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posterCul de Sac

(United Kingdom, 1966, 109 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
Directed by Roman Polanski

Donald Pleasance . . . . . . . . . . George
Lionel Stander . . . . . . . . . . Lucky
Francoise Doreleac . . . . . . . . . .Teresa
Jack McGowran . . . . . . . . . . Pozzo

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

It is the aftermath of a crime gone wrong. A car drones slowly along a road on some forgotten moor. Sand and water slide by endlessly. Two low-rent criminals are escaping from a caper gone horribly wrong. They've both been shot. One of them, Albert, is dying, and the other, Richard, is trying to shake off his bullet wound. Richard leaves the car, stumbling off in search of--what? Cul-de-Sac was Roman Polanski's third feature film, following Knife in the Water and Repulsion, like all his early work, caused consternation for its carefree attitude toward plot and the mayhem it seemed to glory in. Both Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac were refused screenings at the Cannes film festival, but regardless, the word was out by 1966 that Polanski was one of cinema's most articulate and quizzical new voices.

Cul-de-Sac is a 60's happening colliding headlong with a film noir, The Desperate Hours on acid, the whole thing organized by Roman Polanski's youthful but already perverse consciousness. Clucking chickens, couples making love, a castle--all put awhirl with Polanski's deadly, dark, internal logic. Cul-de-Sac also shows the influence of the theater of the absurd on Polanski's work. Gags, repetitions of nonsensical phrases, silly musical motifs, and unexplained plot devices that seem drawn either camp horror films, a body that doesn't seem to want to get buried. . . If this is a thriller, as it sometimes called, then, while the spirit of Hitchcock is here, so is that of Ionesco and Beckett.

The two criminals are played by Jack McGowran and Lionel Stander, two character actors who Polanski plainly loves for their combination of the goofy with the macabre. For Polanski, the two are screwball tragic heroes, Pozzo and Lucky with .38's, and their adventures are somehow as serious as they are preposterous. If Polanski were to shoot Hamlet, he would probably do the story from the point of view of the gravediggers.

Other trademarks of early Polanski are here, too. There is a mesmerizingly grotesque character (the hermit George, played with wild-eyed abandon by Donald Pleasance) near the center of the narrative, out of reach of such workaday movie conventions as dramatic motivation, and more compelling because of that. Francoise Dorleac plays George's astonishingly lovely, passionate partner, Teresa, in what would be one of her last performances. For Polanski, beautiful female characters such as Teresa are plainly objects of desire, their overwhelming sexuality virtually the only purity available in the confused, corrupt cinematic universes he creates. Dorleac, the sister of Catherine Deneuve, would die in an automobile crash the following year.

Cul-de-Sac is Polanski at his best early form, running up to the film that capped the first half of his career, 1968's Rosemary's Baby. Polanski was a survivor of the Holocaust, and for him, mortal violence has been a fact of his life, not its exception; from his youth, he has been an unwilling voyeur of some of humanity's most unthinkable acts. Barbara Learning has said that for Polanski, the subject of violence is an obsession, as it certainly was for other directors of his generation. But not the doing of violence, rather, the watching of violence. Polanski's sensibility in Cul-de-Sac is that of a child who has stumbled upon very adult goings-on, and is watching them through a keyhole, unknown to the preoccupied grown-ups. The child doesn't exactly understand what he sees, but he watches with analytical interest, each strange act receiving the same careful attention. The horrific events of August, 1969, in which Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and three others were killed in an orgy of violence by Charles Manson and his followers, did not slake Polanski’s fascination with violence observed. Rather, it seemed to confirm that his destiny was to be simultaneously a victim and a chronicler of the evil that men do.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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