Monday, August 9, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Cul-de-sac" (1966)


"Cul-de-sac" was Roman Polanski's third feature film after the international attention of "Knife in the Water" and "Repulsion," both centering on twisted depictions of sexual desire and identity -- themes that would come to mark his entire career (and personal life). So of course he returned to familiar ground with this sun-drenched tale about an encounter between criminals and an effete British man and his libertine French wife.

This film has been sometimes described as a comedy, which I guess would fit if you add the "pitch black" descriptor. Absurdist might be more apt, as it's a look at two polar opposites of manhood with a sexually powerful woman in the middle of the sandwich. 

Languid and indulgent, it's drenched in irony and pathos, earnestness and parody. Narratively and thematically it's so similar to "Straw Dogs" that I wonder if it, or at least the 1969 novel it was based on, was copped from Polanski's picture.

Coming at a time when foreign art films were taken more seriously than American mainstream ones, people usually approach movies like this primarily with the impetus of interpretation -- aka, "what does it all mean?" I'm not sure how intently Polanski or any filmmaker thinks about how their work will be written about in film journals and academic circles years down the road. 

I tend to eschew this sort of film criticism because it is so spectacularly subjective. The writer doesn't want to talk to you about the movie, they want to talk about themselves -- and, frankly, most critics (me included) aren't really interesting enough to do that past barest brevity.

The story is rather simple and straightforward. Two criminals wounded from some unspecified heist gone wrong stumble across a retired English chap and his much younger wife living in a tidal island castle. Cut off from land by the rising waters, there is a standoff that grows increasingly intense while the beefy gangster physically and emotionally intimidates the couple until violence inevitably erupts.

Using a more squarish aspect ratio in rich black-and-white, Polanski repeatedly frames the actors to accentuate the difference in physique between George, the husband played by Donald Pleasence, and Lionel Stander's hulking Dickie. 

Pleasence, usually remembered for a rather stout appearance, is shriveled down to almost nothing. With his shaved head and spectacles, George rather resembles a puny bird freshly hatched from the egg, all awkward limbs and big, pleading eyes. Dickie towers over him with wild, mangy hair and wears a sport coat with no shirt on underneath, looking like a lamed gorilla with his right hand tied up in an ad hoc sling.

How he got this wound is never revealed. We first meet him pushing a broken-down stolen car along the beachside causeway with his partner, Albie (Jack MacGowran), laid up in the front seat all shot up in the belly. We intuitively grasp that Dickie is the muscle and Albie is the brains of the outfit. There's actually a strong resemblance between Albie and George, so perhaps Dickie's later antagonism is tied to seeing them as little twerps who boss guys like him around.

Dickie leaves Albie in the car to go get help, not realizing the rising tide will flood the causeway and cut them off from the mainland. Along the way to the castle, the only structure around, he spies George's lithesome blonde wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléa), cavorting on the beach semi-nude with a young neighbor, Christopher (Iain Quarrier), presumably after a bout of lovemaking.

Dickie hides out in the barn, slurping raw eggs from Teresa's astonishingly large flock of chickens, until Christopher and his parents leave by boat. That night he sneaks into the house and calls his boss, Katelbach, to send help to pick them up. 

The film was shot at Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland, a real place that is named in the movie, though it is given a fictional backstory as the place where Sir Walter Scott wrote "Rob Roy."

It's interesting how casual Dickie is about his invasion. He just sort of shows up in their kitchen, assuming that George and Teresa will follow his orders after vague threats of violence, which is exactly what they do. 

Throughout the next night and day, Teresa constantly berates George for not standing up to Dickie -- even when she claims, falsely, that he made sexual advances on her. For his part Dickie seems repulsed by women in general and Teresa in particular, even though she flaunts her nude body to him on several occasions.

Part of George's emasculation is quite literal. Right before they came downstairs and found Dickie, Teresa was playfully dressing George up in one of her nightgowns when he couldn't find his pajama shirt, followed by crudely drawing on eye makeup and lipstick, plus a wig. In his haste at hearing a noise downstairs he doesn't remove these accoutrements, so Dickie and Albie, eventually rescued from the nearly flooded car, assume he is "queer."

His initial embarrassment is understandable, though as time went on I found his cowardice in the face of Dickie straining credulity. We learn that George was an officer in WWII, though he later apologetically qualifies that he was "in tanks" -- as if somehow tank officers don't go through basic training including hand-to-hand combat.

Plus, other than his size Dickie is really not that impressive a physical specimen. Stander was nearly 60 years old when the movie was made, and moves about with all the physical grace of a paunchy man of late middle years whose diet consists of beer and sausages. Plus, Dickie only has the one good meathook.

Albie, for his part, is completely immobilized and soon dies. So it seems any sort of improvised weapon, even the large skillet George uses to make omelettes, could have won the day. Though Dickie is later revealed to have a revolver in his coat pocket and has a Tommy gun in the back seat of his car.

The following morning brings unexpected guests to the castle, an old war compatriot of George's, blowsy Philip (Robert Dorning) and his wife, Marion (Marie Kean), along with their little brat of a son. They also have another couple with them, a somewhat younger man named Cecil (William Franklyn), who Teresa soon sets about furiously flirting with, along with his companion (wife?), who never says a word but is played by Jacqueline Bisset in her first credited screen role.

An interesting dynamic ensues. Teresa pretends that Dickie is their gardener/servant, and takes great delight in ordering him about to tote and cook. Dickie goes along, griping constantly and complaining about his bum arm, and we get a glimpse of what his life was probably like when Albie was alive and ambulatory.

George, who seems to have turned a blind eye to Teresa's sexual proclivities, is annoyed by her attention to another man. He becomes increasingly frustrated with the visitors, finally instigating a row that sends them off in a huff. Notably, he never takes advantage of the opportunity that there are now three able-bodied men to overpower Dickie.

We also learn a little more about George, including that he was a well-to-do factory owner who pitched everything in his old life, including his former wife Agnes, to marry a hot young French lass and live "the life of Riley," puttering around and painting beach portraits. 

Underneath, though, is a wave of pent-up regret and lassitude about his meaningless existence.

When Dickie learns that Katelbach is not coming, he becomes morose and his pent-up hostility toward George and Teresa rises to a boil. Even though they have been completely subservient to him, he resents their snobbery and "not being straight" with him, as he has been with them. 

In Dickie's neanderthal mind, being honest about hurting the couple if they don't obey him is more "straight" than using distraction and deception to escape his clutches.

Teresa, having begged for a display of violence between the two men, cowers and flees when it finally occurs. The woman-as-temptress is a common theme in Polanski's filmography, and it often seems to be mixed with his signature blending of desire and repulsion. We are continually invited to gaze upon Teresa, and she simultaneously harbors enjoyment of this act with contempt for those who partake.

The story ends with Dickie dead, Teresa run off with Cecil, George's car blown up and him perching on a rock over the flooded causeway like a stranded seagull, lamenting for his ex-wife, Agnes. It seems this timid little fellow took too literally the creed that his home is his castle, and found himself unmanned.

Like Polanski's other films, even when it's not that good it's always interesting... if in a twisty, bendy, itches-under-your skin sort of way.


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