As with his prior film Knife in the Water, which was fittingly set at sea and stitched together by jagged, knife-like, tetanus-inducing cuts, Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac is filmed like a pirate on a bad day. It’s as though the camera is a sword constantly teetering between literate, venomous pen and protruding phallus, both of which seek to do bodily harm to the characters in the film in their own respective ways. The film, like all of Polanski’s best cinematic scalpels, feels dangerous down to its very artistic construction – the way shots are not so much sewn together as they are stabbed into one another – rather than simply dangerous in its subject matter. That distinction between cinema with dangerous subject matter and cinema with dangerous form to test that subject matter is what separates a film with something to say and a film with a means to say it. It is what separates a mere provocateur from a truly demented, haphazard genius of the form. Roman Polanski laughs at us because he is proud to be both.
Furthermore, despite bearing a more homely and domestic title than Polanski’s previous works – the diabolical duo of the raggedly unfinished and sinuously sinister Knife in the Water and Repulsion – the nominally opaque Cul-de-sac is actually a cancerous growth of sorts off of Polanski’s earlier films, and is arguably even more destructive than its predecessors. Those films were bonafide masterpieces, through and through, and while Cul-de-sac is not necessarily better, it is a partner piece of equal value. Take Knife in the Water in comparison to our present subject. While both films seem to play the same notes – they both, broadly, take the form of a couple of wealth and a single, bellicose, younger male engaging in a sort of mental chess-match turned mental ménage à trois in a suffocatingly enclosed space – the notes are played most differently.
While Knife in the Water was all poisonous energy and predatory serrated camera edges that seemed to stab the characters in the stomach at every turn, Cul-de-sac is a more laconic, camp affair with an air of robust English-language graveyard farce. Think less demented scream and more cackling, nervous web of inescapable laughing gas, and you begin to fill in the cabin-in-the-woods playfulness of Polanski as a director evolving right from the get-go.
Even the title, nominally a locator of houses and bland domesticity, takes on a devilish, malevolent aura all its own as Polanski turns middlebrow British life on its head with a nasty incursion of proto-American New Wave brutality. A brutality that takes the form of Lionel Stander as Dickey, the American gangster who invades the home of George and Teresa (Donald Pleasence and Francoise Dorléac). Polanski’s attitude toward Dickey, and all of his characters, is a perverse nihilism, borrowed from Knife in the Water and nastied-up here ever further. The relationship between the characters is antagonistic but vised with decomposing class and national ties, as well as cinematic ones absent Knife in the Water.
Dickey brashly entices Teresa (and although he would never admit it, George can’t turn his head from Dickey as well, and his interest is more than purely distaste). Yet the relationship is less a human story than a lurid descent into the toxic bouts of combat simultaneously corrupting and enlightening cinema in the mid ’60s, with Polanski prefacing, or predicting, the rise of the American cinema again after British and other European cinemas had largely overridden the sometimes crippling stuffiness of classical Hollywood cinema. Polanski takes cues from guttery gravestone film noir, the underbelly of American cinema, and the French New Wave, itself indebted to American noir, in the way he films Dickey, refracting him through subdivided darkness and turning him into a shadowy specter haunting the antiseptic halls of the gaunt British castle where George and Teresa reside.
Teresa, incidentally, is a reflection of the swinging ’60s and the obstreperous, unapologetic lifeblood brewing in middle-60s pop British works like A Hard Day’s Night and Dr. Strangelove (both of which were also filmed by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, here imbuing the halls of everyday life with imminent derangement and coils of mortality). George, for his part, is something of a stoic connoisseur of literate classicism, a David Lean type, with Polanski new-schooling as a Hitchcock convert wrecking up Lean’s joint up a little. These three figures are all different types then – scabrously American, snidely French, and stoically British – and Polanski’s treatment of them is something of a commentary on the entropic meeting of cinemas both new and old in the 1960s. Before you ask, however, Cul-de-sac does not take sides. It sits atop the characters, laughing at the panoramic destruction ever-present when styles and sensibilities dance on a knife’s edge with one another. Even the successful come away traumatized and wounded.
Polanski’s career, in fact, is a perfect harbinger of such destruction, not simply in his own personal life, but in the way he combined brash, rugged modernist techniques with the more theatrical ambitions of his cinematic elder statesman. He was one of the few directors of his time, like say Robert Altman, who could pay homage to his forebearers stylistically without succumbing to the tepidity of certain classical genres. At his best, he stripped classical cinemas for pieces and turned them into psycho-sexually bubbling Frankenstein’s monsters of parts and parcels fraught with the tension of being only barely stitched together. Cul-de-sac is, essentially, those parts and parcels – epitomized in three ostensible humans – unstitching themselves in front of us.
It is difficult then not to see Cul-de-sac as a reflection on the intertextualities in the French New Wave (Polanski and his co-writer Gérard Brach make the comparison hard to miss). If so, Polanski matches a Godard for cinematic enthusiasm and sense of whimsical cruelty and play. Yet Cul-de-sac, even by New Wave or Polanski standards, feels like an off-kilter portal into oddball cinema, transfixing expectations with doses of screwball comedy, sexually transgressive cross-dressing, deconstructive camera angles and revealing deep focus lenses that emphasize the empty space between characters, high and low camp quasi-horror, and nerve-wracking psychoanalytic indigestion. Calling it Polanski’s best film is a lost cause, but it may be his purest in the way it vulcanizes all of his signature interests (primarily the ways that men of all classes and demeanors are united in their quest to render women into the subaltern) at their most unrestrained and galavantingly idiosyncratic.
Especially provocative is the way the hostage crisis that nominally connects the film to dozens of classical noirs fizzles out early. We expect a sort of violent clash of personas, but each character pantomimes their own individual concerns and contradictions rather than necessarily interacting with one another. Inter-human confrontation, moth-like seduction, sexual liberation, frustration, embittered angst – all of the emotions which boiled over in Knife in the Water and Repulsion – are implied here only so they can be denied. Dickey doesn’t really try to antagonize George or emasculate him; he simply exists around George, who exists around Teresa, who exists around Dickey. We expect, as with Knife in the Water, passions overflowing, and we get a work of fascinating anti-energy, drawing us in with the promise of thrills and chills and instead lounging around like a hot summer’s day, or like the characters were caught in a malarial, conversational malaise between their lines. It is almost like watching Polanski rereading his earlier films for not being nihilist enough. In those films, at least, humans still had negative energy to thrash around in. Here, Polanski denies them even this freedom.
Perhaps the film’s real point, then, is that, for all cinema was doing to explore and comment on other cinematic cultures in the mid-century, those various cinematic cultures never really could understand each other. Maybe, Cul-de-sac says, they weren’t talking to one another, but simply standing around one another with their mouths open. A ruthless possibility, and an overstated one, but that is Polanski for you. Many misconstrue these autoerotic proclivities of Polanski’s cinema – his boastfully ribald nature and egotistic disregard for structure – for a smug provocatuer’s edge. True, but provocation has its value, especially when said provocation bubbles with smarmy, swarthy transgressiveness that is almost post-sexual in the way it constantly seeks to dabble in the intersectionalities of class, gender, and the thick undercurrent of loneliness found burdening the human soul. Maybe Cul-de-sac is a ruse, a devious escapade into intangible cinema on Polanski’s part, a film with nothing to say. Maybe it is simply a trick. But with cinema tricking us as baldly and deliriously as Cul-de-sac, who cares? It is as transfixingly uncomfortable as Polanski, a director who has also thrived on the blood drawn from discomfort, has ever gotten. Again, provocation has its value.