Of all Roman Polanski's features, Cul-de-Sac is the one closest to his love for the Theatre of the Absurd (Ionesco, Beckett) mixed with a Pinter influence – and thus his most purely modernist work.
It was his first script with long-time collaborator Gérard Brach (begun in the early 1960s), and was greatly influenced by Brach's dark and somewhat misogynist theories about dominance and submission in sexual relationships. They began not with a storyline but with a list of (according to Polanski) 'what I like to see in cinema', (1) generated from a charged situation: into a static but seething domestic scene comes a pair of intruders.
As in Waiting for Godot (which Polanski wanted to film), the action rests on the interminable anticipation of a terrifying Superego figure. Meanwhile, the presence of the loutish criminal Richard (Lionel Stander) is enough to expose the problems in the marriage of bespectacled George (Donald Pleasance) and Teresa (Françoise Dorleac).
As in much Absurdist theatre, the roles of victim and victimiser switch often, and it is hard to say whose behaviour is coldest: Richard's, Teresa's or the shallow high-society friends who visit the remote castle (Repulsion's mordant view of English manners is pushed into a still-more grotesque register).
Polanski declared of Cul-de-Sac: "It is real cinema, done for cinema." (2) He returns here to the surreal, imagistic style of Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958): a car stuck in the rising tide, lone figures dwarfed by a forbidding landscape, abstracted images of the characters' physical vulnerability and pain.
Polanski long referred to Cul-de-Sac as "my best film. I always loved it. I always believed in it" (3) – doubtless because of its undiluted mixture of creative freedom and intense, blackly comic misanthropy.
© Adrian Martin April 2001
1. Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar (Middlesex: Penguin, 1970), p. 207.
2. Ibid, p. 206.
3. Ibid, p. 209.