Long unavailable on DVD in the US, Roman Polanski's awe-inspiring CUL-DE-SAC (1966) is now on Netflix streaming, in a not-bad-looking transfer. So go there! I did and can now appreciate the wobbly genius of Catherine Deneuve's sister, Francois Dorleac, and the way this amazing film links the male posturing of KNIFE IN THE WATER with the cold-eyed sexual hysterics of REPULSION, and even connects with other films of the era, like WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, SPIDER BABY, and L'AVENTURA, PERFORMANCE, and plays like Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT meets Strindberg's DANCE OF DEATH.
The plot line is more like a series of events that spiral in and out of control, making 'plot' per se merely something to confuse and bait the viewer with: Donald Pleasance is George, an artist who's had an apparent mid-life crisis, sold everything to buy an isolated castle fortress (where Sir Walter wrote: "Look there's his original quill!") and stock it with a much younger French bride, Teresa (Francois Dorleac). Depending on which one of them you ask, everything is fine until a desperate, wounded criminal, Richard (Lional Stander) breaks in to steal eggs and demand their help in rescuing his gut-shot partner, Albie (the able and Joyce-ish Jack McGowran).
Though the stage seems set for tense DESPERATE HOURS, KEY LARGO, HE RAN ALL THE WAY, or PETRIFIED FOREST-style tension, Polanski deliberately skews it, pretending like he's about to fall into gangster-noir cliche, then righting himself back up, and winking at us like we're nosy fellas. After dealing with endless unwelcome drop-in guests--including a very rotten child (the closest thing the film has to a true villain) and an aloof Jacquelin Bissett--George finds the relative humanity and grounded 'realness' of Brooklyn-accented yank thug Richard and pill-bottle glassed intellectual Albie almost a relief. By the end of the night, Richard has bonded, kinda, with both Teresa and George over over homemade vodka and it all begins to seem like a weird metaphor for western-allied relations in WW2 and one of those unhinged lower class invigorating the ennui-ridden jet set kind of thing, ala PERFORMANCE, THE CABLE GUY, RULES OF THE GAME, SWEPT AWAY...., or even BARTON FINK. the keen observations and brute good-nature of Richard make him less threatening, which only makes his outbursts of violence that much more traumatic and scary.
As with so many of his 60's films, Polanski seems to draw on his experiences as a Jewish child struggling for survival in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation. He makes use of his first-hand witnessing of true inhumanity to man, and where other directors would speed up and simplify -- good guys vs. bad, winning vs. losing--as the narrative coheres, Polanski slows down and muddies the water. At which point do hostages become complicit? Can contact with gangsters help a 'civilized' man finally shed his veneer and start throwing out unwanted guests like a rabid maniac? Mmmmaybe.
With its groovy Ronald Stein-ish score (attributed to Komeda), the CUL DE SAC vibe recalls the uneasy luncheon centerpiece in Russ Meyer's masterpiece, FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL! KILL! or the arrival of unwanted guests in Jack Hill's 1968 cult classic SPIDER BABY. KNIFE IN THE WATER devotees will recognize, as will REPULSION fans, the ease with which Polanski dispenses with a singular point of view or any 'reliable' perspective of reality, removing any indication that any one character is 'right' in the perception of events over any other, no matter how warped.
Then there's the tale of two sisters: As opposed to Catherine Deneuve, who allows us to gaze lengthily at her spider-watching-the-fly features in Polanski's REPULSION, her sister Dorleac is always in motion, long lovely Francois Hardy hair in face, dark rings around her eyes hinting at little sleep, less sanity, probably drugs, to the point where it's hard to get a full beam on her features. This is not meant as a critique, merely an observation that puts her in the same warper class as Anita Pallenberg in PERFORMANCE, who also plays a crazy cross-dressing hermit's companion and nutball butterfly of shifting allegiances and facial features. (Check here for my 'many faces of Pallenberg' post)
Though both Dorleac and Pleasance are fine and even have subtle but real rapport, the true stand-out in the film is gangster character actor Lionel Stander. His big pug-ugly mug and gravely voice belie a great charm (he was the kindly bartender in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) and its heartwarming to see him get to 'steal' a whole movie. Stander was one of those unlucky victims of the blacklist, which probably explains his presence in so many European films in the 1950's through 70's (such as this one). Luckily he came back to the U.S. once the hysteria died down, and became memorable for his role in the long-lived Hart to Hart TV series. Huge and menacing but comic and jovial in a salt-of-the-earth fashion, with that awesome gravel truck voice, Stander is heavy as a chunk of lead but light on his feet as a feather, able to go from menacing to sweet and good-natured on 1/19 of a dime.
As the film progresses, Richard develops a fine, borderline respectful rapport/borderline misogynist rapport with the equally mercurial Teresa: she brings him a vodka after his partner dies, but then later a hotfoot while he's napping in the sun ("that's called a bicycle!") and he responds by whipping her with his belt (!) then punching her in the side of the head ("that's called a 'klomp'!) Clearly, such kinky discipline is not something George would ever muster, so, like the love triangle of KNIFE and the real and imagined rapist/suitors that come to call and get dispatched in REPULSION, it becomes very difficult (intentionally one presumes) to chalk out a line between what goes 'too far' in trying to appease the contrary aspects of feminine sexual desire: women want to be dominated, possessed utterly, ravished, but only when, where and with whom their whim dictates.
Men struggle with this all the time: when does Fabio-style ravishing become sexual assault? Do women really 'need' to get slapped or choked once in awhile or is it just the fantasy, some genetic memory going back thousands of years into the past, grappling the same slippery slope by which Stockholm syndrome helped ensure the survival of her DNA, via her ancient relative becoming wife to the man who's tribe overrode her village and killed her previous husband? Does this all stem (for Polanski) from the Nazis, the way, say, 95% of pedophiles were themselves abused as children? Or is that just Polanski's deep-seated (as some claim, re: his rape charges) misogyny and ambivalence? To that, of course, it's wise to defer to Paglia-versed female film critics, like Kim Morgan:
...stuck in the house like a more spirited, extra primal Virgin Suicide sister, (Teresa) engages in childlike activities to amuse herself. She tears around the house barefoot, applies exaggerated eyeliner (or helps her husband with his), messes with rifles and, the best, most hilarious, lights a sleeping Stander's feet on fire with burning pieces of newspaper between his toes ("It's called a bicycle" she taunts). Oh...you just don't do that to Lionel Stander. Or perhaps, you do. Between these two mismatched misfits, it's disarmingly sexy. These characters don't establish things like "safe" words nor do they understand the concept of such a thing, so the perversity, stark beauty, the isolation, the bleakness, the menacing sexuality and the insanity make the whole experience a strangely good time.
In addition to raising chickens for their eggs, Teresa makes her own vodka, and proceeds to get both men drunk later that night and into the morning. This very strong alcohol serves to utterly confound all sense of allegiance and purpose (just like real life!) and soon George and Richard are bonding, then fighting again, then rambling off in their own directions. The feeling that this is all happening in real, linear time over the course of a night and into the dawn is awesome. A true genius in both extending and collapsing linear time, Polanski scores big on CUL-DE-SAC, or maybe I just love films where characters drink and party past sunrise, or that the photography is black and white and the music slinky jazz with lots of bass and funky sax. Oh and there's smoking! How retro! Who in 1966 could have imagined that in just 40 years booze, blonde ambivalence, psychosexual sadism, and cigarettes would one day be considered 'old-timey'?