Somebody told Judge Clark Douglas that he was mentally retiring, or something like that.
A morbidly funny tale of the modern world in chaos.
"Get the hell outta my fortress!"
Facts of the Case
George (Donald Pleasance, The Great Escape) and his young wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac, The Young Girls of Rochefort) live in a sprawling fortress by the sea (allegedly the same fortress in which Sir Walter Scott wrote his esteemed novel Rob Roy). Though they've only been married for ten months, their relationship seems particularly strained. One day, they are invaded by a brutish American criminal named Richard (Lionel Stander, Once Upon a Time in the West). His arrival proves a volatile element which will push George and Teresa's relationship into increasingly troubled territory.
Before he became the esteemed director of well-regarded Hollywood productions like Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, director Roman Polanski made a name for himself with a string of low-budget, experimental, mood-driven thrillers. He followed the chilly Knife in the Water and the unnerving Repulsion with the oddball Cul-de-sac, a film which constantly seems on the verge of slipping between one genre and another. On one level, it is a sinister thriller about an Ugly American pushing an already-strained marriage to its limits. On another (more intriguing) level, it is an observant, slow-burning comedy of discomfort. And on yet another level, it is a piece which allows Polanski room to indulge in a variety of cinematic tricks and off-kilter symbolism.
The Polanski effort it resembles most is 1994's Death and the Maiden, another tense tale of a two men and a woman engaged in a stand-off in a house near the sea. However, while that film was all about macabre atmosphere and dramatic tension, the thriller element of Cul-de-sac is the element Polanski seems least involved in. To be sure, there are some creepy moments (especially early on, as we don't quite have a handle on who the characters are or what they're attempting to accomplish—Polanski fills in the blanks in a deliberate, methodical manner), but after a while it becomes clear that Cul-de-sac works best when Polanski is being playful.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that it's easier to switch from chills to laughs than vice versa. There are some squirm-inducing yet entertaining moments during the first hour of the film, as the flustered husband and his sneering wife engage in a series of amusing interactions with the American. It's tempting to feel that Polanski is making a larger cultural point, as he seems to have infused each of these three characters with the worst stereotypical traits of the countries they represent: the rude, boorish, violent American; the stammering, spineless, indecisive Englishman and the devious, cruel, self-serving Frenchwoman. The actors push and pull off each other in some intriguing ways (with Pleasance doing particularly good work as a man ever-so-slowly reaching his boiling point).
However, the film shifts from engaging to brilliant with the arrival of several unexpected guests. Over the course of twenty-five minutes or so, we're treated to an increasingly hilarious comic set piece in which the players are spun around in a variety of interesting ways until Pleasance finally explodes in cathartic rage. Polanski builds up to this moment in giddy fashion, transforming the gruff gangster into a faux butler, introducing a particularly overbearing gentleman with a tendency for sticking his nose into everyone's business, delivering an immensely enjoyable skewering of pretentious dinner guests and allowing the world's snottiest little kid to run rampant through the mansion wreaking all manner of havoc. It's a fantastic stretch of direction which blends subtle satire with enthusiastically broad physical comedy, and it allows Polanski to use his strengths in wonderfully atypical fashion.
Unfortunately, the film's ambitious conclusion isn't able to stick the landing. After the aforementioned portion of comic delight, Cul-de-sac plunges into dark territory in supposedly horrific fashion. The ending works nicely on a symbolic level (and some of the comedic commentary continues in this section), but it's too forced and overwrought to really send a chill up the spine. The film seeks to blend the intensely personal terrors of Repulsion with the pleasures of a great farce, but it really only succeeds in the latter department. Still, that's enough to make it well worth your time.
Cul-de-sac arrives on Blu-ray sporting a decent 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. While the level of detail is solid enough, this is a good deal shabbier than many of the black-and-white releases Criterion has delivered thus far (Repulsion included). The exceptional cinematography is hampered slightly by the general flatness of the image, and there's some print damage which can be a little distracting at times. Audio is similarly acceptable yet underwhelming, as some lines of dialogue sound very muffled and the music is occasionally a bit shrill and pinched. While I'm sure Criterion has done what they can with what they had to work with, this isn't a movie to use as a showcase for your fancy home theatre equipment. Supplements include an excellent making-of featurette called "Two Gangster and an Island" (23 minutes) featuring interviews with Polanski and other crew members, an archival interview with Polanski (27 minutes), a couple of trailers and a booklet featuring an essay by David Thompson.
While Cul-de-sac isn't among Polanski's finest works, it offers enough flashes of the director's greatness to merit consideration. Likewise, Criterion's Blu-ray release isn't among their finest presentations, but it's strong enough to earn a recommendation.
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