[EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play is devoting much of its content this week to a study of the films of Roman Polanski, whose new movie Carnage opens the New York Film Festival this Friday, September 30. We are counting down to the event by running a new video essay every day this week under the title Life’s Work: The Films of Roman Polanski. Chapter 3 of the series is a video essay by contributor Jose Gallegos entitled Uniting The Fragments: Cul-de-Sac. You can view Chapter 1 of this series, Polanski’s God, here. You can view Chapter 2 of this series, Spaces, here.]
By Jose Gallegos
Press Play Contributor
“Roman Polanski” is a fragmented name, one that encompasses numerous identities and connotations. To some, “Polanski” is the child who survived the Krakow Ghetto during World War II. To others, he is the womanizer whose wife was brutally murdered by a homicidal cult. And still, to others, he is the criminal who fled to Paris while awaiting a statutory rape trial. Yet, to a select group of cinephiles, actors and filmmakers, the name “Polanski” is an adjective, one that ignores the “man’s” personal life and describes the “artist’s” prolific career, which spans nearly six decades. This career produced numerous films that exemplified the “Polanski” style; they explore the psychology of the psychotic, they blend the conventions and iconography of various genres and, oftentimes, they look towards pessimism as a means of comfort. It is Polanski’s third feature film, Cul-de-sac (1966), that best exemplifies the “Polanski” style. The film unites the various elements of a “Polanski film,” creating a self-proclaimed masterpiece.
Cul-de-sac follows three characters in a vicious triangle of torture and humiliation. There is Dickie (Lionel Stander), an American gangster who, after he and his dying partner, Albie (Jack MacGowran), are injured in a failed robbery, seeks refuge in a castle. Dickie takes the owners of the castle, George (Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), hostage while he waits for a call from his mysterious boss, Katelbach. As the night progresses, the power dynamics between the captives and their kidnapper begin to shift and it is unclear who has control in this absurd situation. The trio continues to torture one another until a climactic confrontation between the three results in an outburst of violence.
The strange story of Dickie, George and Teresa is entrenched in the Theatre of the Absurd, which Polanski admired fondly. Having experienced the aftermath of World War II, Polanski, like the absurdist playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, began to question the human condition. These questions were applied to Polanski’s films, but none posed a harsher interrogation of the human condition than Cul-de-sac. From the deserted landscape, which emulates Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to the emptiness of the dialogue, which borrows from the traditions of Ionesco, these characters are caught in an absurdist environment surrounded by water. As David Thompson eloquently writes in regards to the film, the characters are imprisoned by their surroundings, and they “are ultimately faced with the option of departure or death.”
Through the absurdist lens, Polanski explores themes and motifs that he had explored, and would explore, in other films. There is the fear of sex and emasculation, which was at the core of his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962), and of his later masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). There is the use of the enclosed environment as a metaphor for the mind, which was perfected in Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976). And there is the deconstruction of genre conventions, which was brilliantly used in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Chinatown (1974). Cul-de-sac bundles these elements, along with others, into one existential amalgamation. It is in Cul-de-sac where thoughts are able to linger, where the illogical and logical are one and the same and where philosophies are able to roam amongst the imprisoned surroundings.
The term “Polanski” describes a man who is a result of his circumstances. His cultural experiences and his views on life turned him into a complex being who was broken down into numerous fragments. These fragments were located in his first two films, but it was Cul-de-sac that united the pieces into one whole man. Cul-de-sac helped the director explore new territories for his later masterpieces, which the world would regard with awe and bated breath. Though the film wasn’t a financial success at the box office, it was a personal success for the director. It was an important stepping stone that allowed the fragmented man to collect all his pieces and construct himself into what is now known as the auteur named “Polanski.”