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Roman Polanski’s black comedy thriller, Cul-de-Sac is at last available on DVD to American audiences thanks to Criterion. I had wanted to see this movie for many years and finally got the chance recently.
This visually riveting black and white exploration of comedic cruelty and the absurd within tense suspense takes place on Lindisfarne Island, Northumberland (it’s actually Holy Island) and revolves around a mismatched trio.
George (Donald Pleasance) is a retired businessman who has sold his factory and escaped to a secluded castle with his younger French wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac. Catherine Deneuve’s more beautiful older sister tragically killed in a car crash shortly after filming this movie) where they live in near isolation amongst some chickens they keep in a coop. But no matter how far one thinks to escape the world, Polanski reminds us that influences and pressures from other people can still force themselves uninvited into our space.
Early in the movie we understand that Teresa is an unfaithful wife as we see her lying bare-breasted atop their young and studly neighbor Christopher (Iain Quarrier) while she has sent her husband off to literally fly a kite.
Teresa is a controlling, emotional dominatrix who enjoys humiliating George. Later that evening as they’re getting ready for bed she further emasculates her already vulnerable husband by dressing him in her nightgown and applying her make-up on him. It’s not that George is a cross-dresser or enjoys being treated as his wife’s doll, but he is such a weak man and is so desperate for Teresa’s love that he invites further abuse through compliance.
It’s obvious that his 10 month marriage is a sham and this along with George’s infuriating weakness becomes even more apparent when both he and Teresa have their home invaded and are held hostage by two gangsters on the run after a botched robbery. Both hoodlums are injured, one of them mortally so. The latter is Albie (Jack MacGowran) who could easily pass for Mr. Bean’s uncle. The other is Richard or Dickie (Lionel Stanger) a boorish, frog-voiced, aggressive brute who early on has the measure of George as well as locating the cracks in the couple’s relationship.
As the distressing night continues into day Teresa unremittingly berates George’s cowardice calling him a coward to his face at his inability to defend his home and wife.
The movie has elements of Beckett as we see Dickie calling on his boss Mr. Katelbach to come and rescue them. It’s like Waiting For Godot. Will he or won’t he come? As they all wait for this deliverance from one another, Dickie further bullies George taking out on him his frustration from the recriminations he received from his boss. The bored and manipulative Teresa tries to provoke a confrontation between the two men going so far as to endanger George’s life. Prissy George finally does man up (sort of) at the end in a bleak and violent resolution.
Cul-de-Sac is a stylish thriller where the tension and suspense throughout is injected with a vicious humor. Like many Polanski films it is an acquired taste but I found it to be quite a rewarding one and one of his best films.
To order Cul-de-Sac on DVD from either Amazon USA, Amazon UK or Amazon Canada click on one of the corresponding links below.