Polanski’s Golden Berlin Bear winner traverses the territory of absurdist cinema in what is a sporadically engaging but sharp commentary on power plays associated with psychological sadism and the gender and classist pressures to conform.
Dir. Roman Polanski
1966 | UK | Comedy/Drama/Thriller | 112 mins | 1.66:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be NC16
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac, Lionel Stander
Plot: When a wealthy couple is held captive in their castle home by a very old-school gangster, the three engage in a game of shifting identities and emotional humiliations.
Awards: Won Golden Bear (Berlinale)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Gender, Class, Power Plays
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
After the twin successes of Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965), a young Roman Polanski won the prestigious Golden Berlin Bear with Cul-de-sac, a film that had trouble getting financed, but like Repulsion, was eventually made in the UK.
Back in the early 1970s, Polanski famously affirmed that Cul-de-sac was his best work to date, and while I don’t quite agree in the context of his early work, it may also be easy to see why.
Cul-de-sac is arguably his art film par excellence inasmuch as artistic freedom and expression are concerned, featuring Donald Pleasence, Francoise Dorleac and Lionel Stander in challenging roles, but the trio delivers strong performances.
“You ain’t English, are ya? Continental, huh? You got an accent. You ain’t British.”
“Well, you’re not exactly Anglo-Saxon yourself.”
Although sporadically engaging, Cul-de-sac is a sharp commentary on power plays associated with psychological sadism and the gender and classist pressures to conform.
This comes across in its absurdist-leaning plot: two gangsters, wounded after what appears to be a botched robbery, seek shelter in an isolated castle (which gives out gothic horror vibes), where an unassertive man and his spirited wife stay.
Its unpredictable narrative has the threat of going truly bonkers, which can be fun to watch, though Polanski’s formal craftsmanship sometimes get in the way of a purer form of enjoyment.
Cul-de-sac remains a curious offering in Polanski’s eclectic filmography—in fact, one might see it as a scathing comedy on the folly of humans as they try to navigate manipulation and humiliation, only to possibly find themselves a closeted nihilist.