Cul-De-Sac, Dir. Roman Polanski (1966)

From left: Lionel Stander as Richard, Francoise Dorleac as Teresa, Donald Pleasance as George Photo:Compton Films/Guardian

From left: Lionel Stander as Richard, Francoise Dorleac as Teresa, Donald Pleasance as George Photo:Compton Films/Guardian

 This underrated gem is a highly personal project for the great director ( he used Repulsionas a means of financing it) co-written with Gerard Brach, and as a result can seem too bizarre for some, but for me this is just what makes it uniquely great and very watchable.

The film concerns a mingling of  two worlds. A reclusive couple living in a beachfront castle,the bookish and effeminate George  (Donald Pleasance in fine comic form like you’ve never seen him before) and his playfully mischievous  and unfaithful wife Teresa (the beautiful and nymph-like Francoise Dorleac -Catherine Deneuve’s sister who tragically died  only a year after the film was made and is hence largely unknown),  get besieged by two wounded gangsters straight out of a crime film from the 30’s (they even have period tommy guns).

Who are looking for a place to hideout aftter a robbery that went badly leaving Albie (the comically weedy Jack McGowran) dying and Richard (Lional Stander doing his best Cagney impression) wounded.  A premise that is similar to the one in Roeg’s Performance, albeit a very different film.

Polanski comically juxtaposes the rough and ultra-masculine Richard with the histrionic and cowardly George; shots frequently emphasising how small George looks and how large Richard is in comparison. And through  this Polanski brings up one of his signature themes, that of masculinity under threat (seen most notably in the superb Chinatown).

George is constantly belittled by both Richard and Teresa, the first scene in which we see George he is  made to wear a pink nightie, scarf and badly-applied make-up by a giggling Teresa.  In this ridiculous get-up he has to reluctantly, after being forced by Teresa, investigate the intrusion of the gangsters. While Richard in one scene slaps a hilariously startled George awake and in another carries him by his ear.

The intrusion of the gangsters also consequently puts a strain on the already fragile relationship. Polanski makes it clear from the beginning that Teresa is unfaithful by showing her topless lying on top of a young man while meant to be catching crabs (George comically remarks on the scarcity of her hauls).

You get the impression that George has placed them in this remote castle in order to stop Teresa’s philandering and have her to himself. The arrival of a character like Richard however increases Teresa’s dissatisfaction with him, constantly failing to be man enough to protect them from Richard’s demands.

(N.B: Look away here if you don’t want to know the ending) In the end to prove his heroism George ends up killing Richard only to scare Teresa who thinks he’s gone mad and runs off with the young man, Christopher, seen at the beginning.

The film thus ends on a very disconsloatory note, typical of Polanski, George who ‘adored’ Teresa (one room in the castle  is full of amateur paintings George did of her) is left standing alone on a rock in the midst of a high-tide.  The pathetic helpless figure he makes enphasised by the camera panning back till he gets smaller and smaller. His sense of loss palpable.

 The film is full of hilarious scenes such as  when their friends visit and they have to pretend everything is alright by making Richard pretend to be the butler, wearing one of George’s Dior ties as one of the guests (Jacqueline Bisset in one of her first film appearances) notes. Or when Richard forces them to all get drunk despite George’s vehement protestations, or when that monster of a child Nicholas (who calls Teresa a ‘froggy bitch’) finds their gun and fires it to the bewilderement of all the party. 

However, as this is a Polanski film  (and Polanksi is never one to make you feel settled for long) the comedy can quickly descend into violence, such as when Richard violently beats Teresa with a belt after she playfully burns papers at both ends and then sticks them between his toes.

The mise en scene is also great, we see the run-down chaos of the place with chickens running out about everywhere, clothes scattered everywhere, and wood rotting.

Overall  a brilliantly funny, dark, and deliciously surreal film that will stay in the mind long after watching.

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