Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac (1966) is an insufferably strange movie – at turns perversely funny and maddeningly tedious – but one which, if compared to Polanski’s earlier masterpiece Knife in the Water, offers some valuable insights into its director’s creative strengths and weaknesses.
The two films share similar scenarios. Both focus on a married couple whose repressed contempt for one another is brought to a violent head by the appearance of a male stranger. In the case of Knife in the Water, the stranger is a young hitchhiker who elicits nostalgic lust from the wife and jealous machismo from the husband. In Cul-de-sac, the stranger is a hulking and buffoonish gangster who might be homosexual, but who – crucially, and to the film’s detriment – is a nearly asexual character, leaving the wife’s spiteful sexual jousting and the husband’s passive emasculation without a sufficient narrative foil.
But more fundamental to understanding Polanski’s art is to look at the stylistic differences between the two films. Knife in the Water, for all its jazzy crescendos of hyperbolic emotion, is directed with an almost documentary detachment; Polanski seems to be spying on his characters, as if with a hidden camera. By contrast, everything in Cul-de-sac is over-the-top; it’s like a cross between the absurdist black comedies of Samuel Beckett and the holed-up gangster subgenre exemplified by The Petrified Forest.
A mordant sense of humor is central to all of Polanski’s oeuvre, but it’s most effective when it lurks beneath the surface of a mise-en-scène rooted in realism. The famous and darkly humorous “nose scene” in Chinatown – Polanski’s best film – works because it’s such an unexpected flourish in an otherwise realistic detective story. Likewise, the absurd and wickedly funny premise of Rosemary’s Baby (that the elderly couple next door is in fact a pair of devil worshippers who convince Rosemary’s husband to help conceive Satan’s child) is terrifying (far more so than the more lauded The Exorcist) because of the documentary-like attention Polanski gives to Rosemary’s daily routine.
It strikes me as no coincidence that Polanski’s two best post-Chinatown films – the Holocaust drama The Pianist and last year’s superb political thriller The Ghost Writer – are both directed with an ironic detachment to their subject matter and a realistic mise-en-scène, while failures like Pirates and The Ninth Gate are not.
In the essay accompanying the recent Criterion Collection release of Cul-de-sac, critic David Thompson mentions the fact that Polanski, circa 1970, referred to Cul-de-sac as his “best film” and called it “real cinema, done for cinema – like art for art.” My sense, like Thompson, is that it was Polanski’s passion for the original material (he and Gérard Brach conceived the scenario and wrote the original screenplay) that led to that opinion, but I’d venture that it’s precisely because of Polanski’s inability to detach himself from the material that makes Cul-de-sac a lesser film than say, The Pianist, where even though one might think Polanski would let his emotions get the better of him (his mother died in Auschwitz), he directs with a cool reserve that is typical of his best work.