'Cul-de-sac' is a film about deception that tries to do a little of everything in less than two hours. It wants to be a horror thriller one minute and an emotional drama the next, all the while livening things up with bizarre doses of comedy. What it becomes is mostly a hard to pin down movie with little purpose in its narrative logic but carrying a very dark and cynical sense of humor. Three strangers — the loud boorish gangster Dickie (Lionel Stander), the foppish, overly anxious George (Donald Pleasance) and his provocative, high-handed wife Teresa (Françoise Dorléac) — collide in an isolated dark castle just off the coast. Seems like the ideal theatrical setting for characters to learn about themselves as well as each other, but while the theatrics are there, the plot is nothing of the sort.
After the success of 'Knife in the Water' and 'Repulsion,' Roman Polanski was on a small winning streak and allowed to try his hand at whatever project he desired. 'Cul-de-sac,' which he co-wrote prior to the psychological thriller with Catherine Deneuve, was the result, a rather personal and completely original experiment on various themes that he only later truly mastered. And it's not a particularly good third feature film from the Franco-Polish filmmaker. It's is, however, a very well-made absurdist piece of cinema, filled with funny flights of fancy from an imaginative auteur displaying a great deal of talent. Of most interest is watching how Polanski controls the camera and composes each shot with a detailed eye, drawing viewers in with expectations but delivering something else.
The deception — not to be confused with a fraud or a form of treachery on the part of the filmmakers, but a creative decoy or ruse for engaging the audience — commences very early on with a pair of wounded criminals. Dickie pushes the getaway car while Albie (Jack MacGowran) sits dying in the driver's seat. When Dickie walks, bandaged arm in a sling, to the castle on a hilltop, we are under the impression the story will soon turn into a hostage situation while the two men figure out an escape plan. But then out of nowhere, Polanski throws at us a peculiar scene where George lets Teresa dress him in a woman's nightgown and makeup. As the four meet, we are left to wonder the direction the film will take, and at the same time, Polanski has us hooked to see the whole thing through.
This idea of a deception or ruse is not only on the part of the filmmakers, but the characters also appear misleading and putting on a front. And better yet, they slowly emerge as deluding themselves, which is where Polanski explores best the themes that inspired him from absurdist fiction. If the existentially perplexing and rather nihilistic conclusion with George is not a dead giveaway to Polanski's approach, then surely Dickie's continued hope for salvation by a never-seen, mysterious Katelbach is evidence enough of Samuel Beckett's influence. On a more intimate level, George's effeminacy seems like the result of a very deep, emotional turmoil which he refuses to come to grips with, as seen in the confusing conversation on the beach with Dickie just before the plane flies by.
These are characters in search of meaning and struggling to escape the conditions which they created for themselves. Their meeting each other is purely coincidental, a random chance of circumstances with no significance to it whatsoever. 'Cul-de-sac' seems to keep to this idea and theme by being also a film which mixes genres together with very little purpose to that fact, other than to suggest it is the haphazard, arbitrary cosmic irony of life itself. For every fit of laughter and silliness there is also fearful tension and painful tragedy. Only his third feature film and Polanski tries to explore complex themes that have no easy answer, which makes it a difficult, baffling watch for most viewers. But 'Cul-de-sac' can, at least, be celebrated and admired as an art-house film that demonstrates the skilled talent of an effective and brilliant filmmaker.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Cul-de-sac' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #577) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 16-page booklet with stills from the movie and features an insightful essay entitled "High Tides" by author and documentarian David Thompson. There are no trailers or promos before being taken to the distributor's normal menu options.
Taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, Polanski's 'Cul-de-sac' arrives to Blu-ray with a handsome AVC-encoded transfer personally approved by the filmmaker.
Contrast is spot-on and terrifically well-balanced with clean, crisp whites throughout. Black levels are much deeper than previous versions of the film, but they're accurate and true, giving the picture a beautiful cinematic quality. The various shadows are at times quite overwhelming to create a tense, ominous feel in the story, but background info is not sacrificed as many fine objects remain plainly visible all the way through. Definition and clarity are as sharp and detailed as can be acquired from a stock of this vintage, which is not altogether bad. Textures in the faces, clothing and all around the dark castle are quite perceptible and appreciable. The high-def image also shows a thin veneer of grain, providing the overall quality of the video with a palpable film-like presentation.
A very nice video presentation indeed!
Additionally, Criterion engineers preserve the original monaural soundtrack from the same master positive, and the results are excellent.
Despite being entirely restricted to the center channel, the uncompressed PCM track comes with a terrific acoustical presence and fidelity. Minor background details like birds screaming overhead, an owl hooting in the distance or an airplane doing a flyby are crystal clear and splendid with surprisingly good movement within the imaging. Except for a very early scene where Lionel Stander's voice shows some distorted hissing, dialogue reproduction is marvelous and pitch-perfect. The lossless mix also displays a healthy low-end to give the score and the few bits of action some satisfying weight.
Overall, it's a first-rate and brilliant audio presentation for a Polanski classic.
The Blu-ray of 'Cul-de-sac' shares the same special features as its DVD counterpart.
One of Roman Polanski's very early works, 'Cul-de-sac' is an unusual drama which toys with aspects of satire and the thriller genre, but ultimately arrives at a cosmic irony that's perplexing and aims to be seen as absurdist cinema. With Donald Pleasance, Lionel Stander, and Françoise Dorléac, the film is remarkable for displaying Polanski's unique art-house style mixed with complex themes of estrangement, sexuality, and horror. The Blu-ray comes from The Criterion Collection with an excellent audio and video presentation, but the assortment of supplements is rather small. Still, Polanski fans will appreciate the effort for bringing this rarely-mentioned film from the Franco-Polish director's canon.