Sunday, October 7, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.3: Roman Polanski's Cul-de-sac

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 77 (B+)

Roman Polanski’s Repulsion was an art-house hit and a critical triumph, but the director saw the film as a transitional piece and a means to an end to make a film he was really excited about: If Katelbach Comes. Retitled Cul-de-sac and released in 1966, the film found mostly positive notices but didn’t make the same waves that greeted Knife in the Water and Repulsion. The film has languished for years, barely seen or mentioned by Polanski fans, until Criterion finally put it out on DVD last year. Strangely, the personal project feels exactly like what Polanski described Repulsion as: a transitional effort. But it’s a good film in its own right, and one that deserves rediscovery.

Dicky (Lionel Stander) is a brutish American gangster in England whose latest heist has hit a snag. His partner Albie (Jack MacGowan) has been shot in the gut, and Dicky has caught a bullet in the arm. The two come upon a secluded seaside castle, where ineffectual Brit George (Donald Pleasence) lives with his much younger French wife Teresa (Francoise Dorleac, the older sister of Repulsion star Catharine Deneuve). Dicky takes the two prisoner in their own castle, where he tells them he won’t harm them so long as they do what he says until his boss, Katelbach, arrives. But Katelbach is taking his time, and in the meantime the boorish Dicky dominates the effeminate George in front of his oversexed wife.

Polanski combines a number of his earlier influences, from the gamesmanship of Alfred Hitchcock to the technical bravura and moodiness of Orson Welles. The setting’s representation of George’s isolation ties into the influence of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, where Olivier used a castle as representation of the Danish prince’s mindset.  Most notably, though, the film plays as a wonky riff on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot crossed with old-fashioned gangster films a la Little Caesar, a bigger-than-life gangster waiting for a man who will never come.

The film shares several characteristics with Knife in the Water, from Krzysztof Komeda’s playful but dangerous jazzy score to Polanski’s claustrophobic use of a seemingly wide-open space, and with Repulsion, with a space as a representation of a character’s mindset. It’s also a bridge to a few upcoming Polanski films, most notably The Fearless Vampire Killers, with which it shares an over-the-top blackly comic sense of humor and an irreverent take on old-fashioned cinema (gangster films here, horror films in the subsequent film). There’s an occasional awkwardness to the shifts between sparseness and floridness, and Cul-de-sac takes Polanski’s dark view of humanity to a nasty extreme that sometimes feels excessive (the bratty kid that visits is a bit much). The weak use of Francoise Dorleac is particularly troublesome- Dorleac showed talent in Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin, and her work in Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort would earn praise a year later, but here she’s mostly a device to humiliate or get a rise out of Pleasence. The female character of Knife in the Water took on a similar role, but she had her own wants and desires, where Teresa is too broadly defined as the sexually permissive and unfaithful wife. It’s particularly unfortunate considering how little time Dorleac had- her life and career would be cut short in a tragic car accident a year later.

But Cul-de-sac largely works anyway, in part because Polanski goes all-out on the psychological gamesmanship and cinematic bag of tricks. The director’s impressive use of deep focus works both as an isolating factor for George and as a great way to contrast his smallness and reticence to Dicky’s dominance. Particularly impressive is a long-take on the seaside, first as Dicky and George converse about George’s hatred of his castle and his worship of Teresa, then as Dicky thinks Katelbach has finally arrived. It begins as a deep focus shot with three focal points- George and Dicky in front; Teresa behind and between them, clearly uninterested in their conversation; and the castle, towering over them, a hollow and alienating possession for George. The shot then travels as Teresa goes for a skinny dip, George and Dicky discuss her (with a strangely sympathetic Dicky insinuating about her infidelity towards George), and then Dicky’s excitement as a plane passes over…only to realize that it couldn’t possibly be Katelbach. He’s as stuck as George is. It’s a hopeless and mad situation.

Power is a major factor in Polanski’s filmography, and this chamber piece functions as a three-way power play between the central characters. Lionel Stander is a perfect, blustery dominating force, with his harsh whiskey-soaked voice contrasting beautifully with the more measured English tones of Pleasence. Here are two great ham actors of different schools- American Cinema and British The-a-tre- giving larger than life performances needed for this film to work. Dicky is a vicious (and frequently hilarious) character who, through sheer force of will, becomes the new king of the castle. He forces the ulcer-stricken George to drink with him, berates him for parking his car in the middle of his driveway (“your own grounds? You’re what’s ruining this country!”), forces George to help bury Albie (one of the better black-comedy set-pieces of the film), spanks George to wake him up, and forces to help him shave. It’s a deeply humiliating experience.

Then again, humiliation isn’t exactly a foreign feeling for George. Our first view of Teresa is of her lying topless atop a young acquaintance- this trophy wife doesn’t much care about keeping up appearances. Before the two meet Dicky, she forces George to put make-up and a dress on in a deeply strange scene- he plays along, but when they run into Dicky it’s a humiliating experience. Teresa emasculates George to the point where Dicky even feels sorry for the poor cuckolded bastard, calling him a sucker and almost telling him that he saw Teresa with a younger man. He’s not the only one who sees through her: when George’s former business associate and his family arrive, they don’t hide their lack of respect for Teresa and flat-out call her a tart.

Their arrival also brings about a new power play as Dicky is forced to play servant to George and Teresa, a new humiliation that the boorish gangster has a rather low tolerance for. In one hilarious scene, he chases the man’s bratty kid with a shovel. At this point, George has been pushed around to the point where his tolerance for his friend’s annoying wife is pushed to its limit (“That tart is my wife! Now take your bloody insinuations and get the hell out of my fortress!”). George is such an ineffectual man that he has to be pushed to do anything about Dicky- the man’s murder is ultimately motivated after Teresa lies about why Dicky tried to beat her with a belt. Where in truth it’s about a dumb (but funny) trick she played on him, she claims she refused his advances. The nebbish man has been pushed to the brink. But when he shoots Dicky, it’s not a moment of triumph, but of horror. He’s killed a man and taken a more masculine identity, but he’s alienated his wife and finally grown fed up with her. As a final shot shows on the beach, perched on a rock, he cries out “Agnes!”, likely in reference to a dead wife. He’s alone, his humanity taken away from him, and his separation from his wife is a final humiliation. If the final moments of this black comedy are more disturbing than funny, it’s likely because it’s comedic in the nastiest sense of the word.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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