake, once the couple takes back the reign of their castle it is fairly clear that he was in a very strange way “welcomed” into their home.
While in some ways Cul-de-Sac seems a bit minor considering the two films he had already made, it has held up incredibly well. It is an interesting cinematic achievement that holds a great deal of respect. As it should.
Never one to leave the audience comfortable, Polanski brings his brilliant twisted little movie to a close with an up-ended feeling. Just as we think all plot issues and strands have come to some rather shocking conclusions, we are thrown for another trick of identity. Now all alone on the grounds of his fortress, George should be relieved. One might even expect to see him actually achieve a genuine smile. Instead he sits looking out to sea.
The fire in the hole that the film calls the Cul-de-Sac has been distinguished. The battle for the castle has been fought and won. Despite all of the positive signs we’ve been given for George’s fate, he appears to be on the verge of an emotional break. He painfully calls out the final lines of the movie, “Agnes!”
Like almost every film Polanski has ever made, Cul-de-Sac merits repeat viewings. It was so masterfully made that it offers a number of divergent points and aspects to riddle the mind.
Matty Stanfield, 11.6.15